Saturday, January 30, 2010

All-Aught Indians--SS--Omar Vizquel (2000-2004)

There wasn't a more solid position in the Aughts for the Tribe than at shortstop. The first nine years of the decade were anchored by Omar Vizquel for most of the first five season and Jhonny Peralta for the next four. There couldn't have been more difference between the two. Vizquel certainly is the best defensive shortstop to ever don the Indians jersey, and one of the best defensive baseball players of all-time at any position. The Indians, tantalized by Peralta's offense, allowed the elder Vizquel to leave via free agency after the 2004 season. Peralta proved a plodding infielder who covered as much ground as a fire-hydrant. He found himself in Eric Wedge's doghouse more often than not, and has never found the offensive consistency that would have provided an excuse to keep his defensive liabilities at Omar's old haunts. The decade ended in full-circle, with another #13 roaming the position in Asdrubal Cabrera. The All-Aught Indians shortstop could only be Asdrubal Cabrera's hero growing up, Omar Vizquel.

When I think of Vizquel, I'll always remember the first time I met him during the 1996 season. He was signing autographs next to the dugout prior to a game against the Yankees at the Jake, and while signing, I asked him what made him so good defensively. Vizquel immediately started laughing...
I played wall ball bare-handed with a racketball, baseball, tennis ball, or whatever I could get my hands on. I'd play with a friend, and we'd play games. If you caught the ball, it was an out. If you dropped it, it was a run. I didn't lose many games.
A week or so later, I was sitting in the club seats, and sitting in the dugout was Vizquel. There were no other Indians to be seen, and there he was, throwing a baseball against the dugout wall, barehanded.

It's hard to put years around Vizquel's performances because they are so timeless. For every story I can come up with that had Vizquel turn and run to not-so-shallow left field to catch a ball over his shoulder, can be matched with countless similar stories. There were games in which you were sure that Vizquel was somehow playing both third, short and left field, he covered so much ground. Vizquel, seemingly every game, would find himself flying past second base, towards first, to rob a sure single from an unsuspecting batter.

We were spoiled, watching the magician flip the ball out of his glove towards second to start an inning-ending double-play. We were in awe, watching him move about twenty feet in about a half-second, plant, reach across his body, snag the ball, and nip the runner by about a millimeter on the throw. The jaws would drop when he would barehand a high-chopper that most couldn't get a glove on, and beat the runner by about 20 steps. There was nothing he couldn't do with the glove, and that was never in question even though he entered the decade at the age of 33.

It's hard to look forward, without first looking back, prior to the 2000 season. The Indians received Vizquel from the Seattle Mariners for El Gato, Felix Fermin. Talk about highway robbery. Vizquel came from Seattle having won his first gold glove. His defense would only improve, but the light-hitting offensive player also improved at the plate each year. From 1996-2000, Omar wouldn't bat under .280. His bat and smart base-running in the two-whole made him a valuable commodity OFFENSIVELY, as well as defensively.

Vizquel would win the gold glove in both 2000 and 2001. Even though the 2001 award would be his last as a member of the Indians, he could have, and likely should have won the award in both 2002 and 2004. The 2001 award was his ninth as a member of the Indians.

Omar was never an offensive juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination, but he wasn't a dog as some have professed him to be. Vizquel batted .333 in 1999, and followed that up by hitting at a .287 clip in 2000. He netted 101 runs and 22 SB batting second, to go along with 27 doubles. Vizquel saw his offense plunge in 2001, and many saw it as a pre-cursor to diminishing skills. He would rebound in a big way in 2002, however, batting .275 with 85 runs scored and 31 doubles. Vizquel would also mash a career high 14 home runs and roll out 72 RBI. The 14 homers matched his previous three-year totals combined.

Vizquel would struggle with injuries in 2003, and Jhonny Peralta threatened to take over the position. Vizquel would once again rise from the ashes in 2004 with another fine offensive season, batting .291, with seven homers, 59 RBI, 28 doubles and 82 runs scored. He stole 19 bases. It was his last season as an Indian.

