How much should Hall of Fame voters care about defense?

Omar Vizquel won 11 Gold Gloves and played more games at shortstop than any other man in major league history. MLB Photos/Getty Images

Omar Vizquel made his major league debut a few weeks shy of his 22nd birthday, on Opening Day in 1989. Ken Griffey Jr. made his debut in the same game. Hitting eighth, one spot ahead of Vizquel, was another rookie named Edgar Martinez. A fourth rookie, Randy Johnson, joined those Seattle Mariners later in the season. The skinny, little shortstop from Venezuela hit .220 that season, with just 11 extra-base hits and one stolen base in 143 games. Yet he outlasted all his famous teammates, playing his final game in the majors when he was 45 years old.

Vizquel is on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, and though he isn't going to be elected this year, he’s faring reasonably well for a borderline first-time candidate, polling at 30.3 percent of the publicly revealed ballots, as registered by Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame tracker. That Vizquel is a serious Hall of Fame candidate is a minor miracle in itself, given his anemic hitting at the start of his career. Although he improved at the plate later on, his argument is a testament to his defense and longevity: He won 11 Gold Gloves and played more games at shortstop than any other man in major league history.

What’s interesting about Vizquel’s vote total is that this ballot features two other first-time candidates known for their superlative defense: Andruw Jones and Scott Rolen. Unlike Vizquel, both also were consistent threats at the plate. Jones, however, will struggle to remain on the ballot, as he is earning just 5.4 percent of the public vote, while Rolen has done just a little better, at 11.9 percent.

Vizquel’s 30 percent is a long way from the 75 percent needed for election, but it potentially puts him on the path to election. Of the 22 players the BBWAA has elected since 2006, five started with one-third of the vote total or less:

Bert Blyleven: 17.5 percent

Bruce Sutter: 23.9 percent

Tim Raines: 24.3 percent

Jim Rice: 29.8 percent

Goose Gossage: 33.3 percent

Beyond that group, Martinez, Vizquel’s Mariners teammate, started at 36.2 percent, then dipped to 25 and 27 percent in 2014 and 2015, but is currently polling at 81.1 percent on his next-to-last time on the ballot.

Vizquel’s ultimate election is dependent on the view that he was a transcendent defensive shortstop, the Ozzie Smith of the American League in the 1990s and early 2000s. While Smith had insane athleticism and acrobatic ability, Vizquel made defense look easy. He was known for his great hands. “I could watch him take grounders all day,” Buddy Bell, his coach with the Indians, once said. Vizquel could certainly make the acrobatic play as well -- he was known for his barehanded grabs -- but his success always seemed rooted in fundamentals. While his contemporary Derek Jeter had terrible mechanics, most notably throwing off the wrong foot, and Alex Rodriguez sort of bulldozed his way through playing shortstop, Vizquel always seemed in perfect balance, the guy who could stand on the big rubber ball and never fall off.

Was he as good as Ozzie? My opinion is that he was not. As fluid and smooth as he was, Vizquel didn’t have a great arm. At the peak of Vizquel’s career, Bill James wrote, “Vizquel is a very good defensive shortstop; whether he is actually the glove magician reflected in Gold Glove voting is a question capable of debate, and I am at best lukewarm about the media practice of anointing one man the king of shortstops, when there are other guys (Neifi Perez, Rey Ordonez, Miguel Tejada) who I think may be just as good.”

All of this gets into the complications that measuring defense creates for Hall of Fame candidates. Why the support for Vizquel and not Jones, who won 10 Gold Gloves in center field for the Atlanta Braves and hit 434 home runs? Why Vizquel and not Rolen, who won eight Gold Gloves at third base and hit .281/.364/.490 with 316 home runs and nearly 1,300 RBIs in his career?

Vizquel’s current percentage stands out in this chart of other players with outstanding defensive reputations who haven’t sniffed Cooperstown, even though some of them were also big-time hitters at times in their careers:

Quick explanation: We have years on the ballot, each player’s peak vote total, Gold Gloves, fielding runs above average from, defensive WAR (which includes a positional adjustment) and total WAR.

It’s the fielding-runs metric that gets a little tricky because different estimates are used based on the available information. Since 2003, Baseball-Reference uses defensive runs saved, which includes video review of every play from Baseball Info Solutions. Prior to that, the site uses Total Zone, a retroactive estimate.

