JAWS and the 2021 Hall of Fame Ballot: Omar Vizquelon November 18, 2020 at 5:00 pm

JAWS and the 2021 Hall of Fame Ballot: Omar Vizquel

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2021 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2018 election at SI.com, it has been updated to reflect recent voting results as well as additional research. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

In the eyes of many, Omar Vizquel was the successor to Ozzie Smith when it came to dazzling defense. Thanks to the increased prevalence of highlight footage on the internet and on cable shows such as ESPN’s SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight, the diminutive Venezuelan shortstop’s barehanded grabs, diving stops, and daily acrobatics were seen by far more viewers than Smith’s ever were. Vizquel made up for having a less-than-prototypically-strong arm with incredibly soft hands and a knack for advantageous positioning. Such was the perception of his prowess at the position that he took home 11 Gold Gloves, more than any shortstop this side of Smith, who won 13.

Vizquel’s offense was at least superficially akin to Smith’s: He was a singles-slapping switch-hitter in lineups full of bigger bats and, at his best, a capable table-setter who got on base often enough to score 80, 90, or even 100 runs in some seasons. His ability to move the runner over with a sacrifice bunt or a productive out delighted purists, and he could steal a base, too. While he lacked power, he dealt in volume, piling up more hits (2,877) than all but four players who spent the majority of their careers at shortstop and are now in the Hall of Fame: Derek Jeter (3,465), Honus Wagner (3,420), Cal Ripken (3,184), and Robin Yount (3,142). Vizquel is second only to Jeter using the strict as-shortstop splits, which we don’t have for Wagner (though we do know the Flying Dutchman spent 31% of his defensive innings at other positions). During his 11-year run in Cleveland (1994-2004), Vizquel helped the Indians to six playoff appearances and two pennants.

To some, that makes Vizquel an easy call for the Hall of Fame, and as his candidacy heads into its fourth year, he looks as though he’s on his way. In his 2018 ballot debut, he received 37.0% of the vote, a level of support that doesn’t indicate a fast track to Cooperstown but more often than not suggests eventual enshrinement. In the two cycles since, he’s climbed to 42.8% and then 52.6%, the last of those particularly significant; current candidates aside, every player who’s reached 50% except for Gil Hodges has eventually been elected, either by the writers or by a small committee.

These eyes aren’t so sure Vizquel’s election is merited. By WAR and JAWS, Vizquel’s case isn’t nearly as strong as it is on the traditional merits. His candidacy quickly became a point of friction between old-school and new-school thinkers and only promises to be more of the same, as though he were this generation’s Jack Morris.

2020 BBWAA Candidate: Omar Vizquel
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Omar Vizquel 45.6 26.8 36.2
Avg. HOF SS 67.5 43.1 55.3
2,877 80 .272/.336/.352 82
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Born to an electrical company technician and a kindergarten teacher in Caracas, Venezuela on April 24, 1967, Vizquel grew up in the poor neighborhood of Santa Eduvigis, where baseball was a constant. As a youngster, he honed his quick reflexes and extraordinary hands by carrying around a rubber ball or tennis ball, which he would constantly bounce off of nearby objects and snare barehanded. Those skills were put to great use as he played on the rocky sandlots of his hometown, where preventing ground balls from hitting him in the face was a necessary survival tactic.


When Vizquel cut his teeth on those sandlots, the presence of his countrymen in the major leagues had begun to ramp up significantly. The first Venezuela-born major leaguer was pitcher Alex Carrasquel, who spent 1939-45 with the Senators, with a brief cameo with the White Sox in ’49. The third was his nephew, Chico Carrasquel, who spent 1950-59 in the majors, including six years with the White Sox alongside Nellie Fox as one the era’s great double play combos. The younger Carrasquel became the first Venezuela-born All-Star in ’51 and made three more All-Star squads before being traded to the Indians for Larry Doby in October 1955. The White Sox replaced him with another Venezuelan, Luis Aparicio, who immediately validated the deal by winning AL Rookie of the Year and leading the league in stolen bases for the first of nine straight years. He won nine Gold Gloves and was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame. Through 1966, nine Venezuela-born players had reached the majors, but in ’67 alone, the year of Vizquel’s birth, five more did — the start of a steady stream that continues to this day.

