I’ve been wanting to say something about the Baseball Hall of Fame … and I worry that I will not quite hit the point and it will come out like I’m saying something else. Here goes anyway: The last few years, the Hall of Fame process has — more than ever, I think — become a comparative process.
That is to say, more and more players become eligible for the Hall of Fame and we compare the players to those who are already in the Hall of Fame. This is explicitly what Jay Jaffe does with his superb JAWS system. He uses WAR to compare a player’s career value and his peak value against the average Hall of Famer. JAWS has become very, very important in how people think about the Hall of Fame.
And that’s good. But it isn’t just JAWS. Every player who comes up for the Hall vote is at some point compared to Hall of Famers … and, to be clear here, so there is no mistake, NOBODY does this more than I do. I probably have spent half my lifetime word supply comparing Dan Quisenberry and Bruce Sutter, Tim Raines and Tony Gwynn, Luis Tiant and Catfish Hunter, Edgar Martinez and numerous Hall of Famers, on and on. I love doing this. I will not stop doing this. I intend to do this later in THIS VERY STORY.
So, again, please don’t miss the point of what I’m trying to say here.
What I’m trying to say is if we focus too much of our efforts on comparing players we end up missing something crucial.
Every player must cut his own path to the Hall of Fame.
I often write here about Hall of Fame wide receiver Charlie Joiner. Yes, that’s football, but I think it’s instructive. If you look at Charlie Joiner’s career now, it’s hard to understand how he was elected to the Hall of Fame. He only made three Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro just once. He never led the NFL in receptions, receiving yards or receiving touchdowns, and only once finished in the Top 3 in any of those categories. For Joiner’s career, he ranks 38th all-time in receptions (behind Eric Moulds), 24th in receiving yards (he was passed by Brandon Marshall) and 57th in receiving touchdowns (tied with Gary Clark and Henry Ellard among others). He never played in a Super Bowl. His postseason record is relatively humdrum; his two best postseason games he was overshadowed by tight ends, one a teammate (Kellen Winslow), the other an opponent (Raymond Chester).
This is not to knock Joiner’s career. He was a very good receiver for a long time. But why Hall of Fame?
The answer, I think, reflects something important, something maybe we’re losing when we talk and talk about the Hall of Fame: Charlie Joiner was unique. Every Hall of Famer is unique. When Charlie Joiner retired, he was the career leader in receptions and receiving yards. He may never have been the best receiver in the league and he was not always the best receiver on his own team, but no wide receiver had ever been as consistent and as durable as Joiner.
In other words: He was the FIRST to do something. And let’s not kid anybody: That matters. You might know that Roger Bannister was the first to run the four-minute mile or that Edmund Hillary (and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay) was the first to ascend to the summit of Everest. Others who followed may have been great too … but they’re not going to the Hall of Fame. Chuck Yeager was the first pilot to break the sound barrier and, as such, belongs in any pilot Hall of Fame. That doesn’t mean that every pilot since Chuck Yeager who broke the sound barrier belongs in the Hall of Fame.
And so it is with Charlie Joiner. His combination of longevity and productivity is very specific to him and his time. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame, that door closed behind him. You cannot be a Hall of Fame receiver by simply matching what Charlie Joiner did.
I say it again: You have to cut your own path. Comparisons are helpful, sure. But no one is elected and no one should be elected merely for the Hall of Fame caliber stats they put up or for how favorably they compare to others. These are guideposts. But the player is elected to the Hall of Fame for the individuality of their greatness, the memories they evoke, the uniqueness and awe-inspiring brilliance of their athletic performance.
There figures to be a Hall of Fame fight over Omar Vizquel, who is coming on the ballot for the first time this year. This is because Vizquel had an unusual career complete with extreme strengths and weaknesses. He won 11 Gold Gloves as a shortstop, second only to Ozzie Smith. He also finished his career with the fourth-most hits among shortstops behind Hall of Famers Honus Wagner, Cal Ripken and Robin Yount … and let’s be honest, Yount wasn’t even a shortstop for the last nine years of his career while Ripken played a lot more third base than most people remember. For lifetime shortstops, when it comes to hits you are talking Wagner and Vizquel.
On the minus side … Omar Vizquel really couldn’t hit. I mean let’s not kid anybody. The number of hits is a nice thing but Vizquel got a lot of hits because he played forever; he got at-bats until he was 45 years old. But he couldn’t hit.
Here are two splits:
Omar Vizquel: 272/.336/.352, OPS+ 82.
Player B: .271/.325/.316 OPS+ 82
There’s just not much difference there. When you consider that Player B played in a much lower run-scoring context — which is why his OPS+ is the same even though his on-base percentage and slugging percentages are lower — you see there’s no difference at all.
Player B is my hero Duane Kuiper.
But there’s a more compelling comparison to make here as you probably guessed from the title if this post. There are so many similarities between Luis Aparicio and Omar Vizquel. They were both brilliant defensive shortstops from Venezuela. They are roughly the same size. Vizquel won 11 Gold Gloves, Aparicio nine (there was no such thing as a Gold Glove the first two years of Aparicio’s career). They both played a long time and compiled a lot of hits and runs and general numbers. They were also both very, very light hitters. Aparicio’s OPS+, like Vizquel’s, like Kuiper’s, is 82.
Here are the raw numbers for comparison’s sake:
Aparicio: .262/.311/.343, 2,677 hits, 394 doubles, 92 triples, 83 homers, 1,335 runs, 736 RBIs, 506 stolen bases.
Vizquel: .272/.336/.352, 2,877 hits, 456 doubles, 77 triples, 80 homers, 1,445 runs, 951 RBIs, 404 stolen bases
As you can see: Vizquel generally has more.
Luis Aparicio is in the Hall of Fame.
So does that mean that Vizquel should be in the Hall of Fame?
Well, to be precise, there are actually two questions inside that one. The first question is: Do those remarkable similarities mean that Vizquel was as good or better than Aparicio? There’s a pretty strong argument that he was not. If you look at Wins Above Replacement and Wins Above Average, for instance, they suggest the two shortstops were not identical.
Aparicio: 55.7 WAR, 20.4 WAA.
Vizquel: 45.3 WAR, 5.0 WAA.
We have seen the raw numbers. We have noted the eerie similarities. Why would Aparicio rate so much better in WAR and WAA statistics?
Well, it’s actually pretty simple. A pinch of it comes down to defense — Aparicio rates a bit better as a defender even though both are all-time great defenders. A pinch of it comes down to offense — even though the Vizquel’s numbers look a bit better, he played in such a different time he actually was more below average than Aparicio.
But, really, the main difference comes down to baserunning. They both were subpar hitters. They were both fantastic defensive shortstops. But Aparicio rates as a sensational baserunner, one of the greatest of all time. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise; Aparicio led the league in stolen bases his first nine seasons. Baseball References credits him for 91 runs above average as a baserunner and 17 runs above average for avoiding double plays. Really, really strong.
Vizquel for his career was one run BELOW average as a baserunner, even with all those stolen bases (he was caught A LOT) and nine runs above average for his double play avoidance. That’s a 100-run difference, Basically, that’s enough of a difference to create the 10-win gap between the two players.
Fangraphs figures things differently but comes to more or less the same conclusion: Aparicio at 49.1 WAR, Vizquel at 42.6 WAR, with the sizable difference being their baserunning value.
So, it might not be fair to say that Vizquel is as good a player as Aparicio. I don’t think Vizquel was quite a good player as Aparicio.
But let’s go to the second part of this: What is Vizquel IS as good? I love player comparisons. I do. But in the end, I think that even if you think Vizquel was every bit as good as Aparicio that does not mean that he belongs in the Hall of Fame. Not. At. All.
See: Luis Aparicio was just the second player from Venezuela to become an everyday player in the big leagues (after Chico Carrrasquel, who debuted six years earlier). He was the first great Major Leaguer from Venezuela and a great hero to his country. He was a pioneer as well as a star. He was a daring baserunner at a time when almost nobody else in the American League played that way (he led the league with 21 stolen bases as a rookie). He was not only a great defensive shortstop but a genius at the position, a maestro, a groundbreaker. Mark Belanger, who has his own case as the greatest defensive shortstop, used to study Aparicio, watch his every move. Aparicio was so admired around the game by players and writers and everybody that he almost won an MVP award in 1959 even though he hit .257 with no power. Ten different seasons he got an MVP vote. And everybody knew he couldn’t hit.
Vizquel got one eighth place MVP vote in his entire career.
The point is, Luis Aparicio is in the Hall of Fame because of what Luis Aparicio did. He didn’t create a “no-hit, good-field” shortstop route into the Hall. He created a Luis Aparicio route to the Hall of Fame. All of his talents, all of his flaws, his background, his style, his boldness as a player, the way he carried himself, the things teammates and opponents said about him, all of this is what convinced 84.6% of the voters to say, yes, this guy’s a Hall of Famer.
Vizquel walks his own path. I’ll repeat this again: You will not find a bigger fan of Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system than me (and I am including Jay’s wife Emma in this). You will not see me slow down with the Hall of Fame comparisons because they are fun and they can be illuminating. But I take it too far. I think a lot of us take it too far. How Omar Vizquel compares to Aparicio, Rabbit Maranville and Phil Rizutto (or for that matter Barry Larkin, Cal Ripken and Honus Wagner) will not define his Hall of Fame case. Was he a transformational player? Did he fundamentally change baseball? Was he the best player in the game? Close? Was he the player you would build a championship team around? Was he so unique that he inspired others to play like him? Was there a singular thrill in watching this player play? Were there things he did that nobody else could do?
And so on. Maybe we should try to come up with a new “Keltner List” — those questions Bill James came up with to think about a player’s case for the Hall of Fame. Because: Why do we have a Hall of Fame? To remember. And what is worth remembering? That’s the most important question, really.