Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 13 – Omar Vizquel
Bob Toth | On 21, Mar 2017
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Countdown to Opening Day – 13
When using wins above replacement (WAR) to compare the players to wear the number 13 throughout baseball history, one thing becomes clear – Omar Vizquel has been not only one of the best to do so for the Cleveland Indians, but has been one of the best to wear it in Major League Baseball history.
Vizquel now is a painful sight to see in the Detroit first base coaching box when the Indians and Tigers match up 19 times a year. His name still comes up frequently in discussion among Cleveland fans, especially when watching Francisco Lindor flash the leather from Vizquel’s old shortstop position now or when considering the legitimacy of his Hall of Fame candidacy in a few years.
In the end, his spot in Cooperstown is no guarantee.
The Hall has not always been receptive to the work of defensive wizards and that was exactly what Vizquel was in the field over the course of the majority of his 24-year career. Old school defensive metrics like errors and fielding percentage have been replaced by other means not well received or well understood.
Under the old numbers, Vizquel owns the second-best career fielding percentage (.985) among all shortstops to log at least 3,000 innings at the position.
More recent additions to the defensive measuring stick, like defensive runs saved (DRS), ultimate zone rating (UZR), range factor, and total zone runs, can at times aid his cause. Since 2002, he had a defensive runs above average of 92.2, eighth-most in that span while missing a dozen years of work in his early days and his prime. He ranks fourth overall in UZR (51.3) and 24th in UZR/150 (8.7) among all players to take in at least 500 innings or more at short in that period, putting him well above the competition. Six times in 24 years he was a top five player at his position in range factor per game and five times in range factor per nine innings. Total zone runs provides a slightly different result, as he was a top five player in his league nine times and is currently fifth all-time with 134.
Something a little more readily quantifiable, but no less debatable because of the selection process involved, is Vizquel’s collection of fielding-based hardware. He earned his first of eleven Gold Glove Awards in 1993 with Seattle, then was traded in the offseason to Cleveland for Reggie Jefferson and Felix Fermin. He proceeded to win Gold Gloves in each of his first eight seasons in Cleveland from 1994 to 2001, then added two more in the National League in 2005 and 2006 with the San Francisco Giants.
But rarely does defense get you into the Hall of Fame.
For a player who had a career .252/.309/.303 batting line when he arrived in Cleveland prior to the 1994 season, Vizquel made noticeable offensive contributions in the Indians lineup during his eleven years in town. He had a couple of thin years, including a .255 mark in 2001 and a .244 average in his injury-shortened 2003 season, but otherwise hovered in the .280s and .290s with the exception of the 1999 season. During that second All-Star season for Vizquel, he had 191 hits in 144 games while hitting .333 with 65 walks and just 50 strikeouts. He also led the Majors with 17 sacrifices that season, a stat that he had previously led the American League in (with 16 in 1997). He led the league again with 20 more in 2004 and led the Majors again with 20 in his first season in San Francisco.
A long career, started weeks before he would turn 22 during the 1989 season while with the Mariners and ending on the final day of the regular season in 2012 with the Toronto Blue Jays at the age of 45, helped him to accumulate a surprising 2,877 hits over the course of his career. He still ranks 12th all-time in games played, 16th in at bats, and 19th in plate appearances. Vizquel’s production at the plate never quite got the credit it deserved, but he ended a lifetime .272 hitter with nearly as many walks (1,028) as strikeouts (1,087). Ten different times over the course of his career he was one of the hardest players to strike out in a season.
While there is plenty of interesting debate to be had on the merits of Vizquel and how he will fare on Hall of Fame ballots over the next decade when the selection process for the stacked BBWAA Class of 2018 begins much later this year, only time will tell what the voters think of a player praised largely for his hard-to-quantify defensive exploits in the field and overlooked for his offensive numbers that are critiqued as a result of nearly a quarter-century of time on Major League Baseball diamonds across the country.
There remains a shot that “Little O” could find a permanent residence in the halls of Cooperstown, just as he has previously done after being inducted to the Indians Hall of Fame in 2014 and the Latino Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.
Other notable 13’s in Indians history: Vern Fuller (1966-70), Blue Moon Odom (1975), Ron Pruitt (1976-81), Ernie Camacho (1984-87), Joel Skinner (1989), Lance Parrish (1993), Asdrubal Cabrera (2007-14)
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer