Why Omar Vizquel is not a Hall of Famer
After hinting that he was leaning toward the decision in early May, Blue Jays infielder Omar Vizquel announced on Tuesday that he will retire at the end of the season. At 45 and hitting a bare .224/.262 /.224 while playing sparingly for the Jays, he clearly doesn't have much left in the tank. The question is whether the 11-time Gold Glove winner has earned a bronze plaque in the Hall of Fame.
On the surface, one might think so. Over the course of a 24-year major league career that began in 1989 with the Mariners, Vizquel has racked up 2,854 hits, a mark higher than all but three enshrined shortstops. In addition to his hardware, he helped the Indians reach the playoffs six times during an 11-year run (1994-2004) that included pennants in 1995 and 1997. He also made three All-Star teams, and countless highlight reels thanks to his defensive prowess; to the naked eye, he was certainly a dazzling, acrobatic defender. Surely, that must be enough for the Hall of Fame, right? The Baseball Writers Association of America voters who take up his case starting with the 2017 ballot may find him worthy, but from the standpoint of advanced metrics, his case is harder to defend.
Since 2004, I have used a system called JAWS (the Jaffe WARP Score) to evaluate Hall of Fame candidates by comparing them to the players at their position who are already enshrined; the goal is to identify and endorse above-average candidates who won't further erode the standards of the institution given the lax standards sometimes used by the writers and the Veterans Committee. Baseball Prospectus' WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) is ideal for the task as it measures each player's hitting, pitching and fielding contributions relative to those of a freely available reserve or minor league call-up, with built-in adjustments for park and league scoring levels so that we can more fairly compare players across eras. To prevent longevity from being the sole determinant of who is enshrined, players are compared both according to career total WARP and to peak WARP, which I've defined as a player's best seven seasons. JAWS is the average between those two figures. It's not a system that attempts to predict the voting, and it doesn't capture the awards, honors and postseason performances that can enhance a candidate's case, but real voters have credited it with helping them decide for whom to vote.
Coming into the year -- we'll leave aside his sub-replacement level 2012 play for the moment -- Vizquel had compiled 31.5 career WARP and 21.5 peak WARP, for a JAWS of 26.3. Meanwhile, the average Hall of Fame shortstop has a score of 60.6/40.3/50.7. Via those numbers, not only is Vizquel not very close, but his values in all three categories are about half those of the average Hall of Fame shortstop. Of the 21 shortstops in the Hall of Fame, the lowest JAWS belongs to Hughie Jennings (26.4/26.5/26.4), whose career was spent almost entirely in the 19th century, with former Yankee Phil Rizzuto (30.8/27.7/29.2) the second-lowest; the latter missed three full seasons while serving in World War II, which suppresses his numbers. Ozzie Smith, the light-hitting defensive wizard to whom Vizquel is often compared, has a score of 57.2/31.2/44.2, which ranks 15th of the 21 Hall of Fame shortstops. Vizquel can't top any of those marks.
According to the advanced metrics, Vizquel doesn't measure up either on offense or defense (hold the pitchforks, I'll explain why). While he has racked up an impressive hit total, his .272/.337/.352 batting line shows that he didn't offer much in the way of power or patience to complement his knack for hitting singles. Vizquel did put up a few good seasons with the stick -- .297/.362/.417 in 1996, .333/.397/.436 in 1999, for example -- but those seasons, and the bulk of his career, came when scoring levels were their highest since the 1930s. Once you adjust for the era, his .244 True Average (runs per plate appearance, expressed on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring levels, with .300 good, .260 average, and .230 replacement level) is well below the average Hall shortstop's .279 -- remember, that's Cal Ripken as well as Rizzuto. The lowest True Average of any Hall shortstop is .248, a mark held by Rabbit Maranville and Luis Aparicio, while Smith is the next-lowest at .250. None of the other 18 Hall shortstops are under .260.
For all of the highlight reels, Vizquel's defense doesn't measure up to the average Hall of Fame shortstop, at least to the extent that fielding metrics can capture. Sticking with BP's system, the average Hall of Fame shortstop is 74 Fielding Runs Above Average, while Vizquel came into the year just 13 runs above average. Even when he was routinely winning Gold Gloves, his FRAAs were fairly marginal; only once was he more than 10 runs above average (1993, the first year he won), and he was actually average or below in several years that he won. By comparison, Smith is at 173 FRAA, and Joe Tinker -- of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance fame -- is the leader at 233. Vizquel's modest FRAA values hold down his WARP totals; his single-season high, the aforementioned 1999 campaign, was worth just 3.9 wins, with his 1996 worth 3.0.
Other fielding metrics view Vizquel more favorably. Neither Ultimate Zone Rating nor Defensive Runs Saved -- both of which rely upon play-by-play-based batted ball classifications -- go back far enough to cover the meat of Vizquel's career, and they don't cover any of the Hall of Fame shortstops to whom he's being compared, but it's worth noting that UZR values him at 51 runs above average since 2002, while DRS pegs him at 49 runs above average since 2003. Baseball-Reference's Total Zone system, which does cover Vizquel's entire career as well as those of all Hall of Famers, pegs him at 135 runs above average, whereas the average Hall of Fame shortstop is at 96 runs above average. The leader at shortstop in that system is Smith at 230, followed by Tinker at 180.
That's a very wide difference of opinion among systems, something that alas isn't uncommon when it comes to defensive metrics; consider that Ripken, who ranks third in Total Zone at 179, comes in at −26 FRAA. Credible methodologies using different sets of data — some of it with inevitable historical limitations — produce varying answers. In Vizquel's case, it's important to note that even with the Total Zone fielding value incorporated into B-Ref's version of WAR, he doesn't look like a Hall of Famer. The average Hall of Fame shortstop complied 62.9 WAR, while Vizquel is at 40.8, a mark above only Jennings (39.7), Maranville (39.4) and Rizzuto (38.1) among the enshrined. I don't have peak scores calculated for WAR, but there's none that could increase his score appreciably beyond his career total. Likewise, even if Vizquel were at 135 FRAA -- roughly an additional 12 WARP, some of which would be double-counted (once for career, once for peak) in the JAWS calculation -- he wouldn't be close according to BP's metrics, and he would hardly be the best shortstop outside the Hall of Fame. Among players currently on the ballot, that honor belongs to Alan Trammell (53.5/37.2/45.4). Omar Vizquel has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, with several good seasons that were critical to the efforts of winning teams. Measured next to the shortstops already in the Hall according to metrics that consider both his offense and defense, he doesn't look worthy of enshrinement, however. While the BBWAA voters may see things differently once his name reaches the ballot in 2018, the best evidence suggests they would be right to bypass him.