The Mariners signed Vizquel in 1984, just short of his 17th birthday, for a mere $2,000 bonus and brought him to the U.S., where he lived with three other young Venezuelans. His parents had forced him to take a three-month crash course in English to prepare for his career, which began in Butte, Montana, with Seattle’s Pioneer League affiliate. He climbed the organizational ladder methodically: Low-A Bellingham in 1985, A-Level Wausau in ’86 (the year he began switch-hitting), A-Level Salinas in ’87, Double-A Vermont and Triple-A Calgary in ’88. Finally, he joined the Mariners on Opening Day 1989, filling in for incumbent Rey Quinones, who had sprained his ankle in spring training.

The 22-year-old Vizquel wasn’t an overnight success. He made a throwing error in his first game, added another error in his third, and was sent back to Calgary after going just 3-for-24. Quinones returned from the disabled list and reclaimed his job but was traded to the Pirates on April 21. Vizquel returned for the rest of the season, and while he was above-average defensively (+6 runs via Total Zone), he hit just .220/.273/.261 in 431 plate appearances for an anemic 50 OPS+, the majors’ worst mark for any hitter with at least 400 PA that year.

After Vizquel sprained the medial collateral ligament of his left knee the following spring, the team left him at Calgary through his rehab and into early July. He went 2-for-3 with a homer in his July 5 return, and while he hit just .247/.295/.298 (67 OPS+) in 285 PA, he was 13 runs above average afield en route to 1.5 WAR. His bat remained similarly sluggish in 1991, but in a lineup where Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and Jay Buhner were developing into forces to be reckoned with, the Mariners could afford to carry Vizquel. His defense (+14 runs) played a part in helping Seattle to its first above-.500 season at 83-79.

The team regressed to 64-98 the following year, even as Vizquel hit a relatively robust .294/.340/.352 (95 OPS+) en route to 3.5 WAR, but he couldn’t maintain that gain, backsliding to .255/.319/.298 (67 OPS+) in 1993. He did claim his first Gold Glove with career-best defense (+16 runs), no doubt bolstered by the notoriety he gained for sealing Chris Bosio‘s April 22 no-hitter against the Red Sox when he barehanded a chopper behind the mound on the second-base side and beat batter Ernest Riles by two steps at first base.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcQe4aUcIU4]

In 1993, the Mariners drafted Alex Rodriguez with the No. 1 overall pick. Though they weren’t teammates yet, the contrast between the light-hitting 5-foot-9 Vizquel and the powerful 6-foot-3 Rodriguez couldn’t have been more striking. Big men had played shortstop before, but not until the 6-foot-4 Ripken came along in the early 1980s had one flourished as a two-way threat. With Rodriguez waiting in the wings, the Mariners traded Vizquel to the Indians for stopgap shortstop Felix Fermin and DH Reggie Jefferson in December 1993.

It was an astute move by Cleveland general manager John Hart. The Indians had cracked .500 just once in the previous 12 seasons, but Hart was assembling a powerhouse lineup featuring youngsters Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Carlos Baerga, as well as prime Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton. Though he missed seven weeks early in the season due to a right knee sprain, Vizquel solidified the defense, and the lineup could more than support his limp bat. The team went 64-47 during the strike-shortened season and stormed to a league-best 100-44 the following year, winning their first pennant since 1954. Vizquel hit just .266/.333/.351 (71 OPS+) and snagged his third Gold Glove, though for what it’s worth, Total Zone valued his defense that year at just one run above average, part of a four-year stretch (’94-97) in which he was barely in the black. Still, he gained no small amount of attention for his fieldwork in the postseason, with Sports Illustrated‘s Tim Kurkjian calling him “the Indians’ most fascinating player to watch” in a feature the following spring.

