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Sabean Odours
2004-11-16 18:05
by Mike Carminati

"Sabean odours from the spicy shore

Of Araby the Blest."

—John "Don't Call Me Eric" Milton in the appropriately named Paradise Lost.

Welcome back to the age of jive.

The Giants signed 37-year-old Omar Vizquel to a three-year, $12.25 million contract. And I just have to think that Brian Sabean has completely lost his mind or he's parting with money like it's 1999. There is no way that this can turn into a good deal: Vizquel wasn't worth that much even at his all-too-distant peak.

Vizquel was once a great defensively shortstop. He also, for a short time, turned himself into a decent hitting shortstop. He also was for a time a player who could be depdended on to still 30 bases at a 75-80% success rate. However, he is none of those things now.

He is an aging, overrated player, whose main claim to fame now seems to be his sleazy autobiography, in which he claimed former teammate Albert Belle corked his bat and Jose Mesa choked in the World Series. (Mesa must have loved the news given that he has promised to keel his ex-teammate, and that's hard to do in separate leagues.)

Vizquel hasn't won a Gold Glove in three years and ranked eighth among the eleven qualifying shortstops in a study I did for this year's award.

He not only was not a great offensive player, he wasn't better than an average offensive shortstop. Here are the 2004 stats for all of the major-league shortstops who qualified for the batting title, ranked by OPS. I added their 2004 salary for some perspective. Vizquel has ten players above him and ten below him. He's the median:

C. Guillen, Det972097125.320.381.545.927141$2,500,000
M. Tejada, Bal1073415041.311.360.534.894126$5,000,000
M. Young, Tex1122195122.309.349.475.824106$450,000
D. Jeter, NYY1112378234.292.352.471.823116$18,600,000
J. Rollins, Phi1191473309.289.348.455.803105$2,425,000
K. Greene, SD66156542.273.349.446.795112$300,500
J. Wilson, Pit82115984.308.335.458.793107$1,850,000
R. Furcal, Atl1031459296.277.344.414.75896$3,700,000
J. Lugo, TB78669214.284.348.406.75494$1,750,000
O. Vizquel, Cle82759196.294.356.391.74895$6,000,000
B. Crosby, Oak70226473.239.319.426.74491$300,500
R. Clayton, Col94853105.278.338.398.73576$650,000
E. Renteria, StL8310721711.285.326.400.72690$7,250,000
C. Izturis, LA90462259.288.330.381.71088$358,500
C. Guzman, Min84846105.274.309.384.69378$3,725,000
A. Berroa, KC71843148.262.308.385.69383$372,500
A. Gonzalez, Fla67237931.232.271.420.69079$2,800,000
D. Eckstein, Ana91235155.276.339.333.67277$2,150,000
A. Cintron, Ari4744533.259.300.365.66469$335,000
C. Counsell, Mil58223164.241.330.310.63972$3,166,667

If you rank them by park-adjusted OPS (OPS+), then Omar moves up…by one spot. Whoopee.

Well, maybe that's unfair. There are ten "starting" shortstops not even listed plus there are a bunch of three-quarter timers, like the two Vizquel is replacing in San Fran. There are guys like Nomar Garciaparra, Barry Larkin, Orlando Carbrera, and Jose Valentin in that mix. First, I'll list them (min. 150+ ABs at shortstop in 2004):

N. Garciaparra, Bos/ChC4983741.299.357.459.815112$11,500,000
B. Larkin, Cin5174020.292.355.423.778106$700,000
J. Valentin, CWS73307076.221.290.486.77688$5,000,000
F. Lopez, Cin2152310.257.316.444.76091$334,000*
D. Cruz, SF4275013.290.319.429.74890$1,000,000*
O. Cabrera, Bos/Mon741062164.265.307.385.69279$6,000,000
K. Matsui, NYM62742133.270.331.396.72788$5,033,333
A. Everett, Hou64831132.274.315.386.70181$370,000
A. Gonzalez, ChC/Mon/SD3562622.221.260.356.61662$5,750,000
R. Aurilia, Sea/SD2943110.235.303.325.62880$3,150,000
C. Gomez, Tor2812111.267.315.318.63375$750,000
N. Perez, ChC/SF2622310.252.301.340.64161$2,750,000
C. Woodward, Tor1812312.231.280.346.62660$775,000
R. Martinez, ChC1822900.251.309.353.66167$900,000
J. Lopez, Sea2752201.232.263.367.63068$300,000**
J. Vizcaino, Hou2221910.286.310.393.70377$1,200,000
P. Reese, Bos2322151.238.279.323.60146$1,000,000

Notes: * = 2004 salary unavailable; 2003 used instead.
** = Lopez's 2004 salary was unavailable; league minimum used since he's a rookie.