To put Vizquel's numbers into perspective, you just need to compare his 21-year career to Jhonny Peralta's seven. Peralta, the offensive juggernaut, has a lifetime .266 average, while Vizquel's is .273. With the Indians, it's ten points higher. Vizquel has struck out just over 1,000 times. Peralta is closing in on 800 in his seven seasons. Sure, Peralta has more power, but it comes at a price.

Looking past the numbers, Omar's position in the two-hole behind Lofton was as important as Thome and Ramirez turned out to be. Vizquel was a magician at the plate, who seemed to be able to direct pitches foul whenever he needed to. Why was this important? He'd drive pitchers nuts while Kenny was hopping around first base. I wonder how many stolen bases Kenny should attribute to Omar?

Omar was also very adept at those nasty drag bunts to move Kenny, or another runner to second or third. He also managed more clutch hits down the line. Perhaps memory isn't serving me 100% correctly, but I seem to remember several balls in the outfield, down the line, driving opposing teams crazy.

Let's stop messing around with offense though. Vizquel isn't the All-Aught shortstop because of his offense. Defensively, there was none better. Top that off with his leadership role in the clubhouse that the Indians have yet to replace, and you have the consumate player of the 2000's. Vizquel was the last holdover to the great teams of the 90's. During that team's heydey, Vizquel was often the most overlooked player on a team loaded with offense. He wasn't truly appreciated in full until he quite literally became the leader of the team after the 2001 season (although some would say it happened before that).

What says the most to me about Vizquel is his memory. He never forgets. He often talks about a game in 1994 against the Royals in which he made three errors, which led to seven unearned runs, which led to a Royals victory. It was the game that changed his life as a baseball player..."made him a man," as he likes to say. It's funny many gold gloves many incredible plays later, and he still talks about that one game, in 1994, in which he made so many mistakes. The good ones are driven. The great ones are something a bit more. Vizquel is great, there's no doubt about it.

At the end of the day, Vizquel is the guy that literally lives the game of baseball, and does so with a smile on his face. When the Indians were considering bringing in Vizquel over this past offseason, the SABR-specialists began throwing out their numbers about why Omar was too old, and played too little. Unfortunately, the numbers rarely measure the heart, or the influence a player like Omar could play in the clubhouse for a team hunting for a leader.

In June of 2008, Omar Vizquel returned to Cleveland for the first time since he left the corner of Carnegie and Ontario in 2004. The Indians faithful gave Omar the welcome that he deserved before the game, a 90-second standing ovation. You see, Omar is one of us, a Clevelander through-and-through. He's not the guy pumping his fist at the opposing dugout like Joey, or wandering around the outfield looking for a four-leaf clover like Manny. He's not blazing down the basepaths at the speed of sound like Kenny, or mashing homers clear to Mentor like Jim Thome. He's just the little guy, working twice as hard as the rest, perhaps becoming better than them all.

During Omar's first at-bat, the crowd gave him another minute-plus standing O, and you could tell Omar could barely keep it all in. He grounded out, but of course, he nearly beat Andy Marte's throw with a head first, go for broke slide. It's Omar...he doesn't do it any other way.

That's what adds up to equal Omar Vizquel. The sum of his parts are much more than any statitistics, and even all those gold gloves. When it was all said and done, Omar was left standing, and perhaps the biggest influence for the organization from those grandiose teams of the 90's. I don't know when his last game will be, if it will be sometime this year, or next.

What I do know, is when it's all over and Omar has retired, if you look in a dugout somewhere where he's coaching perhaps, or maybe just reminiscing, you'll find #13, throwing a ball of the wall, trying to get the most outs.

Here's to you, lucky's been my pleasure...

The Two Thousand, Aught Shortstops: Omar Vizquel, Enrique Wilson, Jolbert Cabrera, John McDonald, Jhonny Peralta, Ricky Gutierrez, Zach Sorenson, Alex Cora, Ramon Vazquez, Hector Luna, Lou Merloni, Joe Inglett, Mike Rouse, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jorge Velandia, Luis Valbuena, Niuman Romero

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