The Indians lost the 1995 World Series to the Braves, but Hart’s foresight in signing Ramirez, Thome, Baerga, Charles Nagy, and Sandy Alomar Jr. to long-term extensions — many of which bought out players’ arbitration years — enabled the small-market team to afford its top players, creating a core that would win six division titles and two pennants from 1995 to 2001. Vizquel, who was heading into his age-29 season, was among those extended, inking a five-year, $15.35 million deal n December 1995.

Working with hitting coach Charlie Manuel — a bona fide guru as well as the next Indians manager circa 2000 — Vizquel matured considerably as a hitter. From his debut through 1995, he batted .256/.315/.314 for a 72 OPS+ and a combined -106 batting runs (the offensive component of WAR). From ’96 through 2004, he hit a composite .286/.356/.385 for a 93 OPS+ and was just 29 runs below average at the plate, with four seasons either at zero or in the black. In 1999, he set across-the-board career bests with a .333/.397/.436 line, a 111 OPS+, 42 steals, and 6.0 WAR.

Vizquel collected Gold Gloves annually from 1996 through 2001 — the last three while paired with Roberto Alomar for one of the most visually arresting double play combos in recent memory — though the advanced metrics suggest his defense wasn’t so exceptional. Here it’s worth yet another reminder that single-season defensive data captures a fair bit of noise along with the signal, and it’s better to consider in the context of multiple seasons. By Total Zone, Vizquel’s defensive value ranged from +14 to -8 runs relative to average in this six-year span. His 16 runs above average for the period ranked just 15th in the majors, far behind Rey Sanchez (+89) and Rey Ordonez (+62), the top two at the position.

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Despite repeatedly winning their division, the Indians couldn’t nab that elusive championship. They came agonizingly close in 1997, despite just an 86-75 record. After defeating the defending champion Yankees in the Division Series and the Orioles in the ALCS, they took a 2-1 lead into the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series against the Marlins. Alas, closer Jose Mesa surrendered the tying run in the bottom of the ninth on two singles and a sacrifice fly, and an error by second baseman Tony Fernandez on Craig Counsell‘s grounder in the 11th inning led to the series-winning run.

The sting of that loss lingered and became part of the biggest controversy of Vizquel’s career. Though he had been close friends with Mesa to that point, Vizquel’s subsequent actions towards his teammate were anything but friendly. First he irritated Mesa by cartwheeling across home plate after homering off him during an intrasquad game in 1998. In exchange, after the pitcher was traded to the Giants in midseason and signed with the Mariners the following winter, he brushed his old pal back during a ’99 encounter. Things came to a head when, on the opening page of his 2002 autobiography, Omar! My Life On and Off the Field, Vizquel wrote of Game 7:

“The eyes of the world were focused on every move we made. Unfortunately, Jose’s own eyes were vacant. Completely empty. Nobody home. You could almost see right through him. Not long after I looked into his vacant eyes, he blew the save and the Marlins tied the game.”

Understandably livid, Mesa, by that point a member of the Phillies, plunked Vizquel during a 2002 interleague game and was fined $500. In the spring of 2003, he told reporter Randy Miller, “I will not forgive him. Even my little boy (Jose Jr.) told me to get him. If I face him 10 more times, I’ll hit him 10 times. I want to kill him.”

Mesa hit Vizquel in their next encounter in 2006 and was suspended for four games, after which the pair squared off three more times without incident. They never did mend fences, yet the shortstop somehow remained puzzled even while saying in 2014, “It was kind of sad that I never got to tell him that I didn’t really mean anything bad about what I said in the book.”

While Vizquel generally got high marks for his comportment throughout his career, his ongoing feud with Mesa was a low point. Games 7 are inevitably filled with heroes and goats, but it takes some chutzpah to humiliate a teammate — and a close friend — on the opening page of a memoir. Yeesh.

