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Omar Vizquel doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame

There’s no shame in having been good, but not Hall of Fame good, which is exactly how we should describe Omar Vizquel.

21 Oct 1997:  Shortstop Omar Vizquel of the Cleveland Indians (left) throws the ball for a double play as outfielder Gary Sheffield of the Florida Marlins slides toward the base during the third game of the World Series at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Ohio.  The Marlins won the game 14-11. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr  /Allsport
There’s a strong argument for one of these two players being a Hall of Famer, but it’s not the shortstop.

The 2018 Hall of Fame ballot was released on Monday, kicking off two months of arguing until the results of this year’s voting are announced on January 24. (Actually, the arguing won’t end then either.)

Along with 14 players returning from last year’s ballot, there are 19 newcomers to the ballot, including two of the most popular players in Cleveland baseball history. Jim Thome had elite on-base skills and tremendous power during a career that lasted more than two decades. We need not spill much digital ink at Let’s Go Tribe making Thome’s case; we already know he should be an easy “yes” for voters. The guy who spent 11 seasons at shortstop for the Indians is a different matter; Omar Vizquel doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame.

A quick refresher on some of Omar Vizquel’s career numbers:

  • .272/336/.352 batting line
  • 2877 hits
  • 80 home runs
  • 1445 runs scored
  • 951 RBI
  • 404 stolen bases
  • 3 All-Star appearances
  • 11 Gold Gloves

The hits and Gold Gloves look like they might belong to a Hall of Famer. The batting line looks like it belongs to a player you forgot about a few months after he stopped playing for your favorite team. (And keep in mind, that batting line is aided by the era in which Vizquel played.)

I’m not here to argue that WAR/WARP should function as a be-all, end-all metric for Hall of Fame arguments, but I do think it can function as a starting point. At Baseball Prospectus, they have Vizquel with a career total of 29.7 WARP. At FanGraphs, they have him with 42.6 WAR. At Baseball Reference they have him with 45.3 WAR. In the interest of being as generous to Vizquel’s case as possible, I’ll stick with Baseball Reference’s figure. 45.3 WAR is a very nice total, but it’s not Hall of fame caliber. Among all shortstops, Vizquel’s WAR total places him right between Vern Stephens and Tony Fernandez. Stephens was never on a Hall of Fame ballot. Fernandez once was, but he received only 4 of a possible 545 votes. The BBWAA has certainly overlooked some deserving players, but neither Stephens or Fernandez seems to be anyone’s idea of a guy who was robbed.

Some players deserve to be in the Hall of Fame not because their career totals were historically impressive, but because their peak was so excellent. Vizquel’s peak is hard to identify, because he had very few standout seasons. Only once in 24 seasons did he rate as one of the top 20 players in his league, and that’s true whether you look at WAR or a more traditional measure of such things like the MVP voting.

Omar Vizquel was no Ozzie Smith

The player Vizquel is most often compared to when his Hall of Fame case is being pushed is Ozzie Smith. Like Vizquel, Smith was a great defensive shortstop but not much of a hitter. And hey, Vizquel had more hits, more home runs, and a better batting average. At first glance it’s easy to say, “What about Ozzie Smith?” and feel as though you’ve established that Vizquel belongs. Dig a little deeper though, and the comparison falls apart; Smith was quite a bit better than Vizquel in each broad facet of the game.

In terms of batting, account for eras and stadiums, and Smith has a wRC+ of 90, below average, and weak for a Hall of Famer, but a full step up from Vizquel’s 83. Smith had seven full seasons with a wRC+ at or above 100 (league average), while Vizquel only had two seasons like that. Looking at the batting runs (the batting component of Baseball Reference’s WAR), the worst figure for any Hall of Fame position player is -229. Vizquel is at -244, so by that metric he’d be the worst hitter ever sent to Cooperstown. (Smith is at -117.)

Meanwhile, Smith measures out as a very good base runner, whereas Vizquel was something a little better than average, and while Vizquel was a great defensive player, Smith was on another level. Baseball Reference has Vizquel at 128 fielding runs. Smith is at 239. That’s a massive gulf, and somewhere in the middle of it is the point at which a below average hitter can still be worthy of the Hall of Fame.

Vizquel’s 45.3 WAR rank 30th among shortstops. Smith’s 76.5 WAR rank 6th. Please avoid mentioning Ozzie Smith if you’re trying to argue that Vizquel belongs in the Hall of Fame.

This year’s ballot is loaded

I’ll grant you that not everyone has the same ideal Hall of Fame. Some fans believe it’s an honor that should be reserved for the 40 or 50 greatest players in history, with a new member added only once or twice a decade. Others believe a wider net should be cast. Even if I thought the bar for the Hall of Fame should be modest enough so as to allow Vizquel to clear it, if I had a Hall of Fame ballot, I couldn’t justify choosing Vizquel as one of the ten players on it this year.

Even if you exclude players with strong PED connections, there are still too many more deserving players to leave room for Vizquel. Thome, Chipper Jones, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, Larry Walker, Scott Rolen, Edgar Martinez, Andruw Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, and Johan Santana were all better.

Omar Vizquel was a wonderful defensive player, and I’m glad he was at shortstop for so many of the years I’ve spent rooting for the Tribe, but the praise we might shower upon him should stop well short of Cooperstown.