Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 13 – Omar Vizquel
Bob Toth | On 16, Mar 2018
While the offseason has been historically slow and the winter has crawled along at an even slower pace, we at Did The Tribe Win Last Night look ahead to the warmer days of the 2018 season by remembering Tribe players past and present.
Countdown to Opening Day – 13 days
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.
After several years of watching Vizquel suit up as the first base coach in Motown for the Detroit Tigers, he will start his managerial career this year in the Chicago White Sox organization with their Class-A Winston-Salem affiliate. Despite his employment with two division rivals, Vizquel’s 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 even over the winter during his highly debated candidacy for inclusion in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
As was proven a couple of months ago, Vizquel’s spot in Cooperstown is not guaranteed, despite defensively passing the eye test repeatedly over the course of his 24-year playing career.
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 career. Old school defensive metrics like errors, assists, and fielding percentage (where Vizquel showed plenty of worth) have been replaced by other means not as well received or well understood.
Under the old numbers, Vizquel owns the top career fielding percentage (.9847) among all shortstops to log at least 500 games at the position, one ten-thousandth of a point ahead of 12-year big league veteran Troy Tulowitzki.
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, ninth-best in that span (that number lacks 13 years of work in his early days and his prime). He ranks fifth overall in that time frame in UZR (51.3) and 25th in UZR/150 (8.7) among all players to take in at least 500 innings or more at short, putting him well above the competition. His career total zone runs saved was 84, bested by just two players (Cal Ripken and Rey Sanchez) during Vizquel’s career. 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.
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.
Using baseball-reference.com’s similarity scores, Vizquel is in good company historically. Each of the first three comparable players (Luis Aparicio, Rabbit Maranville, and Ozzie Smith) and six of the top eight (adding Luke Appling, Pee Wee Reese, and Nellie Fox to the aforementioned trio) are in the Hall of Fame. The problem there is that all but Smith played in an entirely different era of baseball, and even Smith’s time was more associated with the 1980s (he played 19 years, won 13 Gold Gloves, and was a 15-time All-Star). Smith put up a .262/.337/.328 slash with 2,460 hits for his career, twice leading baseball in sacrifices and leading the National League in games played, plate appearances, and at bats in 1981. While he was serviceable at the plate, Smith’s bat did not hit its way into Cooperstown.
Vizquel, who had a career .252/.309/.303 batting line through five seasons prior to joining the Indians for the 1994 season, made noticeable offensive contributions in the Cleveland 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, 17th in at bats, and 19th in plate appearances. His 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.
Vizquel’s candidacy was one of the bigger debates on the ballots for the Class of 2018, the first time that he was eligible. He received a healthy 37% share of the vote on a stacked ballot, one that moved former teammate Jim Thome, Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, and Trevor Hoffman out of his way in the future. As the years pass and more of the tainted names on the list fall off, Vizquel’s worth may be better appreciated by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Even then, with just a ten-year window now instead of the old 15, Vizquel’s name may still be waiting a decade from now for consideration by a future Veterans’ Committee. Regardless, 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 13s in Tribe history: Vern Fuller (the first, from 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