In February 2001, Vizquel signed a two-year, $15 million extension with the Indians, one that raised his salary for that season from $3 million to $4.5 million and included a $5 million mutual option for 2005. His streak of Gold Gloves ended in ’02, but he set a career high with 14 homers and earned All-Star honors for the third time; the first two had come in 1998 and ’99, no small achievement with Rodriguez, Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra in their collective heyday as “the trinity.” A pair of surgeries to repair the meniscus of his right knee — he tore it again while rehabbing — limited Vizquel to 64 games in 2003 and, after he failed a physical, prevented a trade of the 36-year-old shortstop back to the Mariners that winter.

At 37, Vizquel enjoyed a strong rebound with the Indians (.291/.353/.388, 99 OPS+) en route to 4.0 WAR, the second-highest total of his career. While the Indians declined their end of the mutual option, Vizquel parlayed that performance into a three-year, $12.25 million deal with the Giants. He won Gold Gloves in the first two of those years, albeit with Defensive Runs Saved totals of just +1 and +7, and WAR totals of 1.5 and 2.9 in full-time play. His bat fell off the table in 2007, his age-40 season (.246/.305/.316, 61 OPS+), and despite a career high +16 DRS, his total value was just 0.7 WAR.

While the Giants re-signed Vizquel, his performance slipped even further in 2008. That year began with a seven-week stint on the DL for surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee, as well as a bone bruise, and he finished with career worsts in OPS+ (45 OPS+) and WAR (-0.5). One highlight: On May 25, 2008, he surpassed Aparicio for the most games played at shortstop with 2,584.

Graduating into a utility role that included ample time at second and third as well as short, Vizquel spent four more years in the majors with the Rangers (2009), White Sox (’10-11, while switching from No. 13 — which both he and Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen wore in tribute to Dave Concepcion — to Aparicio’s No. 11, un-retired with his blessing), and Blue Jays (’12), the last of those coming at age 45. He hit a combined .262/.312/.320 for a 70 OPS+ in 931 PA in those four years, and only in ’10 did he play regularly. In June 2012, he announced that he would retire at season’s end, and on Oct. 4 in Toronto, with former teammate Baerga and fellow Venezuelans Aparicio and Andres Galarraga on hand, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch and collected a single in the final at-bat of his 24-year career.

Vizquel’s longevity, which allowed him to play a record 2,709 games at shortstop (and 2,968 overall, 12th all-time), collect 2,877 hits (fifth at the position) and win 11 Gold Gloves (more than all but Smith), is perhaps the best point in his favor when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Beyond all of that, his resume is a mixture of good and bad news. Vizquel helped his teams reach the playoffs six times and the World Series twice, though he was less productive at the plate there (.250/.327/.316 in 264 PA) than in the regular season. Thanks in large part to the presence of the shortstop trinity, he made just three All-Star teams, a comparatively low total for a modern Hall of Famer, and the entirety of his MVP consideration consisted of a 16th-place finish in 1999. Still, his Hall of Fame Monitor score of 120, while not indicating a slam dunk, is on the side of “more likely than not.”

Then there’s the defense. Vizquel’s flair afield produced countless highlight loops that received considerable attention thanks to the internet and cable TV, not to mention the routine exposure he got in the expanded postseason format from 1995 through 2001. Observers such as Kurkjian weren’t shy about letting the superlatives flow, and Vizquel was a fan favorite, albeit not enough of one to be voted to start a single All-Star Game. Having written more than once on the pros and cons of his case, I can attest that his defenders will come out of the woodwork to drop a good word on his behalf (along with a few unprintable ones on mine).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkD44HbSqoQ]

Baseball-Reference credits Vizquel as being 129 runs above average for his career defensively, via a combination of Total Zone (+80 runs through 2002) and Defensive Runs Saved (+49 from ’03 through ’12). Ultimate Zone Rating credits him as 48 runs above average as well for the latter period. The combined total doesn’t blow the doors off the shrine, but it’s a respectable 18th all-time among shortstops, better than 12 of the 20 Hall of Famers at the position, and within four runs of three more (Marty Marion, Bobby Wallace, and Rabbit Maranville).

