June 27, 2012
The Platoon Advantage
The Eternal Shortstop
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.