This is the fourth part in a series of celebrating long-time players who we might see for the last time in 2012. This post and the one before on Pudge Rodriguez are difficult because the players in question have yet to sign deals for the 2012 season. The first three in the series also focused on what this writer figures to be Hall of Fame careers. Adding Omar Vizquel to this series runs into two problems then. First, we don't know if he'll get a job in 2012, and secondly, his career really doesn't seem like a Hall of Fame career. So why include Vizquel then?
For one thing, Omar Vizquel has been around forever. His career started six years before Jeter's. In Omar Vizquel's first season, Junior Griffey was nineteen years old, Edgar Martinez was not yet an every day player and Randy Johnson was not yet a full-time starting pitcher. Omar Vizquel was born in the 1960s. And he played his twenty-third season in Major League Baseball in 2011 at the age of 44.
But there is more to celebrate with Vizquel than just the fact that he's hung around forever. He is arguably the best fielding shortstop of his generation. Vizquel is third all time in shortstop assists. And, if you don't count Troy Tulowitzki--who has just begun his major league journey--Omar Vizquel has the highest fielding percentage of any shortstop in history. If you consider fielding percentage to have any value at all, Vizquel has had four of the top ten shortstop fielding seasons in that category. He also has a 22nd, a 26th, a 28th and so on. He has played more games at shortstop than any player in history.
But maybe defensive percentage is not your cup of tea. It's a statistic that has fallen out of favor in recent seasons. Baseball-reference.com rates Vizquel with the fourth highest shortstop in total zone runs of all time. The three ahead of him are Ozzie, Belanger, Ripken and Aparicio. Yes, those guys were pretty good.
Here's kind of a mind-boggling thing. Both Fangraphs and B-R rate Vizquel's 2007 season as his best season defensively. According to Fangraphs, he was 23 runs above average that season. B-R has him at 23 as well. Vizquel was 40 years old at the time. Oddly enough, that was the first year in a long time that he didn't win a Gold Glove. He won thirteen of those awards before that. 2007 was also his last season as a shortstop in a full season.
This writer's recollection of him was as a shortstop diving all over the place getting to balls one thought were by him, hopping up and making a lollipop throw to first to just barely get the runner. Vizquel never had a cannon for an arm. In fact it was more of the opposite. But he had a quick release and he was deadly accurate.
The thing that will keep Vizquel out of the Hall of Fame was his offense. In his twenty-three seasons in the majors, his OPS+ was only twice over 100. And he had only four other seasons where it was in the nineties. His career OPS+ sits at 82. He has a career OPS of .690. He's never lead the league in any offensive category except for sacrifice bunts (four times).
He was a throwback kind of shortstop to the era when shortstops were played because of their defense and not their offense. Earl Weaver would have loved him. But there are two things you have to love about Omar Vizquel's career. First, you could absolutely tell that he loved to play baseball. When he made a great play, his smile told you that he relished such moments. There was joy in his game. He never lost his little-boy thrill of playing baseball and you could see it. You don't hang around twenty-three years and long after you're a regular player without that. Lastly, Omar Vizquel made the very most out of his meager baseball skills. He was never a great or even a good hitter. But at least he made himself not to be an easy out. He had no arm and yet he's one of the great shortstops of this or any generation. And in a game where players are six foot, two inches tall or taller, he was, "Little O."
Just to leave you a taste of what this writer saw watching Omar Vizquel do during his career, we leave you with a patented Omar play, recorded when Vizquel was 43 years old. Imagine how good he was when he was in his prime. Yeah, he could pick it alright.