Should it be better? Advanced fielding statistics aren’t easy to penetrate, but feel around the margins of the basic stats and you can see why the metrics don’t put Vizquel on the same level as Smith. Vizquel holds the edge in fielding percentage, .985 to .978, but both were 12 points higher than their respective leagues’ shortstops during the course of their careers. From there, the comparison becomes more lopsided in the Wizard’s favor.

While Vizquel is third all-time in assists for a shortstop (7,676), it’s largely a product of his longevity. He never led his league in the category, and while he ranked in the top five eight times, seven of those were either fourth or fifth. Smith, the all-time leader among shortstops with 8,375 assists — in 1,175 fewer innings, roughly 130 games — led his league eight times, and was second in four others. The story is similar concerning double plays: Vizquel, the all-time leader at 1,734, led his league once and was third three times; Smith, second all-time with 1,590 double plays, led his league five times and was second six times.

True, Smith played in an era with more balls in play and fewer strikeouts. According to B-Ref, during his time in the field, 83% of his pitching staff’s plate appearances ended with a ball in play; for Vizquel’s teams, the rate was 77%, leaving him fewer chances for him to make a play. Likewise, his staffs faced a smaller proportion of right-handed batters, those whose natural pull tendency would be to the left side of the infield: 58%, in line with the league average, where Smith’s teams faced 61% righties, two points above average.

Calculations such as those go into the Total Zone defensive metrics, and while it’s an oversimplification to say that the difference between Smith and Vizquel can be boiled down to range factor (putouts plus assists per nine innings) relative to their league averages, such a comparison gets the point across. The Wizard averaged 5.22 plays per nine, while the league’s shortstops averaged 4.78, a difference of 0.44 per nine. Vizquel averaged 4.62 per nine for his time at shortstop, while the league averaged 4.61 — a difference of just 0.01. Aparicio and Maranville, both enshrined for the perception that their glove work offset similarly light sticks, have larger gaps as well; the former was 0.16 above his leagues, the latter 0.28 above.

(For another interesting breakdown of Vizquel’s defense, see this thread from Chris Dial, the creator of the zone-based Runs Effectively Defended system, which is part of the Sabermetric Defensive Index that in non-pandemic seasons accounts for 25% of the Gold Glove voting. Long story short: That Gold Glove count, so central to Vizquel’s case, wouldn’t be so high had the SDI existed then.)

By the advanced stats, Smith has an edge of 110 runs over Vizquel on the defensive side, and that’s before considering offense. Vizquel’s .272/.336/.352 slash line closely resembles Smith’s .262/.337/.328, but Omar played in a much higher-scoring era than Ozzie, so his OPS+ is just 82 compared to Smith’s 87. Over the course of his 12,013 plate appearances, Vizquel was 244 runs below average with the bat, the 13th-lowest total among players who spent the majority of their careers at shortstop. That’s 16 runs worse than Maranville, the worst among current Hall of Fame shortstops, and 127 runs worse than Smith. What’s more, where Smith made up 80 runs on the bases (steals as well as advancement on hits and outs) and 23 more on avoiding double plays, Vizquel — who stole 404 bases, albeit with just a 70.8% success rate — was one run below average in the former and nine above in the latter. His net offense was -236 runs to Smith’s -14. In other words, despite their similar slash lines, the gap between the two players on the offensive side was twice as large as on the defensive side.

For all of his Gold Gloves and perceived defensive value, Vizquel’s offense was so deficient that he ranked in the top 10 in his league in WAR just once (eighth with 6.0 in 1999). Smith made his leagues’ top 10 six times, Maranville five times, and Aparicio twice. Vizquel’s career total of 45.3 WAR ranks 29th among shortstops, but is higher than just four of those enshrined, namely the the BBWAA-elected Maranville, the Veterans Committee-elected Travis Jackson (who ranked in the top 10 six times) and Phil Rizzuto (who ranked in the top 10 three times), and the Old Timers Committee-elected Hughie Jennings (who led the NL in WAR four times). Vizquel’s total is a hefty 21.9 WAR below the standard at the position. Within 2.0 WAR on either side are Jimmy Rollins, Miguel Tejada, Art Fletcher, Vern Stephens, Fernandez, Roger Peckinpaugh, Troy Tulowitzki, Garciaparra, and Jackson, the only Hall of Famer of the bunch, largely thanks to some Veterans Committee cronyism. Here it’s worth noting that while Vizquel was padding his career totals, with 405 hits (and 282 games at shortstop) from 2007 onward and a total of 0.6 WAR — one run above replacement level per year.

