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Omar Vizquel and growing appreciation for the mediocre Hall of Famer

Despite outcry over the weak-hitting shortstop’s Hall of Fame candidacy, Omar Vizquel would be nothing new in Cooperstown.

San Francisco Giants v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

1997 was a big year for the Cleveland Indians. For the second time in three seasons, the team made it to the World Series, this time losing a heartbreaker to the Florida Marlins. Cleveland hosted the All-Star Game at its still-young Jacobs Field. First baseman Jim Thome hit 40 home runs, while 25 year-old right fielder Manny Ramirez continued to ascend the ranks of baseball’s best young sluggers.

Far under the radar was all-glove, no-bat shortstop Omar Vizquel, who, following the season, had career marks of 27 home runs, a .326 on-base percentage, and a .335 slugging percentage in 4564 plate appearances. And in the 1997 season, Omar Vizquel eclipsed the career Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement total of Hall of Fame outfielder Tommy McCarthy, who spent four seasons with the pre-St. Louis Cardinals St. Louis Browns of the 19th century’s American Association.

Tommy McCarthy is, by WAR, the worst Hall of Famer in history. At 14.6 bWAR, McCarthy has a lower mark than Babe Ruth had strictly as a pitcher, and Ruth stopped pitching full-time after his age 23 season. McCarthy’s career bWAR is eclipsed by such modern players as Chris Iannetta, Brendan Ryan, and Alex Avila. McCarthy helped to develop the hit-and-run, and was not elected solely on performance merits, but by even the loosest standards, McCarthy comes nowhere close to warranting a spot in Cooperstown.

Omar Vizquel is eligible for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum for the first time in 2018, and while Ryan Thibodaux’s much-celebrated Hall of Fame Ballot Tracker has Vizquel quite a bit shy of the 75% vote threshold needed for induction into Cooperstown, the level of support he has received has caused some feather-ruffling in the sabermetric community. Of the 33 players on this year’s ballot, of which a maximum of ten may be listed by a voter, Vizquel ranks 20th in bWAR, twenty-three full wins behind 10th place Edgar Martinez, and 21st in JAWS, a metric which blends a player’s career value with his peak value, a spot behind Carlos Zambrano, who will be lucky to receive any Hall of Fame votes.

Vizquel’s Hall candidacy is widely opposed by even the most “Big Hall” of sabermetrically-inclined baseball fans because of who is hurt by his presence as a candidate—a vote placed for Omar Vizquel, particularly when he is one of ten spots used, is a vote not placed for one of many more deserving Hall of Famers. But for “Small Hall” fans, people who believe that Cooperstown should be reserved for only inner-circle, elite baseball legends, Omar Vizquel represents a more fundamental crisis—the weakening of baseball’s most elite fraternity.

Recently, Zach Kram of The Ringer pointed out that the perception that modern Hall of Fame voters are more selective than previous generations is misleading—while players from decades ago are disproportionately represented in the Hall, it is not because of looser standards from the Baseball Writers Association of America but rather because Veterans Committees have enshrined players initially ignored by the BBWAA. Players such as Tommy McCarthy, who was inducted fifty years after his final MLB game, have had decades and in some cases even centuries in which to garner enough support for induction.

Modern conventional wisdom among statheads is that Omar Vizquel would be an egregious Hall inductee. And while he would be on the lower end of inductees, there have been 28 position players and 14 pitchers who accumulated fewer Wins Above Replacement than Omar Vizquel’s 45.3 bWAR. Vizquel wouldn’t even be the lowest bWAR player inducted in 2018—that “honor” goes to longtime Hall of Fame lightning rod Jack Morris. Morris made it thanks, once again, to the Veterans Committee—the only difference between Jack Morris in 2018 and Omar Vizquel in 2018 is that Jack Morris had to wait.

