Inducting Defense

Omar Vizquel was one of the best defensive shortstops of his era, but is he a Hall of Famer? (via Bryce Edwards)

You don’t have to get lost in a corn maze to find an internet strawman eager to discuss Omar Vizquel’s candidacy for the Hall of Fame. The 11-time Gold Glove-winning shortstop enjoyed an outstanding career and is highly admired in the game, his recent dismissal as Detroit Tigers first base coach notwithstanding. There are writers who believe he ultimately will be elected and others who unequivocally disagree. Flipping through Jay Jaffe’s essential exploration of the Hall of Fame election process, “The Cooperstown Casebook,” the Sports Illustrated columnist expects Vizquel’s Hall of Fame prospects to become “A battle that echoes the Jack Morris fight come 2018.”

The unexpected education you receive when reading Jaffe’s summer 2017 release is in his highlighting of the Fielding Runs statistic, abbreviated as “RField.” Sean Forman’s Baseball-Reference defines this stat as the “Number of runs better or worse than average the player was for all fielding. Fielding of balls in play, turning double plays, outfield arms and catcher defense are all included.”

Vizquel is a top-20 career shortstop based on this metric, but compare that to Baltimore Orioles infield great Mark Belanger, who heads the list with 241, a number that is actually second for defensive players overall. You can spend a whole night of beer-fed barguments over whether Belanger or Ozzie Smith is the greatest defensive shortstop of all time, but that’s not getting Brooks Robinson’s infield sidekick anywhere near Cooperstown. Is that a shame? Perhaps it’s time to give elite defensive players their public due, but I still wanted to hear another opinion, one much closer to this debate than I ever could be.

“We played in A Ball – at Aberdeen for Cal Ripken Sr. back in 1964,” Hall of Famer and Baltimore Orioles pitching great Jim Palmer told me in a recent interview. “To give you an idea of how good that team was, we won 14 games in a row out of spring training. Dave Leonard was 16-4, Eddie Watt was 14-1, I was 11-3, Mike Davidson was 11-4, and Mark was our starting shortstop. He hit somewhere in the .220-.230 range and was named rookie of the year for the Northern League, hitting under .230. Everyone knew how good he was defensively, even in A-ball.”

Sounds very familiar to the 1971 World Series champion Orioles, which included four 20-game winners, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, and of course Palmer himself.

With Belanger behind them there, too.

“I started out with (Hall of Famer) Luis Aparicio behind me at short in 1966. Mark was very similar–he never moved from his spot. Rarely saw “Blade” (Belanger’s nickname) dive for a ball; he never believed in it. Once I remember Blade did a somersault off a screaming shot from Frank Robinson when he played against us on the Angels. Nailed him at first. Belanger was a marvelous shortstop. Never wore a protective cup, either. He was that sure of himself and his hands. Knew all the hitters, smart instincts on positioning and turning the double play.”

So Belanger should be in the Hall of Fame then, right? Not so fast, Palmer says.

“In 1969, the great Charley Lau became the Orioles’ hitting coach. He insisted that Belanger take extra batting practice all the time. He cut his strikeouts in half from ‘68, he hit .287, the highest mark of his career. Sometimes I think if Lau hadn’t taken that extra $5,000 to go to Kansas City after the season ended, maybe Blade hits enough to be in the Hall of Fame.”

Palmer went on to answer the question by citing the difference in batting coaches’ approaches with the gifted shortstop.

“Jimmy Frey, a smart baseball man, became the Orioles’ hitting voach in 1970. He asked Mark repeatedly to take extra batting practice, ‘C’mon, let’s go get extra,” but Blade would just politely say, ‘Eh, I’m fine,” and keep taking ground balls. So Jimmy stopped asking. I’d be in the dugout with Belanger before a start and say to him, “Can you hit three fair for me today,’ and Blade would nod and say, ‘You bet,’ and some days he would.”

“He hit Nolan Ryan pretty well, hit Jimmy Kern and Goose Gossage really well. He hit high fastball guys, but hitting just wasn’t important to him. Don’t forget, he was also a tireless worker for the Players’ Union. He loved that job and was outstanding in that role. If Belanger gave as much attention to hitting as he did to his glove work and union duties, he would be a Hall of Famer. As it stands now though, I have to say no.”

Which brings us back to Vizquel’s case.