That means different metrics for different players. James recently raised this issue on Twitter when he argued against Jones’ Hall of Fame qualifications, pointing out that the defensive metrics suggest Jones was a far superior center fielder than Willie Mays. During his 11-year peak from 1997-2007, Jones is credited with 238 fielding runs. Mays, during a similar 11-year run from 1954-1965, is credited with 156 fielding runs. Now, James isn’t necessarily arguing that Jones wasn’t better than Mays; while he was active, it was certainly popular to suggest that Jones was the best center fielder since Mays and maybe his superior. Jones played an incredibly shallow center field and maybe that allowed him to cut off many short hits while retaining the ability to go back on deeper balls. But was Jones so much better? His Hall of Fame case rests on the belief that, yes, he was much better than Mays.

Anyway, James followed with an article further outlining his point:

    Let’s say for the sake of argument that I am 100 percent comfortable with the runs saved estimates derived on behalf of Andruw Jones; in fact it might be 85 percent or 90 percent, but it doesn’t matter. Let’s say that we’re 100 confident in those numbers. The problem is that the Runs Saved estimates derived in this manner are much larger than the Runs Saved estimates derived by older methods, which are necessarily conservative because of the limitations of the data. They are not just larger for Andruw Jones; they are larger in general. They are larger for Andrelton Simmons than for Luis Aparicio. Andrelton Simmons’ dWAR as a first-year regular in 2013 was larger than Ozzie Smith’s career high.

Indeed, if I search for most fielding runs in an individual season since 1950 on Baseball-Reference, it leans heavily to more current seasons. The top five seasons by center fielders belong to Kevin Kiermaier, Darin Erstad and Carlos Gomez, followed by two Andruw Jones years. Kiermaier’s 2015 rates plus-42 runs, while Mays’ best season comes in tied for 49th at plus-21 runs.

At shortstop, eight of the top 10 seasons have come since 1999, with only a Mark Belanger season and one Ozzie season cracking the top 10. Simmons has three of the top 10 seasons, which gets us back to the Vizquel question: How do you feel about Andrelton Simmons as a Hall of Famer? Simmons is Vizquel with a better arm and, so far at least, a little better stick. In just five-plus seasons in the majors, Simmons already has more career fielding runs than Vizquel.

The metrics suggest that Vizquel was very good but not on the level of Smith or Simmons or Belanger. Maybe the metrics are missing something, and reputation and Gold Gloves should be valued higher than -- for part of Vizquel's career -- estimated defensive numbers.

For the most part, Hall of Fame players are selected for their bats. Since World War II, only four position players have been selected essentially because of their defense: Ozzie, Brooks Robinson, Aparacio and Bill Mazeroski. The first three were elected by the BBWAA and Mazeroski by the Veterans Committee (he peaked at 42.3 percent on the BBWAA ballot in his final year). As we can see from the chart above, even outstanding two-way players such as Jim Edmonds, Kenny Lofton and Keith Hernandez -- widely regarded as the best defensive first baseman of all time -- received minimal support.

Of course, those guys weren’t shortstops. Aparicio presents an interesting comparison to Vizquel, and not just because both are Venezuelan shortstops. Aparicio finished with the same 82 OPS+ as Vizquel. He won nine Gold Gloves and recorded a few more career fielding runs. Aparicio has a big advantage on the bases, as he is credited with plus-91 runs and led the American League nine consecutive seasons in stolen bases, compared to minus-1 for Vizquel, despite his 404 career steals. One more advantage for Aparicio is that if we look at wins above average instead of wins above replacement, he fares much better, at 20.4 compared to just 5.0 for Vizquel. Aparicio had seven seasons of 4.0 WAR compared to just two for Vizquel.

I’m not really arguing for or against Vizquel here or for or against Jones or for or against Rolen (though Rolen clearly has the strongest case of the three and would be the one I’d consider voting for). It’s really an argument about defense and how it should be valued and how the numbers we do have should be considered. For the most part, Hall of Fame voters haven’t cared all that much about defense in recent decades (the good defensive players who have been elected also have been good hitters). Suddenly, in the case of Vizquel, a large percentage of voters do care.

Are they right or wrong?