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June 27, 2012

The Platoon Advantage

The Eternal Shortstop

by Bill Parker

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Last Saturday, the Blue Jays were in the middle of scoring six runs in the ninth inning against an imploding Marlins bullpen, to break a 1-1 tie and roll to a 7-1 win. With one out in the inning, one run already in, and runners on second and third, the Jays called on a little-used utility infielder, then hitting .228/.267/.228, to pinch-hit for pitcher Darren Oliver (whose career batting line is actually a tick better than that, but being an American League middle reliever, he hasn’t swung a bat since 2006). The pinch-hitter grounded into a fielder’s choice, with the runner on third gunned down at home, but would later come around to score on Colby Rasmus’ three-run homer.

That unsuccessful pinch-hit appearance isn’t the kind of thing that would generally kick off a Baseball Prospectus piece (especially four days later), and I can’t think of a single reason why it ever should, except that the pinch-hitter in this case was Omar Vizquel. And Omar Vizquel is 45 years old, and still (occasionally) playing in a major-league middle infield. On Tuesday, Vizquel announced that he plans to retire after this season.

I’m one of those who never got tired of all the Jamie Moyer talk. Okay, the “Jamie Moyer is so old that...” jokes got, well, old, but the actual facts of the story never bored me. He’s almost 50 years old and still playing high-level professional baseball after losing his entire age-48 season to injury. His big-league career is about as old as the average big-league player is. He’s faced 9 percent of all major league hitters, ever. It’s a pretty amazing story—even though he couldn’t keep the ball in the park often enough to keep it going for long—and I thought the anecdotes were really interesting.

I’m starting to think that what Vizquel has done is even better. Forty-five isn’t that much younger than 49, and the positions Vizquel plays most—second and short, this year—are awfully demanding positions, requiring a lot of athleticism. Though he doesn’t actually play much anymore (just 27 games this year, fewer than half of them starts), the fact that Vizquel is ready to handle the most demanding positions on the diamond, and that there’s at least one team willing to let him to do it, seems as impressive to me as a 49-year-old throwing 77 mph every fifth day or so.

Vizquel was born in the same year as Robin Ventura, Eric Karros, Bob Hamelin and Pat Listach. He shares a debut season with Joe Girardi, Chip Hale, and Kevin Appier—a season in which Kevin Mitchell and Paul Molitor led their respective leagues in WARP. That Vizquel is still playing feels like a sort of cosmic blip, like whoever’s supposed to be in charge of making sure baseball players age has just let one slip.

Vizquel is not the first position player to play at age 45, of course (he’s the seventh), nor is he the first to play in parts of at least 24 seasons (he’s the ninth). Those things in themselves are exceptionally rare, but what I think makes Vizquel’s case special is that he’s played all those years as a shortstop, and that he’s still playing shortstop.

Here are five things that I’ve determined are true, or are likely soon to be true about Omar Vizquel:

●      He’s logged more innings at shortstop than anyone in history. I’m not aware of any way to track this or anyone who has calculated it, so I looked at the top 20 players in games played among those who spent at least 75 percent of their careers as shortstops (Vizquel is second to Cal Ripken Jr., and has 900 more games than the guy in position no. 21, so that feels safe). Here’s what I believe to be the current top five: 5. Ripken, 20,232 innings; 4. Derek Jeter, 21,355; 3. Ozzie Smith, 21,785; 2. Luis Aparicio, 22406.2; 1. Vizquel, 22,922.2. Jeter could very well pass him sometime in the next two or three years, but for now, over these first 142 seasons, nobody has manned the shortstop position for more innings than Vizquel has.

●      He’s the oldest player to play even a single inning at shortstop. This one I’m entirely sure of: you can see the list here. He was one of only two 44-year-olds to fill that position, and has now outlasted Hall of Famer Bobby Wallace to become the only 45-year-old.

●      He’s the oldest player in more than 90 years to play even a single inning at second base. That list is here. Artie Latham at 49, Johnny Evers at 47 and Kid Gleason at 45 all got into a couple games at second, but none more than four games or more than two plate appearances, so it’s safe to say Vizquel is the oldest ever to play the position as something other than an extremely short-term gimmick or stopgap. And the last of those was in 1929. There hasn’t been even a 43-year-old second baseman since Luke Appling in 1935, and in fact, Craig Biggio (at 41, in 2007) is the only player aside from Vizquel in the last 20 years to have played the position after his age-40 season.

●      He’s the oldest player whose primary career position was shortstop to start a game, at any position. Charley O’Leary was a marginal big-league shortstop who played the last of his 10 seasons in 1913, aged 37; some 21 years later, the Browns called the now-58-year-old O’Leary back in for a single pinch-hitting appearance (he picked up a base hit and a run scored, and is, by five years, the oldest man ever to do either). In 1918, manager Hughie Jennings, aged 49, inserted himself in to replace first baseman Art Griggs very late in the game (Griggs had already gone 4-for-5); Jennings did not bat. Otherwise, nobody who played half of his career games at shortstop has ever made it to, or beyond, his age-45 season, except Vizquel.

●      He will be the last active player to have played a game in the 1980s. He and Moyer are the only ones left...and now they’re with the same organization! I’d be a bit surprised if Moyer made it back up, and very surprised if he were still with the Jays (or any big-league team) at the end of the season, and you’d have to scrape me off the floor if he’s on a roster next year, at age 50. So Vizquel—who debuted with a more-or-less full season in 1989—will very likely be the last vestige of the decade that gave us these uniforms.

There are things that frustrate me about Omar Vizquel. The first, and by far the most prominent—in common, I’d guess, with most of our readers—is that I think he’s very likely to make it into the Hall of Fame someday, very possibly (what with the PED backlash and all) as soon as five years from now, and I don’t think he’s anywhere close to deserving. At his very best, according to WARP and most similar measures, Vizquel was a solidly above-average starter, the kind of which a championship team needs several to complement its Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome. He gets support based on his hit total and on crazily inadequate, superficial comparisons to Ozzie Smith, who was better in every way (except, apparently, his desire to keep playing).

But “not Hall of Fame material” shouldn’t at all be the same thing as “forgettable” (I believe there’s an e-book coming out sometime soon founded on that basic premise), and what Vizquel has managed to do here shouldn’t be swept under the rug. He’s played a terribly demanding, terribly important, young person’s position more often, and later into life, than anyone has any business doing. And as meager as his playing time—and his performance, when he plays—may be right now, we’re not likely to see any 45-year-olds doing the same for a very long time.

Bill Parker is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bill's other articles. You can contact Bill by clicking here

Related Content:  Omar Vizquel,  Ozzie Smith

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