“Omar was an acrobat,” Palmer said, “A Robbie Alomar-type shortstop. It was like watching a ballet, those two, and Alomar was like the Baryshnikov of second basemen; Vizquel was like that as well. Tremendous range, so strong going to his right, but when guys are that quick it really doesn’t matter. Vizquel wasn’t as good as Belanger, but he made all the plays. Dallas Green used to call guys like Belanger and Vizquel ‘Two-Out Shortstops,’ which meant when the batter hit the ball to them, the surrounding players could simply run off the field because you knew it was a done deal.”

Card Corner Plus: Dick Green and His Fumbling Photo
A brief history of the man behind an oddball image.

Palmer’s deeply informed perspective on his former teammate creates a compelling debate over whether we should we start celebrating historically elite defenders regardless of their overall numbers. Do you know who the greatest defensive first baseman is by Fielding Runs? Albert Pujols, with +139. The two-time Gold Glove winner known almost exclusively for his bat posted the only +30 Defensive Runs Saved season for first sackers.

Not even Keith Hernandez, who’s listed in the second spot with +117, hit that mark. For comparison, Pujols is also the number one first baseman according to dWAR. Of course, one statistic is baked into the other, but there are quite a few instances in which the ballpark adjustment flips the ranking between the two greatest defenders at a given position, like with Belanger and Ozzie.

The “eye test” has Hall of Famers Joe Gordon and Bill Mazeroski listed atop the second basemen rankings according to the stat, with +150 and +147, respectively. Number three is someone who is evolving in my opinion as a strong Hall of Fame candidate,: Chase Utley.

Another insight gleaned from Jaffe’s book is how the eye test can be somewhat misleading. Pittsburgh Pirates great Pie Traynor, known during his time for his expert glove work at third base, actually compiled -32 Fielding Runs in his career. However, the immortal double-play trifecta of Tinker (No. 4 at shortstop), Evers (No. 6 at second base) and Chance (No. 15 all time at first base) more than lives up to the myth.

Was Theo Epstein ahead of the curve by giving Jason Heyward that $184 million-dollar contract? The Cubs’ defensive whiz is currently third all-time in Fielding Runs with +158 for right fielders, behind Roberto Clemente (+205) and–wait for it–Jesse Barfield with +161, whom Heyward will no doubt pass next season. (He’s already ahead of the former Blue Jays star in dWAR.) Do you know who’s third all-time among left-fielders? Brett Gardner, the lone remaining Yankees player who roamed the old-new stadium in the Bronx, with 122, behind Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski and the Hall-worthy Barry Bonds.

Going around the diamond, we see defense-fueled Hall of Fame debates at nearly every position. Third baseman Scott Rolen is third all-time with +175 in Fielding Runs, right ahead of Buddy Bell with +174, and the former Rangers and Indians third-sacker has really never been on anyone’s Cooperstown radar. This year’s All-star Game MVP, Yadier Molina, is second with +115 Fielding Runs at catcher, passing highly-respected though largely-forgotten defensive whiz Jim Sundberg by one. Braves star Andruw Jones leads all outfielders with +236 runs saved. Even Jim Rice is among the all-time leaders in left field with +24. Take that, eye test.

Ultimately, while Vizquel enjoyed an outstanding career, came within striking distance of 3,000 hits, and holds the strong admiration of Hall of Famers like Jim Palmer and insiders around the league, he’s not nearly one of the top 10 shortstops of all time. His 82 OPS+ in the era of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra does him no favors, and with the backlog of powerhouse offensive stars like Chipper Jones, Jim Thome and Rolen joining an already-crowded ballot that includes Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker, Manny Ramirez, Fred McGriff–and fellow ’90s offensive shortstop Miguel Tejada joins the rolls next season, no doubt siphoning off a vote or two–the former All-Star might need to wait a little while.

Keep in mind this thought: Vizquel’s stats make him a near statistical replicant of Hall of Fame Shortstop Rabbit Maranville, with both having the exact same ERA+ at 82. Still, it took 16 rounds to get Maranville into Cooperstown, and that was with much, much less ballot competition and an anonymous voting system.

While the NFL Hall of Fame process celebrates defensive players as much as offensive stars, and while we acknowledge this as necessary due to the lack of two-way players in that sport, as we move closer and closer to league-wide non-hitting pitchers, it may be time to reconsider the defensive elite, the Belangers, the Paul Blairs and Jimmy Piersalls (tied for third among center fielders behind Jones and Mays) for our adoration and enshrinement.

Elite defense is well worth celebrating, and if you follow the actions of Theo Epstein, maybe well worth paying for, too.


