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Omar Vizquel: G.O.A.T. Defender?

In the 2018 Hall of Fame balloting, Omar Vizquel received 37% of the vote in his first year on the ballot.  This implies strong voter support, and a high likelihood of being inducted into the Hall in the coming years.  The problem, as has been noted by many writers including Craig Edwards here at Fangraphs, is that Omar Vizquel was not a good offensive player.  Edwards compares Vizquel to other below-average offensive producers already inducted into the Hall and concludes:

“It seems necessary to point out that Vizquel’s [offensive] deficiency wasn’t a run-of-the-mill weakness. If elected to the Hall of Fame, he might be the worst offensive player there.”

Of course, Vizquel is not getting support for the Hall of Fame based on his offensive reputation.  He’s known as a great defender.   Yet, advance stats seem to indicate in no uncertain terms that the value Vizquel provided with his glove was not nearly enough to make him a Hall of Famer.  According to JAWS, a system developed by Jay Jaffe to evaluate Hall of Fame worthiness, Vizquel is about as strong of a candidate as Hanley Ramirez, Dave Concepcion or Rafael Furcal i.e. he is not particularly worthy and it’s not particularly close.  But those 37% of voters seem pretty insistent.  What are they seeing that the statistics aren’t?

Vizquel was a mediocre offensive player, and that can’t be disputed.  The ability of offensive statistics such as wRC+ and BsR to quantify historical offensive value and adjust for historical context are firmly established.  Defensive statistics, on the other hand, remain controversial.  Since 2003, when granular fielding data became available through Baseball Info Solutions, Baseball-Reference has used Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in their WAR calculations, and Fangraphs has used Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), both statistics derived from the BIS data.  I believe that both are good metrics for evaluating defense, but are far from perfect.  Even further from perfect is the statistic used to calculate defensive WAR for both Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs for seasons prior to 2003, Total Zone (TZ), which is calculated using Retrosheet play-by-play data.  There has been criticism of the use of these statistics for historical comparison, including by Bill James, who argues against Andruw Jones‘ defensive-value based case for the Hall by stating that older defensive metrics such as TZ are more conservative in their allotment of value due to the limitations of the data to quantify exceptional performance.  He argues that comparing players evaluated by new metrics to players evaluated by old metrics is comparing apple-to-oranges, that the methodologies are too different, and their accuracy too poorly understood for strong arguments about players to be based off of them.

Vizquel was 36 when UZR and DRS 2003, and as such his prime years are all being evaluated by TZ.  Here are the defensive runs valuations across his career, per Fangraphs, bucketed into ranges of years where the statistics are stable:

Year Age Innings Fielding Fielding/1500 Metric
1989-1994 22-27 5833.2 66.0 17.0 TZ
1995-2001 28-34 8987.0 18.0 3.0 TZ
2002-2007 35-40 6880.1 41.0 8.9 UZR
2008-2012 41-45 2617.1 6.2 3.6 UZR

So the metrics here are telling us that early in his career, Vizquel was a top-of-the-league defender, then dipped to a slightly above average defender for this late-20’s early 30’s.  Then he pops back up to great for his late 30’s when UZR kicks in, and dips back to slightly above average for his 40’s.  This is odd, especially with how Vizquel falls off a cliff in his late 20’s, then returns to form in his late 30’s.  Important to note is that that over half of the defensive runs accumulated in the 2002-2007 interval are credit of a 23-run 2007 season, his best single-season total of his career.  Did Omar Vizquel have far-and-away his best defensive season as a 40-year-old on the Giants?  Maybe.  Things happen.  But probably not, right?  Was Omar Vizquel a much better defensive infielder in his late-30s than in his late 20’s?  Maybe.  It’s possible.  But that doesn’t really make sense, does it?

I’m not showing this to discredit defensive statistics.  I’m just trying to illustrate that there’s a wide margin of error that we’re dealing with here, and the further complication of a change in metrics half way through Vizquel’s career.  Is it possible that Omar Vizquel’s Hall of Fame case is being lost in all that?  Let’s see.  Let’s say we don’t trust Vizquel’s defensive metrics at all.  Let’s say that all we trust are the distributions of valuations defensive metrics assign to each year’s pool of players.  Let’s give Omar Vizquel as many defensive runs as he needs to be a Hall of Famer, and then let’s look at what that implies about how good he would have had to have been, relative to the league.  For instance, if Vizquel with his added value now has the career defensive numbers of Mark Belanger, and you want to argue that he was actually as good as Mark Belanger defensively, then you can also argue Vizquel is Hall-worthy.

