Omar Ain’t No Hall of Famer

The address is 347 Lakeshore Dr., Battle Creek, MI. The month is August and the year is 2000. I roll out of bed a grab a bowl of cereal in the cereal capital of the world, presumably something from the nearby headquarters of Kellogg’s or Post. Without the ability to watch the Indians on a nightly basis, this Sandusky native was left with whatever Sportscenter had to offer. The likes of Dan Patrick, Stuart Scott, and Kenny Mayne serenaded my ears as Omar Vizquel serenaded my eyes. After a full rotation of highlights, I flung my cereal bowl in the sink and rushed down the hall of the three-bedroom ranch. I reached into my Tim Couch locker and pulled out a Wilson glove, tennis ball, and Chief Wahoo hat.

The cracked pavement and slight contours of the driveway offered challenges, nay, opportunities. Opportunities to emulate number thirteen. As an eleven-year-old little league shortstop, he was my hero. Caroms of the tennis ball off the small patch of bricks in between the garage door and den window allowed for unique backhand and bare-hand opportunities. Emulating the quickness of the transfer from glove to hand was the hardest part and led to many rattles of the garage door and tennis ball slams into the window of our den (sorry, Mom). Hitting was an afterthought, for once. The smoothness with which Vizquel commanded his position was way cooler than any home run, dunk, or touchdown throw. A love for baseball was born.

Numbers were a big part of that love for baseball, too. At that early age, reciting batting averages of any player became a hobby and schtick at family gatherings, where uncles would ask me to recite Player X’s stat lines. I could tell you that Omar was well on his way to an eighth consecutive gold glove. Hall of Fame? That eleven-year-old in Michigan would have said it was a lock.

Sixteen years later, Omar Vizquel’s name has graced the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. It took so long because Vizquel continued churning on MLB diamonds until age 45, wrapping up his career as a bench utility player for the White Sox and Blue Jays. His credentials have created discussion, with saber-nerds like myself questioning his worthiness for a variety of reasons.

In accordance with holding Hall of Fame admittees to an objective level of worthiness, Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated created a metric that identifies the average Hall of Famer’s value at each position. The Jaffe WAR Score system, affectionately known as JAWS, combines the seven-year peak and career WAR totals to provide a baseline for assessing Cooperstown worthiness. In this system, the average Hall of Fame shortstop checks in at 66.7 career WAR and a seven-year peak of 42.8 WAR. Cleveland’s beloved Omar Vizquel falls well short of each of these marks, amassing a career total of 45.3 and a seven-year peak of 26.7.

Vizquel’s WAR values reflect so poorly because of lackluster hitting. While the average was decent, Vizquel’s power and run-producing abilities were not exactly a concern for opposing pitchers. If Vizquel would be elected, his career 82 OPS+ would be tied for the worst among the two dozen shortstops enshrined.

Omar closed in on 3,000 hits, ending up 32 short, but it took him nearly 24 seasons over 12,000 plate appearances to get there. On the surface, his career slash line of .272/.336/.352 doesn’t seem too poor. In fact, his batting average and on-base percentage were above what would be expected from shortstops in that time frame. The .352 slugging and 82 OPS+, however, indicate that the batting average and on-base percentage were mostly empty, consisting predominantly of singles and walks. The average shortstop OPS+ from 1989 to 2012 far exceeds Vizquel’s output. In other words, if you were to draw a random shortstops name out of a hat, the odds would favor that person being a far more efficient hitter than Vizquel was through his years of making Jacob’s Field explode.

Omar Vizquel Cleveland Indians

I know, I know… if anyone is making a case for Hall of Fame Omar, it isn’t because of his bat. But the Hall is reserved for the greatest players, and the bat cannot be ignored. Making the case that Omar belongs in Cooperstown hinges solely on his glove. The eleven gold gloves are second only to The Wizard’s thirteen among shortstops. Gold gloves are nice, and eleven is not easily attainable feat, but they’re hardly objective. Votes have proven to be all over the map in regards to appointing the greatest fielders at each position, with routine emphasis placed on reputation, flash, and, in some inexplicable cases, the player’s hitting prowess.1 In no way is this an indictment of Omar’s gold gloves, it is merely a clause that points to the dangers of basing arguments on something that is so arbitrary.

Additionally, Gold Glove voting in the 1990s was pre-new age defensive metrics. The voting focus was placed on fielding percentage and error totals, which are quite misleading and fail to capture the full value of a shortstop’s glove. For example, if Player X can get to, but fail to, field a ball that Player Y had no shot at, should Player X be punished with an error that impacts his fielding percentage? That’s where the new-age metrics come in handy. The defensive metrics support Omar as an incredible fielder, as expected, but not to the same degree as a few others.

Though defensive metrics are all a bit messy, especially historically, they provide a foundation, at the very least. Defensive WAR totals is a prudent starting point. We know Ozzie Smith was likely the greatest shortstop and possibly fielder of all-time. His defensive WAR totals match these expectations, topping the list. Omar’s marks are extremely impressive, finishing tenth overall in this category. Is that enough to compensate for a below average bat?

The uninspiring 82 OPS+ and historically poor WAR totals (in regards to other Hall of Famers) are too detrimental for his case. There is a precedent for admittance, though. The 5-5, 150-pound Rabbit Maranville, a middle infielder who spent a good chunk of his career with the Boston Braves, has his place in Cooperstown and his case is nearly identical on the hitting and fielding sides. The catch with this precedent, however, is that Rabbit was inducted into the Hall before it was of legal drinking age, and meaningful standards had not been established. Sixty years later we have applicable goalposts that offer beneficial evidence of what amounts to a Hall of Fame-worthy career and what falls short.

Omar Vizquel objectively falls short, which is in no way an indictment of his greatness. A player can be historically great without being worthy of Cooperstown admittance. A player can be an organizational staple or fan favorite without meriting that level of recognition. This is where Omar fits, especially considering voting limits. Writers are not allowed to vote for more than ten players on each ballot. Even if you are a proponent of more Hall of Famers, you’d be hard-pressed to make a worthy argument that places Omar Vizquel in the Top 10 of the current ballot.

Whether inducted into Cooperstown or not, Omar Vizquel will deservedly occupy a special spot in Cleveland’s, and my own, heart. His barehands, backhands, and off-balance throws will continue to occupy the ‘Up Next’ portion of my YouTube pages. The glory days of the bouncing tennis ball in my driveway will not be forgotten.

  1. What’s up, Derek Jeter? []