Watching Omar Vizquel climb the all-time hits list has been one of the few feel-good stories for Toronto Blue Jays fans this season.
And when the diminutive, 24-year veteran registered his 2,874th hit to pass Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 19, some in the media began trumpeting Vizquel as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
There's no question the five-foot-nine, 180-pound defensive specialist, who will retire after the season, has enjoyed a long and distinguished career, but should he really be considered a slam-dunk for a plaque in Cooperstown?
The baseball writers, who will have their first opportunity to vote for Vizquel on the 2018 ballot, will surely marvel at his 11 Gold Gloves, three all-star selections and the fact he has played more games (2,708) at shortstop than any other player.
In fact, the beloved Venezuelan has suited up for a total of 2,965 major league contests, which ranks as the 12th most all-time. The only two players who have competed in more games that haven't been honoured in Cooperstown are Pete Rose and Barry Bonds.
Vizquel also owns 404 stolen bases and ranks second in hits and career fielding percentage by a shortstop. The likeable infielder was also a prominent contributor to six Cleveland Indians post-season squads - two (1995, 1997) of which captured the American League pennant.
A strong argument could be made, however, that many of his numbers are a testament to his durability rather than his excellence. Yes, his 2,876 hits are noteworthy, but he accumulated those over 24 big-league campaigns and 2,263 of them are singles. He'll also fall short of the magical 3,000-hit milestone that has traditionally guaranteed Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Below average hitter
And while Vizquel has passed Ruth and tied Mel Ott on the all-time hits list over the past week, no one would argue that he's in their offensive class. In more than two decades as a big leaguer, Vizquel has averaged just four home runs a season and his .336 career on-base percentage and .689 career on-base plus slugging percentage indicate he's been a below average hitter in the majors.
Even during his prime, Vizquel was rarely regarded as one of baseball's top 20 players. His 16th-place finish in the 1999 MVP voting represents the only time he has received MVP votes. With teams tallying runs at near record levels that season, Vizquel hit .333 and recorded a 6.1 WAR (Wins Above Replacement).
WAR is an all-encompassing statistic that attempts to measure how many wins a player adds above what a AAA replacement player at their position would contribute. According to FanGraphs, a WAR of 6.0 or more represents an MVP-calibre campaign. By that standard, 1999 was the only season in which Vizquel posted superstar-like statistics; his WAR never reached 4.0 in any of the rest of his 23 seasons.
One of the most common arguments for Vizquel's inclusion in the Hall of Fame is how closely he compares to fellow defensive wizard Ozzie Smith. In 19 seasons, Smith earned 13 Gold Gloves, recorded 2,460 hits and stole 580 bases. In comparison, in 24 seasons, Vizquel has 11 Gold Gloves, 416 more hits (in five more seasons) and has collected 404 stolen bases.
And while Vizquel was an elite defensive shortstop for an extended period, Smith is the best defensive shortstop of all-time, and his career WAR (70.3) dwarfs Vizquel's (47.4). So, without bogging you down with more statistical evidence, Smith was actually far superior to Vizquel offensively and defensively.
I realize, of course, that Vizquel's Hall of Fame case will be based more on his fielding prowess than his offensive talents, and to his credit, his Defensive WAR (28.5) would rank him seventh amongst the 22 Cooperstown inductees who have played the bulk of their major league careers at shortstop. However his overall WAR would rank 19th, higher than just Phil Rizzuto (47.2), Hughie Jennings (44.9) and John Ward (39.1).
It also troubles me that Vizquel is considered a Hall of Fame shoo-in, while Alan Trammell, who owns a 69.5 career WAR, has languished on the ballot for 11 years. Despite contributing 22 more wins (according to his WAR) to his team than Vizquel during his 20-year career, the former Detroit Tigers shortstop has never be named on more than 36.8 per cent of writers' ballots (75 per cent is required for induction).
So while Vizquel's ascent up the all-time hits list has been a nice story, I don't believe he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Yes, he should be celebrated for a long and distinguished career and there are certainly less valuable players that have been honoured in Cooperstown, but to me, Vizquel is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate that's definitely not in the same class as Ruth, Ott, Smith or even Trammell.
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