For this exercise, I’m going to define Hall of Fame worthiness as the average JAWS of Hall of Fame shortstops, 54.8.  JAWS is calculated by averaging a player’s career WAR and best 7 seasons worth of WAR.  I needed to get Vizquel’s 34.2 JAWS up to 54.8 by adding only fielding runs.  To accomplish this, I threw away Vizquel’s metrics and assumed that he produced fielding runs at a constant per-inning rate throughout his career.  I then took into account aging by adding a linear 3% decrease in this rate starting at age 33.  Then, using the values of his other WAR components provided in his Value table on Fangraphs, I was able to calculate his career and peak WAR for different per-inning fielding runs rates.  To be clear, I kept all of his career values estimated by Fangraphs the same, including his positional adjustment.  I have him playing the exact same number of innings that he did in real life.  The only thing changing here is the rate at which he produced fielding runs.  The rate that got him to 55 JAWS turned out to be 0.019 Fielding Runs/Inning.  Here’s what that looks like in terms of WAR:

WAR WAR7 JAWS
JAWS SS Average 66.7 42.8 54.8
Vizquel Actual 42.6 25.8 34.2
Vizquel Proposed 71.9 38.1 55.0

Did I just give Omar Vizquel 29.3 more career WAR?  Yes, it appears so.  Here is what my “proposed”, hypothetical Vizquel fielding runs totals look like compared to his actual runs.

That seems like a whole lot of extra fielding runs, doesn’t it?  An unrealistically high amount, perhaps?  Well, let’s see.  Below, I plotted the proposed and actual defensive runs (with the positional adjustment added) on top of violin plots of the distribution of defensive runs for all players in the league each year.  The proposed Vizquel seasons are red triangles, while the actual Vizquel seasons are the blue squares.

What we’re seeing here is that for my proposed Vizquel defensive seasons, he would be or near the top of the league nearly ever year for about 20 straight years, apart from two seasons where his playing time was down due to injury.  So, it looks like Vizquel needs to have been pretty damn good at defense to be Hall-worthy.  Here is where he would rank among the league each year with my proposed defensive runs totals, along with where he actually ranked, and the proposed and actual runs totals.

Year Proposed Lg. Rank Actual Lg. Rank Proposed Def. Runs Actual Def. Runs
1989 4 31 28.3 12.9
1990 17 16 17.1 17.2
1991 2 5 28.6 21
1992 3 7 29.0 20.1
1993 1 3 33.3 24
1994 8 47 15.4 7.8
1995 2 47 29.9 8.3
1996 2 56 33.0 9.1
1997 1 55 32.9 10.1
1998 3 20 33.1 17.1
1999 4 14 30.6 21.5
2000 1 91 31.3 5.8
2001 2 230 30.4 -1.2
2002 1 132 28.9 3.7
2003 30 78 12.0 7.3
2004 4 87 26.5 5.6
2005 2 20 26.7 13.5
2006 2 14 25.8 16.1
2007 6 1 23.9 30.2
2008 32 81 12.5 6.3
2009 80 39 7.0 11.2
2010 34 294 11.6 -3.5
2011 96 269 5.3 -2
2012 111 171 4.8 1.7

My proposed Vizquel seasons puts him as a top-10 defender in the league 17 times, and at number one four times.  That’s a lot of times!  One might say way too many to realistically expect!  Hmmm…  Now let’s look at how my proposed Vizquel’s career defensive value stacks up against all post-War non-catchers.   This table was taken from the Craig Edwards piece cited at the start of my article by the way.

Most Defensive Runs Above Average
Player Def
Omar Vizquel Proposed 557.9
Ozzie Smith 375.3
Brooks Robinson 359.8
Mark Belanger 345.6
Cal Ripken 310.1
Luis Aparicio 302.7
Andruw Jones 281.3
Omar Vizquel Actual 263.8
Adrian Beltre 226.1

Yowza! That’s a lot of runs!

If the conclusion of this analysis isn’t obvious by now, here it is:  To make Omar Vizquel a Hall of Famer by boosting his fielding numbers, you have to make him really, REALLY good at defense.  Like capitalized, bolded, italicized REALLY good.  Twice as good as the metrics say.  182 runs better than Ozzie Smith.  You have to believe that he performed as a top-10 defender in the league from age 22 to age 40.  You’re saying he was peak-Andrelton Simmons for nearly two decades.  To argue Vizquel is worthy of the Hall of Fame, given his offensive value is what it is, you’ll have to argue that he was, by a considerable margin, the greatest defender of all time.

There are ways I could have made these proposed numbers a little more plausible.  I could’ve concentrated Vizquel’s defensive value more into his seven peak seasons, which would’ve meant he needed less career WAR to achieve the same JAWS score, but that would’ve made the value of those peak years absolutely absurd.  I could’ve lowered the bar, just trying to get him to, say, one standard deviation below the mean Hall of Fame shortstop JAWS score.  But that puts his value in the territory of the Joe Tinkers, Hughie Jenningses and Dave Bancrofts of the world, who’s own inclusion in the hall is questionable.  And I can’t see how doing any of these things would even get my proposed values down near Ozzie Smith. Ozzie Smith! Y’know, like,the greatest defensive shortstop of all time?

If you want to make the argument that Omar Vizquel is underrated by fielding metrics, that could very well be the case.  He was a great player who played on some phenomenal teams, and it’s plausible the metrics aren’t getting his fielding numbers quite right.  But just bumping up Vizquel a few runs here and there still isn’t going to get him anywhere near the Hall of Fame.  The bottom line is that a player who runs a 83 wRC+ over 24 years in the majors has an enormous amount of ground to make up with his defense if he is going to be Hall-worthy.

If you want to make the case that he is a Hall of Famer based on his fielding, as 37% of Hall voters seem to have, you are also going to have to inflate the value of his fielding to the point of absurdity.  It’s important to note just how good you’re implying he was.