It is impossible for me to conceive of a semi-credible argument for Omar Vizquel, who is presently on his fifth ballot for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, without mentioning the name of Ozzie Smith. Smith, who was elected to Cooperstown on his first ballot, is the embodiment of a specific type of shortstop–one renowned exponentially more for his glove, “Go Crazy Folks” heroics notwithstanding, than his bat. Rarely do those who advocate for Omar Vizquel to make it to the Hall of Fame try to proclaim that Vizquel was a superior player to Ozzie Smith, but instead they tend to advocate that Vizquel is the heir apparent to Ozzie. It would be like claiming that Led Zeppelin shouldn’t be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because they weren’t as popular as the Beatles, the previous Biggest Band in the English-Speaking World.
Superficially, Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel do have more than a handful of similarities. Both were rather undersized–Vizquel stood 5’9″ and is listed at 180 pounds, while Smith was 5’11” (arguably a generous approximation, but that’s what Baseball Reference says) and a mere 150 pounds. Both were switch-hitters whose offensive accomplishments were considerably beneath the typical standards of the Hall of Fame–neither cracked triple-digit career home runs and each had a career OPS somewhere in the 600s, with wRC+ marks below the MLB average (Smith at 90, Vizquel at 83). But both were widely-acclaimed fielders with double-digit Gold Glove totals, Smith with 13 and Vizquel with 11.
Omar Vizquel is occasionally cited by anti-sabermetric baseball writers and voters as a last, great bastion for the eye test–that just as one could with Smith, anyone who saw Omar Vizquel play knew they were seeing greatness. The eleven Gold Gloves are a solid piece of evidence to suggest that. But I watched baseball throughout most of Vizquel’s career, including his prime, and it never once occurred to me that he should wind up in the Hall of Fame. There is tangible evidence to suggest that I was not alone. While Ozzie Smith was a fifteen-time All-Star, Omar Vizquel was an All-Star a grand total of three times. Vizquel received MVP votes on exactly one occassion–in 1999, when he finished 16th, receiving zero first-place votes and finishing behind three other American League shortstops (Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Álex Rodríguez). Ozzie Smith was a six-time MVP vote recipient, including a near-victory while finishing in second place in 1987. And Ozzie had other hardware that Vizquel never earned–a World Series ring, a postseason series MVP award (for the 1985 NLCS), and a Silver Slugger award. For as often as Smith and Vizquel are placed in the same bucket as sub-standard hitters, Smith had an above-average full season four times by OPS+, with five more seasons somewhere between 94 and 99 (so, at least a competent hitter). Vizquel, by contrast, was above-average just twice and in the 94-99 range three times.
Occasionally, around the turn of last century, Omar Vizquel would be thrown into conversations about the ongoing Golden Age of American League Shortstops, but relative to Jeter (a Hall of Famer, and rightfully so), Rodríguez (whose case is controversial, but whose raw production is largely unquestioned), and Garciaparra (who arguably has a stronger Hall case than Vizquel, but peaked at 5.5% of votes and dropped off after two years), the Cleveland Indians defensive wizard (with a hard lower-case on the w, lest there be any confusion) was the Fredo Corleone of the lot. Once Miguel Tejada (higher career peak and cumulative WAR than Vizquel, more perennially an All-Star, one-and-done as a Hall of Fame candidate) emerged, Vizquel was more, like, the Rocco Lampone of the group. And yet he has emerged, purely in hindsight, as a generational benchmark. At least in the case of the Tommy McCarthys of the world, guys with a worse statistical case for Cooperstown than Omar Vizquel, I can convince myself that, in their time, they were perceived as among the game’s stalwarts. Omar Vizquel, at least outside of Cleveland, was not.
By JAWS, Jay Jaffe’s metric which blends a player’s overall career production by Wins Above Replacement and his best seven seasons as a way of giving extra weight to players with high peaks, Omar Vizquel is the 42nd greatest shortstop of all-time. He would be the worst shortstop in the Hall of Fame if elected. There are three currently ineligible players who outpace him, and none of them–Troy Tulowitzki, Jimmy Rollins, Hanley Ramirez–are generally considered strong Hall candidates despite having far higher peaks than Vizquel. For all of the desire on Team Vizquel to compare the shortstop to Ozzie Smith, arguably the more apt comparison is to Mark Belanger, the man who ranks 41st, just ahead of him, by JAWS. Belanger was an even more extreme defense-first shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles (and briefly the Los Angeles Dodgers), primarily in the 1970s, with a career OPS of just .580 and a grand total of twenty home runs in 6,602 career plate appearances. I don’t believe Belanger is a Hall of Famer, though given that he received MVP votes on three occasions, was a World Series champion, and is statistically the single greatest shortstop of all-time not named Ozzie Smith, I’d be more inclined to support him than Vizquel. Belanger, as Vizquel should have been, was one-and-done on the BBWAA ballot.
Omar Vizquel was a superb defensive shortstop, but three of the eight shortstops ahead of him by Defensive Runs Above Average are also not in Cooperstown (and a fourth, Rabbit Maranville, is widely perceived to be the worst shortstop in the Hall of Fame)–the notion that his level must be recognized simply is not backed up by precedent. But what I find truly distateful is not that Omar Vizquel does not stack up with Ozzie Smith as a shortstop, but that Omar Vizquel cannot hold a candle as a person.
If you, like me, do not view steroid use as a moral human failing (as opposed to a failing against the sport of baseball), Omar Vizquel is arguably the grossest scumbag on this year’s ballot. I don’t care to litigate whether this is true–a power ranking of baseball jerks doesn’t seem like much fun. And at the end of the day, if I had a Hall of Fame ballot, I would still be voting for guys alleged to have committed domestic abuse, engaged in romantic relationships with underage girls, and whose personal politics I consider well beyond the boundaries of civil discourse. It’s the idea of squinting at a player’s Hall of Fame case to let through a guy like Omar Vizquel that confounds me. The Hall of Fame’s Veteran’s Committee recently inducted Gil Hodges, a guy with a similarly sparse playing résumé to Vizquel but who, at the very least, can lay claim to one of the most iconic managerial jobs in MLB history and being, by all accounts, a great guy. Would I have voted for Gil Hodges? Probably not, but I could see myself talking myself into him. If Omar Vizquel had a 20 WAR or so higher career with multiple MVP candidate seasons sprinkled in there and thus he had a borderline statistical case, I would be looking for excuses not to vote for him.
Meanwhile, Ozzie Smith has spent his post-playing career as an upstanding representative of the sport. He has worked as a broadcaster, a local television host of Cardinals Insider and a national television host of This Week in Baseball, and worked as an instructor, and unlike Omar Vizquel managed to do so without sexually harassing any disabled team personnel. None of these things make Ozzie Smith’s playing career worthy of Cooperstown–it isn’t as though Bob Uecker should be enshrined on the basis of his playing career–but they do make supporting his strong statistical case feel all that much more satisfying. And that a player and person so inferior could garner a single comparison to Ozzie Smith is maddening.