Monday, February 18, 2013

Omar y Amigos

Back in the mid-90s, the Indians radio network carried a pregame feature before Sunday afternoon games called "Kenny's Kids". It was your standard bolierplate schlock--little kids given tickets to the game through the Indians charities or Kenny Lofton's foundation or something of the sort would get to listen to Kenny talk to another Indian, or get to ask him questions ("Mr. Wofton, Mr. Wofton, how do I get to be a baseball player?")

Then Kenny got traded prior to the 1997 season, and this grave duty fell to Omar Vizquel. The segment was renamed "Omar y Amigos". When Lofton came back the next year, Kenny's Kids did not return; Omar y Amigos continued. So if you ever thought there wasn't an upside to getting traded, then returning to your former club as a free were wrong.

Title exposition aside, I'd like to discuss Omar Vizquel's place in history. This is a standard boring article written at a low level of sabermetric literacy, one you can safely skip if you're not interested in comparing players' careers across the years (or if you value peak over career). The goal is not to pinpoint a ranking and say that "Omar Vizquel is the fourteenth best shortstop of all-time" or anything like that, just to get a general sense of how he compares to other great shortstops.

One of the most common comparisons for Vizquel, particularly among mainstream thinkers, is Ozzie Smith. The comparison generally assumes that the two provided similar value in the field, and thus can be compared on the basis of their offensive production:

It is easy to see why many traditional, context-free glances at the stats result in considering Vizquel to be Smith's equal. He hit for a higher average, hit fifty more homers, and both drove in and scored over 150 more runs than Ozzie. He hit for a better slugging average while getting on base at the same rate. Smith does have an advantage in basestealing, swiping 176 more bases than Vizquel while getting caught 19 fewer times.

Of course, as a sabermetrically-informed reader you know that context is king. It makes a huge difference; Vizquel played in parks with a composite PF of 1.01, while Smith played in parks with a park factor of .98. Much more significantly, Vizquel played in leagues in which the average team scored 4.81 runs per game; teams in Smith's leagues averaged 4.15 runs per game. Combining the two, Vizquel played in a context in which 19% more runs were scored.

Any serious analytical approach is going to take that into account, and rather than emerging as the superior hitter, Vizquel will assuredly come out as inferior to Smith. Compared to a league average hitter (comparable to Palmer's Batting Wins, except counting stolen bases), I have Smith at +2 wins for his career and Vizquel at -23, with Smith’s RC/out relative to the league average bettering Vizquel’s 102 to 86. Not all methods think the gap is that large (see Technical Note below), but the other commonly used sabermetric methods concur that Smith was a better offensive player: he leads in TAv (.250 to .243), wRC+ (90 to 84), and OPS+ (87 to 82).

Even if one accepts that Smith and Vizquel were similar fielders, they are not particularly close in offensive value. Unless one wants to make the claim that Vizquel was a much better fielder than Smith, Ozzie is the more valuable player--easily.

Engaging in a little bit of unhealthy stereotyping (on both baseball and ethnic levels) one can find decent comparables for Vizquel in three players: Luis Aparicio, Bert Campaneris, and Dave Concepcion. I don't mean to suggest that these three are the most comparable players to Vizquel, but they are obvious comparisons as they are all shortstops, all Latin, all from the expansion era, and all are known for their glovework. One could of course compare Vizquel to players from other positions, or shortstops who arguably were roughly as valuable but with a different offense/defense split than Vizquel (like Jim Fregosi, Tony Fernandez, Junior Stephens, Edgar Renteria, or Miguel Tejada), but comparisons to the aforementioned trio are irresistible:

Once again, it is easy to see why Vizquel is highly regarded in the mainstream when looking at the raw statistics. Most people, presented with that data alone, would choose Vizquel. When park factors and league averages are considered, though, it is clear that Vizquel played in a much more offense-friendly time and place:

The final column is Vizquel's run environment (N*PF, where N is the league average runs/game) as a ratio to the others. Runs were 18% more common in Vizquel's games than Aparicio's, 25% versus Campaneris', and 17% versus Concepcion's. The result is that while Vizquel has -23 hitting WAA, Concepcion has -2, Campaneris -3, and Aparicio -10. (See technical note for an explanation of why the differences are greater than some other methods show).

Let’s suppose you refuse to consider sabermetric measures, and want to limit your offensive evaluation only to what you protest are “actual” runs--runs scored and RBI. For the sake of argument, I’ll play along, as long as you allow me to consider league context and outs made. (See this post for the full details on how these are figured, but essentially R+ is runs scored per out relative to league average, RBI+ is the same for RBI, ANY is the average of R+ and RBI+, and ANYA is the average of runs scored above league average and runs batted in above league average).

