When Hall of Fame voting started, I thought Jim Thome was a slam-dunk first-ballot hall of famer – largely on the strength of his 612 (relatively untainted) home runs.
I figured Omar Vizquel, also in his first year of eligibility, would get into the Hall of Fame, but this wasn’t his year due to a crowded ballot. Chipper Jones is probably a first-ballot hall of famer too, and it sounds like Vladimir Guerrero – probably the best bad-ball hitter of his era – is finally getting the traction he needs for a plaque in Cooperstown. And of course, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens loom large over the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s voting process.
I had no idea a Vizquel hall of fame candidacy would be as controversial as it seems to have become.
To me, Vizquel was the prototypical slick-fielding shortstop who wasn’t known for his offensive prowess, but was skilled enough not to be a black hole in the lineup.
The supporters of Vizquel’s candidacy seem centered in Cleveland and San Francisco, both stops on his 24-year playing career (his durability is one of the keys to his Hall of Fame case). The argument boils down to the idea that he passes the eye test. Anyone who saw him on the field as a defensive playmaker saw hall of fame plays, and his 11 Gold Gloves are second only to Ozzie Smith’s 13. Smith is a hall of famer. Vizquel is fifth all-time in assists, and the career leader in double plays started by a shortstop.
It’s a dubious argument, but it’s worked before (and I confess, I bought into it). Bill Mazeroski is the most glaring example I can think of. I was living in Pittsburgh when he got elected to the hall by the Veterans Committee in 2001, and the biggest argument on behalf of the .260 lifetime hitter was his defensive prowess, something that was only understood if you saw him play.
Detractors point to little outside of those 11 Gold Gloves in terms of hardware. He made just three All-Star appearances and finished 16th in MVP voting in 1999 (although if Albert Belle couldn’t win the MVP in his monster 1995 season, the award wasn’t going to come to Cleveland at any time). They point to defensive metrics that prove he really wasn’t that good (but he is 10th all-time in defensive wins above replacement – placing him higher than Hall of Fame infielders Pee Wee Reese, Joe Gordon, the aforementioned Mazeroski, and Cleveland’s other great shortstop, Lou Boudreau).
Here it’s worth noting that all the Hall of Famers lower than Vizquel in dWAR were voted in by the Veterans Committee, itself a realm given more to politics than actual talent. Vizquel already faces an uphill climb. Barring a landslide of ballots that haven’t already been publicly revealed, Vizquel probably won’t get in this year, but he does appear to have enough votes to remain on the ballot. His best chance to get elected by the writers is probably this year, given the players coming up on the Hall of Fame ballot, and if he doesn’t get in during his ten years on the BBWAA ballot (it used to be 15, a change made to sweep past the steroid era as fast as possible), his candidacy becomes an even bigger crapshoot. The next stop would be the veterans committee, which has become a strangely stratified beast in recent years, divided into various eras for candidates. He might come up for a vote every five years or so.
The irony there is that if he doesn’t get elected into the Hall of Fame, he gets a different kind of immortality, the kind reserved for those players who have a local reverence that could never translate into a plaque in Cooperstown.
You had to see him play.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer