It’s fair to say that baseball’s Hall of Fame is relatively meaningless and therefore any argument about its membership is fundamentally kind of stupid; that does not preclude some of those arguments from being stupider than others. There are any number of arguments here—specifically about given players, more broadly about the principles of enshrinement—that are nuanced and interesting and provide plenty of room for reasonable debate. And there is a core set of arguments that are reductive and dumb and cannot be engaged with in good faith, and yet these are often the same ones that are dragged out for baseball to collectively suffer through every damn year.
Most arguments about steroids fall into that latter category. Many arguments about the relevance of WAR do, too. There is—almost every year, it seems—a player whose candidacy gets reduced to a limp, reheated debate over the validity of advanced metrics. Omar Vizquel is becoming that player this year. The argument for his induction is devolving into something like this: “WAR is dumb, check the eye test, he belongs in the Hall” versus “what, seriously, no.”
The conventional wisdom of the eye test here casts Vizquel as a defensive wizard who, while light-hitting, played long enough and at a high enough level to approach the 3,000 hit club. That seems like a pretty decent case for the Hall. But that case gets harder to support if you turn to basically any statistics at all to hold it up. There’s a sub-.700 career OPS and a total wins above replacement figure that places him solidly out of the sport’s top 200 position players by any measure (219th by Baseball-Reference’s WAR, 275th by FanGraphs, 319th by Baseball Prospectus). Some defensive metrics back up his reputation in the field; others don’t quite. Those with a zone-based approach to defense—like the total zone rating that Baseball-Reference uses for the defensive component of its WAR for pre-2003 seasons—place him among the game’s 10 best defensive shortstops, while a metric like Baseball Prospectus’s fielding runs above average, which uses play-by-play data to compare a player’s performance to the average, leaves him outside of the top 75.
In his first year up for induction, Vizquel has so far been listed on 28 percent of public ballots. Voter Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle laid out the argument for him in a piece this week titled “Why Omar Vizquel is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.” Schulman’s case is pretty straightforward: many younger voters don’t value defense as highly as they should and therefore don’t recognize the shortstop’s greatness, he says, and they don’t grasp the importance of racking up nearly 3,000 hits, no matter how many years it took Vizquel to get there. Schulman ends the piece here:
Stats are important, and newer metrics that better compare players through different eras are valuable. But they are the sum of a player’s career. If you use numbers alone to shunt Vizquel into that mythical Hall of the Very Good, it’s a fair bet you did not see him play.
Sometimes a man is a Hall of Famer because, well, he just is.
That led here:
And the discussion—though not directly through Schulman—ended up somewhere around here, in this bad place, with these thoughts from his Chronicle colleague Bruce Jenkins:
(For another version of this, see this New York Daily News column by Bill Madden from earlier this month: “[T]here’s Vizquel, whose 45.3 WAR is dwarfed by the 76.5 of Ozzie Smith, the shortstop he is most compared to. Sorry. You can’t tell me there was that much of a difference between these two superb defensive shortstops... I do not use WAR—a stat based on imaginary players that even its proponents are hard-pressed to define—as a criteria for determining a Hall of Famer. It seems to me, it’s a bogus stat designed for making the case for players who are not Hall of Famers. Rather, I have two very simple Hall of Fame criteria: The first is the ‘see’ test.”)
It’s very easy to build a case against the present forms and uses of WAR; all three versions of the metric have admitted flaws, the defensive portions especially. But arguing against focusing on the metrics as unassailably accurate and sufficient tools—a valid point, and also a giant straw man—is not arguing against the idea of paying attention to such metrics. The latter is reductive and ill-informed, and also extremely tired. Baseball has argued this before. Baseball is now decades into arguing this. I don’t even want to finish this paragraph. This is all so old.
There is an interesting case to be made for Vizquel. One can argue that he’s a player who’s perhaps undervalued by defensive metrics for one reason or another. One can acknowledge the bleak case laid out by the numbers and then build an argument not around the idea that those numbers do not matter, but instead around the idea that other things can or should matter more than the numbers. One can argue that Vizquel’s 82 OPS+ shouldn’t be disqualifying because, hey, look at the other middle infielders with similarly low figures who compiled more than 2,500 hits: Luis Aparicio, Rabbit Maranville and Nellie Fox are all Hall of Famers.
The above points make a somewhat interesting case—not a great or even necessarily a good one, as there are easy and strong rebuttals for all of them. But they make a case that does not directly lead into yet another miserable paraphrase of one of the game’s most boring and wrung-out arguments. They make a case that is a better use of everyone’s time than stripping the whole thing down to a dumb, derivative battle between the narrative and the stats. They make a case that does not do a disservice to Vizquel and everyone else involved.
Please stop this weak shit. I cannot take any more.