When you do, it becomes clear that Vizquel’s runs scored and batted in totals are not as impressive as those in this peer group:

Vizquel scored fewer runs per out than his league average; only Concepcion joined him, but Concepcion had the best RBI rate of the five. In terms of the average, Vizquel is well behind the others at just 83% of league average R and RBI per out.

I'm sure that any Vizquel partisan who is still reading is screaming "What about fielding?" I don't have any particular insight to lend on that question; all I can do is regurgitate the figures that others have published. Bill James, in Win Shares assigns fielders letter grades based on their Defensive Win Shares per inning rates. Vizquel (through 2001) is evaluated as a B- shortstop, with Aparicio and Campaneris earning Bs and Concepcion an A+. As you know, Win Shares fielding ratings are based on a top-down team evaluation without the benefit of play-by-play data.

Chone Smith's TotalZone method uses Retrosheet batted ball locations to estimate runs saved compared to an average fielder. Smith's RAA results for the four almost flip James' rankings on their head, with Aparicio estimated to have saved 149 runs (adding in the double play component) above an average shortstop, Vizquel 144, Campaneris 62, and Concepcion 50.

TotalZone certainly deems Vizquel to have been an outstanding fielder, but not to such an extent that it elevates him significantly above this pack. And thus, in Chone's WAR figures, Vizquel ranks comfortably head of Concepcion but behind Aparicio and Campaneris. Even with a more generous evaluation of Vizquel's prowess in the field, it's difficult to argue that he was clearly superior to the other members of this group.

In Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA, Vizquel ranks as the lowest of the four with just 14 (Campaneris 31, Concepcion 56, Aparicio 109). This contributes to Vizquel ranking 20 WARP behind Campaneris, 17 behind Aparicio, and 6 behind Concepcion.

That leaves the matter of his reputation as a fielder, which is considerable, and often in mainstream discussions is assumed to be nearly on par with Ozzie Smith. You can decide for yourself how much weight to place on non-statistical evaluation of fielding. The only strong suggestion I'd make is not to place too much emphasis on the evaluation of any one particular individual--including my own take on Vizquel which follows, which I offer not because I think it's particularly insightful but because it's my blog.

I watched Omar Vizquel play shortstop more than any other shortstop--I find it hard to imagine that I'll ever watch anyone more in the future. Most of this occurred during my formative years as a baseball fan, so it is quite possible that it has forever tinged my perception of shortstop fielding--that I am unable to fairly evaluate other shortstops I watch because my expectations for a major league shortstop have been set largely by watching Omar Vizquel.

In any event, I don't have much of a pre-Vizquel frame of reference to offer. I can't say that I was never impressed by Omar Vizquel because he didn't look as good to me as Ozzie did, or as Campaneris did. What I can tell you is that, in watching other shortstops after watching Vizquel, I have never felt that I was watching pale imitations of the master.

Vizquel certainly stands among the best shortstops I've seen myself, possibly even the best. But he does not tower over them. I do think that Vizquel did things with as much flair as anyone I've watched--the barehand grab-and-throws, the back turned to the plate catches of outfield pops. But when you rely on observation, flair can be misleading. It's flair that gets you on SportsCenter, not workman-like consistency. It's the flashy play that gets burned in most people's memories, not the routine play or even the tough play made in the hole with a strong plant-and-throw.

None of this is to say that Omar Vizquel was not an outstanding fielder and a fine all-around player. He was, but so were Aparicio, Campaneris, Concepcion, and others who don't form as natural of a comparison group. His reputation seems to place him in a higher class, at least at this time. These assessments seem to be based on a very rosy assessment of his fielding prowess, a lack of recognition of the high-offense era in which he played, or a combination thereof.


I did not make any allowance for players in DH leagues, which is part of the reason you'll see discrepancies between the WAA/WAR figures for players listed here and those from Pete Palmer, Chone, and other sabermetricians. Vizquel spent the majority of his career in DH leagues, but Campaneris is the only other player discussed who spent a significant amount of his career in them.

Swapping out pitchers for DHs has the effect of raising the league averages, which are used to set baselines for average and replacement level performance, and this is something that you want to be aware of. However, the increase in scoring which drives runs per win up is a real factor that should not just be adjusted out of existence.

And while Vizquel would benefit from a DH correction, I've implicitly assumed that the position adjustment for shortstops have remained stable from Aparicio's day to Vizquel's. However, shortstop offense reached its all-time low in the 60s and 70s. The matter of positional adjustments is thornier than simply comparing mean positional offense, but there is a distinct possibility that treating the positional adjustment as a constant is hurting the pre-Vizquel members of the group, canceling out much of the DH hit that Omar takes.

Also, I realize that some people are aware of the offensive environment in which Vizquel played, but ignore it because they chalk it up to steroids. Since Vizquel is not suspected of using steroids, we're supposed to believe that he could have transferred his raw offensive performance into a different era and been more valuable relative to the league. That's a nice story.

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