In January, Tribe fans read the long-awaited news that Jim Thome would join baseball’s immortals in Cooperstown. The announcement came as no surprise to Clevelanders who saw Thome’s prodigious strength and skill first-hand. There was, however, a surprise further down the list. A retired player must appear on at least 75% of all voters’ ballots to enter the Hall of Fame. Situated in tenth place with a bewildering 37.0% sat Venezualan-born artist, salsa entrepreneur, musician, author, and shortstop Omar Vizquel. Anyone who witnessed Omar’s dazzling defensive gems or clutch offense believed him to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but reality quickly proved that notion false. Does Vizquel have a compelling HoF case? Could this year be when it happens for him? WFNY investigates.
Every Hall of Fame argument begins with a resume and lucky for Omar his is chock full of stats:
Omar played a well-rounded game. He consistently hit for contact with occasional power. His career slash line .272/.336/.352 demonstrates a solid top-of-the-lineup player. In 2002 he belted 14 homers which was a career best for one season. He never posted a 100+ RBI season but managed 72 in ’02. He struck out about as much as we walked and rarely hit into double plays. Vizquel did the little things to help his team win. On four occasions he led the league in sacrifice hits (not counting a certain missed suicide squeeze). Speaking of the playoffs, he was the glue for six postseason teams in Cleveland. Omar batted .250/.327/.316 in 57 postseason games and committed only two errors.
Defensive numbers are trickier to quantify in baseball, but Omar shone brightest with a glove on his left hand. In 24 seasons, nearly a quarter century, he played brilliant shortstop (with a little third base and sundry other positions thrown in towards the end). He could dive and stop a screaming liner. He could jump and rob a would-be bloop single. He would run up on a slow roller, clutch it bare-handed, and sling it to first in one fluid motion. Sometimes he eschewed the glove completely and went bare-handed on a scorched one-hopper. Omar was more artist than athlete on the infield.
The best comparison to Omar’s case may overstate his odds. Ozzie Smith played 19 years in the Bigs. He appeared in 15 All-Star Games, won thirteen Gold Gloves, and won the 1982 World Series with St. Louis. His slash line of .262/.337/.328 feels comparable to Vizquel. Omar even has more career home runs and RBI. Smith was much more greatly appreciated in his time as evidenced by his hardware and accolades. Still, his numbers in a vacuum show that a defense-heavy, contact hitting infielder can in fact cross the Hall’s threshold.
The 2019 ballot will be an interesting test of Omar’s candidacy. Last season the BBWAA voted for Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, and Trevor Hoffman – all worthy players. Looking ahead it seems likely that Edgar Martinez, in his tenth and final year of eligibility, will jump from 70.4% to over 75%. Mike Mussina has a decent chance to improve on his 63.5% standing. The ever-controversial Roger Clemens (57.3%) and Barry Bonds (56.4%) will likely garner 50-60% of the vote again. Curt Schilling is…problematic, but will still get around 50% of the ballot. This would help Omar’s standing until you look at the incoming candidates. All-World closer Mariano Rivera is a lock for the Hall. Roy “Doc” Halladay will likely get to 75% as well. Todd Helton, Andy Pettitte, and Miguel Tejada will also get plenty of ink. This combination of factors spells trouble for Vizquel. Each voter gets a maximum of ten votes (though plenty of electors do not use them all) so let’s examine a hypothetical ballot:
I’m willing to guess those eight names will appear on plenty of ballots. This means our hypothetical voter has only two discretionary votes at his or her disposal. Vizquel will get some of those nods, but I fear that too many of them will be distributed among Larry Walker, Fred McGriff, Roy Oswalt, or others. Future years will be chock-a-block with fantastic incoming players including Derek Jeter (2020), David Ortiz (2022), and Carlos Beltran (2023). Omar’s best bet may be 2021 a year without a major first-year candidate and before the Bonds/Clemens/Schilling class get to their tenth and final attempt.
From the moment he arrived in Cleveland Omar endeared himself to Indians fans. Plenty of moms, mine included, had a crush on the charismatic shortstop. His emergence coincided with the opening of Jacobs Field in 1994 and his success mirrored those of the team writ large. He is an integral part of scores of great memories and a fountain of magic at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario. So this part may be difficult to hear: His offensive numbers are not great. No one can doubt Omar’s defense, but Hall of Fame voters are notoriously stubborn about who is and isn’t enshrined in Cooperstown. Vizquel’s lack of offensive prowess may prove his undoing. No one doubts that he was a good batter, but it’s not clear if he was good enough. The new-age stats do not do him too many favors either: his single-season high WAR was 6.0 in 1999, better than an All-Star but not an MVP-level. On a personal level I want to see Omar in the Hall because my formative years coincided with his prime and he looked like a Hall of Famer to me. Looking around at some of the other candidates and recent inductees, however, I’m not sure a national sportswriting voting bloc will agree. At least not this round.