The news is even harsher when it comes to Vizquel’s peak score of 26.8, which ranks 61st all-time. Of the 18 players within two wins on either side, there are notable names, including Francisco Lindor (already at 28.4), Carlos Correa, Edgar Renteria, and Marion, but of the lot, the only one enshrined is Monte Ward, whose career is so bifurcated between pitching and shortstop that I exclude him from the JAWS set entirely. Thus Vizquel’s 36.2 JAWS ranks 41st, just ahead of popular Era Committee candidates such as Concepcion and Maury Wills but lower than all of the enshrined shortstops, with Maranville (42.9/30.4/36.7) bringing up the rear. Reigning glove whiz Andrelton Simmons, who just finished his age-30 season and has seven full seasons plus a 49-game rookie campaign and a 30-game 2020, has a 36.6/34.4/35.5 career/peak/JAWS and likely would have passed Vizquel in a more ordinary season.

The player whom Vizquel most closely resembles from a Hall of Fame case standpoint, Mark Belanger, is one spot ahead at 40.9/31.9/36.4. “The Blade” was utterly dreadful as a hitter (.228/.300/.280, 68 OPS+), with a net offense that was 191 runs below average, though he did have a trio of seasons with an OPS+ ranging from 95 to 100. An eight-time Gold Glove winner whose range factor exceeded the league average by 0.23 (5.16 vs. 4.93), he’s the all-time leader in fielding runs (+241, two more than Smith). Playing next to the best defensive third baseman of all time, Brooks Robinson, he started for six Orioles division winners and four pennant winners from 1969 through ’79 (his career spanned from ’65 through ’82). He received 3.7% of the vote in ’88 and hasn’t been considered since.

All of which is to say that Vizquel receiving an order of magnitude more support at the outset of his candidacy was rather surprising, as neither WAR nor JAWS can support his case. His advantage in greater exposure, particularly in an age of increased specialization, explains a lot, but it’s still maddening that a much better all-around player such as Scott Rolen (third in both Gold Gloves and fielding runs at third base, and 10th in JAWS), is far less supported at 35.3%, that after paltry voting shares of 10.2% and 17.2% in his first two cycles, respectively.

With 52.6% of the vote on the 2020 ballot, Vizquel appears to be in very good shape. Since 1966, eight other players received 48-58% of the vote in year three, with all but Hodges (exactly 50%) elected. The others needed an average of 4.5 years to gain entry, with Eddie Mathews (48.7% in 1976, elected two years later) the fastest and Don Drysdale (51.4% in ’77, elected seven years later) the slowest. All of those candidates hail from the era of 15-year eligibility windows, with the last of them (Andre Dawson) elected in 2010.

With the windows shortened to 10 years, things tend to move more quickly, but the full picture is still emerging. Of the nine players who reached the 50-58% range for the first time in the 2012-19 stretch and eventually had their eligibility windows shortened to 10 years, six were elected, needing an average of 2.8 years. The other three — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling — have yet to gain entry; they’ll increase that average, but given the baggage they’re carrying, their cases are very different from Vizquel’s.

Voting history strongly suggests that Vizquel will be elected eventually, regardless of whether he has the imprimatur of WAR, JAWS, and any math more complicated than his career totals. As the ballot battle over Morris, who was nowhere close to the standards in WAR and JAWS, showed, the conversation surrounding his candidacy between the statheads and the eye-test crowd is likely to be a shrill and polarizing one, with emotions running high. To these eyes, Vizquel was a fine ballplayer, but one whose road should stop short of Cooperstown. Those who feel similarly had best take a deep breath, however, because the likelihood that he gets his plaque is increasing with every year.

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