A number of players with less productive careers than Vizquel are in the Hall of Fame, including many who played for the St. Louis Cardinals. One of them, McCarthy, has already come up several times in this post, but he is somewhat unique in the sense that he was such an egregious Hall selection that he (posthumously) became notorious for it. But for other Cardinals Hall of Famers, superior to McCarthy but less productive than Vizquel and most of their Cooperstown brethren, the Hall meant immortality and that was that.

In total, ten Hall of Famers who played for the St. Louis Cardinals at some point in their careers accumulated fewer career bWAR than Omar Vizquel. WAR is, even among those who believe in its merits, not the only statistic that matters, but it does tend to serve as the general framework for evaluating Hall of Fame cases for a large segment of fans.

Aside from McCarthy, the nine players fit within four different categories.

The elsewheres

These are players whose legacy was forged primarily outside of St. Louis: Roger Bresnahan, a catcher whose glory years came with the New York Giants before a four-year stint with the Cardinals, and Rabbit Maranville, a middle infielder who rose to prominence primarily with the Boston Braves.

The players you probably know

Fans versed in Cardinals history know these players, but may not have really given much consideration to whether or not he is in the Hall of Fame. These players are outfielder Chick Hafey, first baseman Jim Bottomley, and pitcher Jesse Haines. All three were elected by the Veteran’s Committee.

The closer

Bruce Sutter is a unique case because he was a closer, the “position” (whether closer is a position or a role is reaching “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” levels of pointlessness on the internet) which has by far the lowest threshold for induction into Cooperstown. Relief pitchers do not pitch nearly as many innings as starting pitchers but their innings are frequently in high leverage. By WAR, Bruce Sutter isn’t even close to a Hall of Famer, but where should voters draw the line? Whether Trevor Hoffman should make the Hall is one thing, but surely he should receive more consideration than higher-WAR ballot inclusion Orlando Hudson, right?

The franchise legends

This group includes three players whose numbers are retired by the Cardinals. All three were less valuable, according to Baseball Reference, than Omar Vizquel, a new paragon for the loosening of standards in the modern era.

  • Red Schoendienst was one of the franchise’s greatest players, ranking 22nd in franchise history by bWAR, though admittedly, much of his legacy as a Cardinal comes from non-playing factors, most notably his World Series-winning tenure as manager.
  • Dizzy Dean is arguably the greatest pitcher in franchise history not named Bob Gibson. Despite leaving the Cardinals at only 27, Dean was an iconic leader of the “Gashouse Gang” of the 1930s, becoming the most recent National League pitcher to win 30 games in a season during his 1934 MVP campaign.
  • Lou Brock was worth fewer WAR in his career than Omar Vizquel. Yes, that Lou Brock. The former all-time leader in stolen bases Lou Brock. The Lou Brock who was voted by fans as one of the franchise’s four most iconic players in 2015, ahead of first-ballot Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith and future (if there is any justice in this cold, cruel world) first-ballot Hall of Famer Albert Pujols. The Lou Brock who himself was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

To be fair, Lou Brock barely made it on his first ballot, and he has been cited as an example of a relatively weak Hall of Famer. But this is not viewed with nearly the scorn of Omar Vizquel, despite the fact that Vizquel, basically the same player albeit in different ways by value metrics (Vizquel has a microscopic 0.1 win lead by bWAR while Brock has a less than one win lead by fWAR), will likely wind up with around a third of Brock’s Hall of Fame votes in his first year of eligibility.

Of course, there is a case for Lou Brock in the Hall—Craig Edwards outlined this case last year. There are also such cases for Dean, Schoendienst, and the other aforementioned Cardinals Hall of Famers. But these players don’t need cases made for them, because being a Hall of Famer is the case. Eventually, a player ceases to be a borderline Hall of Famer and is simply a Hall of Famer.

Is Omar Vizquel a Hall of Famer? Well, he wouldn’t make my ballot, as this year’s list of candidates is loaded with talent I consider far more transcendent than the defensively talented and likable but ultimately offensively lacking Vizquel, and let’s leave it there. But the Hall of Fame has always made room for lesser players—Vizquel just happens to be the rare example of eschewing the normal waiting period.