Dave Jordan is the co-author of Fastball John, the memoir written with former National League Rookie Pitcher of the Year John D’Acquisto. Dave is also the founder of Instream Sports, the first athlete-author website. Follow him on Twitter @instreamsports.
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Dominikk85
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Dominikk85
If vizquel gets in it probably is because he has 2800 hits on top of all his Gold gloves. he was a bad hitter but still his runs and hits probably have some shine on top of all of the Gold glove. now modern hitting stats will push Omar down a Little as voters get more modern, but then again some voters might even see that as a positive (the guy did it “the right way” i.e. without steroids). on defense alone it is very hard. just look at edmonds. he was an elite CF while hitting like kris bryant… Read more »
Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard
The inequality between appreciation of defensive and offensive skills is a matter of perception. Home runs, RBI’s, and extra base hits are easy to visualize. Ditto strike outs which are more akin to the dramatic. But a good fielder such as Belanger or Blair made the difficult look easy. Belanger knew batters’ habits so what would be a great play was made to look normal. My hunch is that these “routine” plays occurred a lot more than people could ever realize or appreciate. The flip side of my hunch is that many great fielding plays are a result of misjudging… Read more »
Lunch Angle
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Lunch Angle

Belanger was that good without diving for balls? Imagine if he had!

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

He was that good. In the mid 70’s, the Orioles had four players (Belanger, Robinson, Grich, and Blair) who together won over 30 gold gloves. You will read many articles on the web about how overrated the Orioles’ pitching was in this era and how their success was due to their defense. The prime of their pitching dynasty corresponds almost perfectly with the best years of their defense.

tramps like us
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tramps like us
Their hitters were no slouches, either. Frank Robinson, Boog Powell. Great bullpen too. The 1969-71 Orioles are probably among the top 10 teams of all time. 1969 team won 109, 779 runs, 2.83 ERA, +262 run differential; 1970, 108 wins, 792 runs, 3.15 ERA, 218 run differential; and 1971, 101-57, 742 runs, 2.99 ERA, 212 run differential. Only won the series once, which is likely why they don’t get much attention for that statement. This has to be one of the most COMPLETE teams of all time. Tremendous defense and pitching, and very good hitting (those runs scored totals weren’t… Read more »
Las Vegas Wildcards
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Las Vegas Wildcards

Mark Belanger was a strong fielder, but let’s not get carried away. His bat was a major negative, and those Orioles team could have used more offense from Belanger in those WS defeats. Omar Vizquel was easily the superior, more valuable player.

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

Interestingly, if Vizquel makes the HOF, he will be the only HOF teammate of Barry Bonds. But Jeff Kent and Tim Lincecum have a chance.

If you play for over 20 years, you tend to end up being teammates with a future HOFer. Tony Gwynn played with Rickey Henderson, Roberto Alomar, Goose Gossage, and Trevor Hoffman (assuming he gets in).

Mike Piazza had: Alomar, Henderson, Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez, and Hoffman. There is also Carlos Beltran.

Henderson had 14: Morgan, Eckersley, Gossage, Gwynn, Piazza, Winfield, Molitor, Alomar, Niekro, Murray, Martinez, and assuming Hoffman, Beltre, and Alex Rodriguez

Morris Buttermaker
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Morris Buttermaker

Gwynn also played with Winfield, who went in the Hall as a Padre and Piazza and Ozzie Smith who everyone forgets spent time with the Pads.

Also Kent belongs in and I also laugh about Lincecum having a shot.

Barney Coolio
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Barney Coolio

Actually, Winfield and Smith left San Diego before Gwynn arrived, and Piazza came after Gwynn had retired.

Adam S
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Adam S

“But Jeff Kent and Tim Lincecum have a chance.”

Thanks for the laugh.

tramps like us
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tramps like us

Jeff Kent’s power numbers are right there with any second baseman in history. EVER. Maybe your sense of humor needs an adjustment.

377 home runs (most all-time for 2B)
1,518 runs batted in (3rd most-all-time for 2B)
560 doubles (4th most all-time for 2B)
.500 slugging % (2nd most all time for 2B)
.290 BA, .356 OBP, .500 SLG, .855 OPS, 123 OPS+
2000 NL MVP (.334 BA, 33 HR, 125 RBI)
5-time All-Star
55.2 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement)

Dominikk85
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Dominikk85

I think Jeff kent actually should be in the hall although he won’t make it. lincecum has no Chance of course.