July 29, 2005

Omar

Yesterday I posted the first half of the Baseball Hall of Fame prognostications of David Schoenfield of ESPN.com. Naming the first 20 current players who are likely to end up in Cooperstown was surely easier than picking numbers 20-40. And Schoenfield went way out on a limb in predicting Hall of Fame futures for guys who are still in their early 20's like Miguel Cabrera and Joe Mauer. That takes guts and counts on short memories, as he readily admits.

Because it's a debate I engage in fairly often, I was interested to see if he would list Omar Vizquel in his second 20, and sure enough, Omar came in at No. 39. And as always happens, Omar is compared with the great Ozzie Smith in terms of his Hall of Fame credentials and prospects. But just because he made Schoenfield's list doesn't mean I don't have anything to complain about. Who knew? First, here's what the writer had to say on Omar:

The way I see it, the cynical old-timers who hate all the pumped-up modern-day sluggers will vote for Omar, a symbol of the good old days when baseball was pure, when Hall of Famers played for the love of the game, when you actually had to be a good fielder to make a major-league team!

Does he deserve it? The obvious comparison, of course, isn't to his power-hitting contemporaries, but to The Wizard, Ozzie Smith, another light-hitting glove magician.

First, the hitting stats:

OMAR VS. OZZIE
Player Hits Runs HR RBI AVG OBP SLG SB
Ozzie 2460 1257 28 793 .262 .337 .328 580
Omar 2248 1175 68 748 .275 .341 .359 332


Overall, pretty even. Both started out as terrible hitters (Ozzie hit .211 with 27 RBI in 1979, while Omar couldn't crack the .250 barrier until his fourth season) and eventually became good enough to post above-average OPS marks despite their lack of power. Ozzie became a little better at the plate, nine times posting an adjusted OPS of 90 or better; Omar has done that six times. Both were even traded early in their careers in lopsided deals (the Padres acquired Garry Templeton for Smith, while the Mariners acquired Felix Fermin and Reggie Jefferson for Vizquel).

In two other categories, Ozzie holds a more significant edge:

Gold Gloves:

Omar: 9
Ozzie: 13

All-Star appearances:

Omar: 3
Ozzie: 15

Ozzie is probably the greatest fielder at any position, ever. He was enormously popular with the fans. Vizquel only made three All-Star Games, but look who he was competing against: Ripken, Rodriguez, Jeter, Garciaparra and Tejada. Ozzie was battling Hubie Brooks and Rafael Ramirez for starting spots.

Vizquel might not be Ozzie, but that doesn't mean he won't make Cooperstown. He has the flair and reputation that go beyond numbers, and that should be enough to persuade the voters.

First, props to Schoenfield. He's right. Omar Vizquel belongs in the Hall of Fame.

The point about All-Star appearances is obviously right. You couldn't get Cal Ripken out of there with a crowbar for about 15 seasons. Maybe Omar could have persuaded a few more voters if he had been willing to do some cartwheel-to-backflip entrances onto the field like the showboating Smith used to do. Sure, the fans loved it, but that doesn't make it cool. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with baseball.

And as for Ozzie holding a "significant edge" over Omar in Gold Gloves won, while it's true enough, Schoenfield doesn't point out the number of other shortstops in the history of major league baseball who have won more Gold Gloves than Omar. That number is zero.

And remember too that the list of other stellar AL shortstops that Omar had to compete with to make the All Star Game is the same list he had to beat out for the Gold Glove, while Ozzie was fighting it out with the same group of lesser lights like Hubie Brooks and Rafael Ramirez for his Gold Gloves.

Schoenfield seems to conclude that, while the statistics are pretty close, he thinks Ozzie Smith is the better hitter, based I guess on having more seasons of a 90 plus adjusted OPS. But he forgets to mention the little detail that Omar is still playing, and that his career numbers are quite likely to surpass Smith's in the few categories in which he has not already done so.

Omar has about 200 fewer hits than Ozzie, but will almost surely surpass him if he plays out his current contract through 2007. Smith played three more seasons than Omar has, played in 340 more games, and batted 1500 more times to get those 200 hits. Omar trails in RBI by 45 and runs by 82. Ozzie is toast by the middle of next year. Omar already has more than double the homers of Smith and sports a .275 lifetime batting average, which is not only 13 points higher than Smith, but as I like to point out, it's only one point lower than Cal Ripken's lifetime average.

And just how is it that a player can honestly be called "light-hitting" when he amasses 2500 hits in his career, as Omar almost certainly will, no matter how superlative a defensive player he happens to be? Omar has more career doubles than Mickey Mantle, in fewer games played. Mark Belanger (1316 career hits) was a light-hitting shortstop with a great glove. Don't confuse him with Omar Vizquel, Mr. Schoenfield.

By the way, the career fielding percentage of "the greatest fielder at any position, ever" was .983, a figure matched exactly by Omar Vizquel. I saw enough of Ozzie Smith as a player to know he was a truly great defensive player, one that at that time I could say was probably the best defensive shortstop I had ever seen. But after watching Omar Vizquel for 1200 games, give or take, I am not persuaded that anyone was a "better" overall defensive shortstop than Vizquel in his prime. And the fielding percentage numbers bear that out.

Omar will probably be helped in the eventual HOF balloting by playing his final three seasons or so in the National League, where a whole different set of writers will get a chance to see him do his thing, and just maybe imagine what he was like in his prime.

Because even if his arm strength continues to ebb, and his speed goes the way of 39-year old men, they'll still see the glove. They'll see the way he hits behind the runner, gets down the sacrifice bunt, and drives in the runner from third with less than two outs. They'll see him make all the routine plays, and they'll see him make plays look routine that are anything but routine for most shortstops. And then maybe 8 or 10 times a year, they'll see a bare-handed play in the field that will blow their minds, and they'll know that nobody has ever done it better.

And he won't do it to please the crowd, though it undoubtedly will. He'll only do it when he knows that he has to, in order to get the out at first. And in that way, he'll set himself apart from a guy who did cartwheels and backflips into the Hall of Fame.

Posted by dan at July 29, 2005 4:40 PM