USA TODAY Sports is counting down the top 24 candidates on the 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in advance of the Jan. 24 election results. The countdown is based on balloting by our power rankings panel, which includes five Hall voters.
No. 17: Omar Vizquel
As a player, Vizquel was a joy to behold, a graceful, game-impacting defender who was without peer at shortstop over much of his 24-year career. A deft handler of the bat and an accomplished base-stealer, he was more than a mere light-hitting bit player on the powerhouse Cleveland Indians teams of the 1990s.
As a Hall of Fame candidate, Vizquel is a nightmare.
Travel to the intersection of Advanced Metrics and Eye Test, and you’ll see Vizquel, backed by staunch defenders from the game’s traditional school of thought, and derided by those more inclined to deeper analysis.
There’s no way Vizquel will earn induction in this, his first year on the ballot. Yet, he will have more than enough voters in his camp to ensure he stays on the ballot, probably for all 10 years of eligibility.
So, this debate is just getting started.
The case for: While Gold Glove awards are hardly the ultimate measure of a defender, Vizquel did win 11 of them, second only to Ozzie Smith’s 13 among shortstops. Advanced defensive metrics are also flawed, but Vizquel fares well there, too: He’s seventh among all players since World War II in positionally-adjusted runs saved, according to Fangraphs, trailing Smith, Mark Belanger, Cal Ripken Jr. and Luis Aparicio among shortstops.
Stick around 24 seasons and you’ll certainly compile some hits; Vizquel had 2,877 of them. He was just a career .272 hitter, but there were some fine offensive seasons across those two decades, most of them coming during baseball’s inflated run-scoring era.
Vizquel’s best season was probably 1999, when he set career highs in average (.333), on-base percentage (.397), slugging (.436), doubles (36), runs scored (112) and OPS-plus (111). He also won the seventh of nine consecutive Gold Gloves.
Yet on an Indians team that won 97 games and scored 1,009 runs, Vizquel ranked just third in WAR behind Roberto Alomar and Manny Ramirez, who tied for third in AL MVP voting that year. Vizquel finished 16th, behind five sure-fire Hall of Famers (Ivan Rodriguez, Alomar and Ken Griffey Jr., who are already in, and Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, who will be).
The case against: That 1999 season marked Vizquel’s lone appearance on MVP ballots, owed at least partly to the offensive-heavy era in which he played. He might have enjoyed more acclaim in real time had modern concepts of run prevention been widely understood.
While his defensive prowess holds up over time, his offensive resume does not, those 2,877 hits notwithstanding. He finished with a career slash line of .272/.336/.352, and a career OPS-plus of 82 puts him firmly in the category of below-average hitter. His on-base skills varied wildly, with six full seasons at .347 or better, and five more at .323 or worse. That’s a bad combo for a light hitter who relies on speed for much of his value.
Even his basestealing came at some cost. Vizquel ranked in the top 10 in AL steals six times, but a 71% success rate doesn’t quite justify his 404 career steals.
X factors: Like everyone, Vizquel will be a victim of ballot traffic; even if the Hall welcomes another three-man class this year, coming ballots will include more palatable fringe candidates like Todd Helton and Lance Berkman. Not many players reach the doorstep of 3,000 hits, and fewer still endure for more than two decades. Will those factors be viewed more favorably over time, rather than the notion that Vizquel is a mere “compiler?”
Consensus: Vizquel is at nearly 30% in early returns compiled by Oakland-based ballot tracker Ryan Thibodaux, and he should fare well in as-yet-unpublicized ballots. From there, it’s a decade-long slog to the required 75% plateau, with newer voters less likely to embrace his cause. For thousands of fans, Vizquel is the answer to a simple question: Who’s the greatest shortstop you’ve ever seen?
That distinction might not be enough to get him to Cooperstown.