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February 7, 2002

More Mythmashing

First Ozzie, Then Omar? Hardly.

by John Brattain

Jack Morris isn't the only player seeing his career burnished by friendly sportswriters trying to make a Hall of Fame case. The Cleveland Morning Journal's Jim Ingraham is using the election of Ozzie Smith to beat the drums for Omar Vizquel.

With all due respect to Ingraham, you cannot compare the achievements of the two players. Superficially, they do seem similar: both are defensive geniuses with decent offensive skills. However, the similarities exist more in the mind than in reality. For example, Ingraham wrote:

"If you compare the career statistics of Vizquel to those of Ozzie Smith you'll find that Vizquel has a higher batting average (.274 to .262), a higher on-base percentage (.340 to .337), a higher slugging percentage (.351 to .328), a higher fielding percentage (.983 to .978), and a higher postseason batting average (.250 to .236) than Smith.

"Smith has more career hits (2,460 to 1,761), more stolen bases (580 to 273), and has scored more runs (1,257 to 919), but Smith also played 800 more major league games than has Vizquel."

After making these observations, Ingraham concludes:

"Five years after he retires, Vizquel should follow Smith to Cooperstown."

I'm not going to get into a Hall of Fame debate with the tired "If so-and-so is in and my guy looks similar therefore he should get in, too." (Well...I might do it a little.) What I would like to address is the implication that Smith and Vizquel are similar as hitters.

Ingraham's numbers, while correct, don't tell the complete story. When Vizquel played for the Seattle Mariners, he was basically the equivalent of Felix Fermin (for whom he was once traded), albeit better with the leather. Over the first six seasons of his career, Vizquel was slightly better with the bat than Rey Ordonez is now: .254/.310/.305. Since then, Vizquel is .286/.358/.374, a marked improvement. Nobody will mistake him for Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter, but then again, Vizquel is better than the likes of Ordonez or any flavor of Alex Gonzalez.

A .358 OBP is a nice number. If you have nine guys in your lineup with an OBP over .350, you're going to win a lot of ballgames. Of course, offensive numbers have exploded since 1994: could the improvement in Vizquel's numbers simply be the result of rising league averages?

Over the first six years of Vizquel's career, where he spent a good chunk plying his defensive wizardry in a hitters' park, the AL's aggregate OPS was 727. Vizquel's OPS was 615, a figure 15.4% worse than the league average.

Ouch.

That was then, this is now. The new and improved Vizquel has a 731 OPS since the strike. The AL's OPS since then is 776. In other words, despite still playing in a hitters' park, Vizquel is still below the league average offensively. To be sure, he has improved in relation to the league (he's now -5.6%; down from -15.4%), but he's still a sub-par hitter.

To put that in some kind of Hall of Fame context, Lou Whitaker (a fine glove man in his own right), was seven percent above the league average over his entire career, and almost 12% better than the AL over his best ten seasons. He went one-and-out on the Hall-of-Fame ballot.

How does Ozzie Smith compare to Omar Vizquel? Smith was a below average hitter in relation to the NL over his career. (NL: .257/.321/.382. Smith: .262/.337/.328; Smith was 5.4% worse than the league average.) Vizquel for his career (.276/.342/.353) is 7.7% worse than the AL (.268/.336/.417). Two quick points: one, Smith played in better pitchers' parks (Qualcomm Stadium/Busch Stadium) than Vizquel has (Kingdome/Jacobs Field). Two, Smith enjoyed a seven-year stretch from 1985-91 in which he was better than the league average, batting .278/.361/.350 in a league that was hitting .253/.318/.377.

How do Vizquel and Smith compare? We'll examine that using Lee Sinins's brainchild, Runs Created Against Position. Smith has 188 RCAP, which means that over the course of his career, he created 188 runs more than an average shortstop. Vizquel weighs in at five more runs than an average SS, so Smith created 183 more runs over the course of his career than Vizquel has.

What about peak value? We saw Vizquel's percentages since the strike, which have coincided with his best years. What's Vizquel's RCAP since the strike? Fifty-three. Over his seven best seasons, Smith had a RCAP of 164--hardly comparable.

Yes, you can argue that Vizquel suffers from playing in the same league as Rodriguez, Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejada, but isn't the Hall of Fame about dominance at a position? Who was more dominant offensively in relation to his peers: Smith or Vizquel?

"Dominance at position for a prolonged period," is a vague term, so at the risk of offending Bill James, I'll use the following qualifiers for Ozzie Smith's career. Here they are with explanations:

  1. National League (because of different parks)

  2. 9,000+ plate appearances (to show "prolonged period" of dominance. For the record, Smith is well over the 9,000 qualifier--he had 10,778 PA)

  3. From 1961-present (expansion era, also to show how he stacked up against his contemporaries)

  4. Use my favorite stat (RCAP)--using strictly offense as the guideline.

Smith's RCAP is #1 at shortstop in the National League and fourth overall in MLB from 1961-2001. The three players ahead of him--Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, and Alan Trammell--padded their totals at other positions. Smith was a full-time shortstop.

The top three offensive shortstops in the NL in the expansion era using RCAP are Ozzie Smith (188), Dave Concepcion (136), and Larry Bowa (-8). Smith is also second in OPS, just behind Concepcion (679 to 666).

Let's do a quick check on Vizquel. We'll have to lower the plate-appearance standard to evaluate him according to his peers, because he has just over 7,000 PA:

  1. American League (because of different parks)

  2. 7,000+ PA

  3. From 1961-present

  4. Again, use RCAP as the guideline.

Vizquel ranks 22nd according to this standard, with 24 RCAP, behind such luminaries as Freddie Patek, U.L. Washington, and Woodie Held. Remember when we said Smith was second in OPS using the above qualifiers? Vizquel's career OPS is ninth among his peers.

In short, although Vizquel's stats look superficially comparable to Smith's, they're really not. Stated another way, a .300, 30 HR, 100 RBI season is a lot more impressive in 1968 in Dodger Stadium than it would be in 1930 at Fenway Park. Ozzie Smith was a more dominant hitter than Vizquel has been.

Thanks to the good folks at baseball-reference.com we can do another comparison. Ozzie Smith scores a 35 on the HOF Standards Test (where an average HoFer score at 50; he scores 142 on the HOF Monitor, where 100 indicates a likely Hall of Famer.

Vizquel is at 24.9 and 52, respectively.

As we've mentioned, "dominance at his position over a prolonged period" is a good Hall of Fame criteria. Smith was regarded as the finest National League shortstop from 1980-92 as evidenced by his 12 straight Gold Gloves (13 overall) and All-Star selections (15 overall) from 1981-92. Can Omar Vizquel, with nine Gold Gloves and two All-Star selections, make such a claim? Ozzie Smith was the greatest all-around NL shortstop in the expansion era. We can't say that about Vizquel in the AL, not with a straight face.

To compare Smith to Vizquel is insulting to the Wizard of Oz, and when that comparison falls apart, so does Vizquel's argument for being a Hall of Famer.

John Brattain has covered baseball for About.com, MLBtalk, Yankees.com, TOTK.com Sports, and Bootleg Sports.

Related Content:  Omar Vizquel,  Lee Smith,  Ozzie Smith

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