That gives us a pool of 37 players, all of whom played a significant amount of time at short in 2004. Now, here are the averages for the above players by adjusted OPS band:


Vizquel fell into the second band (90-100). The average salary for this group is over a million dollars less than Vizquel just received from the Giants ($4.083 M average for Vizquel's new contract vs. $2.905 M for all 90-100 OPS+ SS). And those other guys won't be 40 when their next contract runs out.

For those of you who are still suckling at the teat of "experience", who say that something can be said for a steady, veteran shortstop leading a team to victory, let's take a look at similarly experienced shortstops and how their teams fared.

Below are all the teams in major-league history who have had a "starting" shortstop, who was at least 38 for the bulk of the given season (Vizquel turns 38 next April). By starting, I mean simply that they played at least half the team's games at short. There are just 25 such teams:

38Dickey PearceBrooklyn AtlanticsNA1874562233.4006
39Dickey PearceSt. Louis Brown StockingsNA1875703929.5744
41Candy NelsonBrooklyn GladiatorsAA1890572673.2639
39Bones ElyWashington SenatorsAL19021056175.4496
38Bill DahlenBoston DovesNL19081446391.4096
38Honus WagnerPittsburgh PiratesNL19121439358.6162
38Bobby WallaceSt. Louis BrownsAL19128753101.3447
39Honus WagnerPittsburgh PiratesNL19131057871.5234
40Honus WagnerPittsburgh PiratesNL19141326985.4487
41Honus WagnerPittsburgh PiratesNL19151317381.4745
42Honus WagnerPittsburgh PiratesNL1916926589.4226
38Dave BancroftBrooklyn RobinsNL19291027083.4586
38Rabbit MaranvilleBoston BravesNL19301387084.4556
39Rabbit MaranvilleBoston BravesNL19311376490.4167
39Luke ApplingChicago White SoxAL19461497480.4815
40Luke ApplingChicago White SoxAL19471297084.4556
42Luke ApplingChicago White SoxAL19491416391.4096
38Maury WillsLos Angeles DodgersNL19711448973.5492
38Luis AparicioBoston Red SoxAL19721098570.5482
39Luis AparicioBoston Red SoxAL19731328973.5492
38Larry BowaChicago CubsNL19841329665.5961
38Ozzie SmithSt. Louis CardinalsNL19931348775.5373
39Ozzie SmithSt. Louis CardinalsNL1994965361.4653
38Barry LarkinCincinnati RedsNL20021357884.4813
40Barry LarkinCincinnati RedsNL20041117686.4694
Overall avg6875.4725
38 avg7374.4904
39 avg6568.4944
40 avg7285.4576

That's not very encouraging. There are many Hall or near-Hall caliber players on that list and still their teams were sub-par and Vizquel is not, in my estimation, anywhere near their level. Only one, Larry Bowa, led their team to a championship. But Vizquel can be encouraged because Bowa is one of the few comparable players to him on the list, at least in the "modern" era.

Also, given that Vizquel's contract is for three years, I have averages for each of the years in his contract (38-40). Note that the team's record on average declines as the shortstop ages.

By the way, 37-year-old shortstops have had a little bit more success:

37Dickey PearceBrooklyn AtlanticsNA1873551737.3156
37Candy NelsonNew York MetropolitansAA1886735382.3937
37Bones ElyPittsburgh PiratesNL19001307960.5682
37Tommy CorcoranCincinnati RedsNL19061176487.4246
37Bill DahlenNew York GiantsNL19071438271.5364
37Honus WagnerPittsburgh PiratesNL19111018569.5523
37Bobby WallaceSt. Louis BrownsAL191112445107.2968
37Art FletcherPhiladelphia PhilliesNL19221065796.3737
37Dave BancroftBrooklyn RobinsNL19281497776.5036
37Rabbit MaranvilleBoston BravesNL19291455698.3648
37Phil RizzutoNew York YankeesAL1955799658.6231
37Pee Wee ReeseBrooklyn DodgersNL19561369361.6041
37Maury WillsLos Angeles DodgersNL19701268774.5402
37Luis AparicioBoston Red SoxAL19711218577.5253
37Bert CampanerisCalifornia AngelsAL1979828874.5431
37Mark BelangerBaltimore OriolesAL1981635946.5622
37Larry BowaChicago CubsNL19831457191.4385
37Dave ConcepcionCincinnati RedsNL19851518972.5532
37Ozzie SmithSt. Louis CardinalsNL19921328379.5123
37Omar VizquelCleveland IndiansAL20041488082.4943
37 avg7275.4864

There are three players on that list who won pennants (Rizzuto, Reese, and Campaneris). And all of the 37-year-old shortstops since the Fifties except for Bowa in 1983 and Vizquel last year were on teams with winning records (and Bowa won a pennant the next season).

But does Vizquel fill a need for the Giants? They sure did have a mess at short, but does he help them offensively? The Giants were second in the NL in runs (850) and third in OPS (.795). What about positions in the batting order? The Giant leadoff hitters were first in OPS (.839) and third in OBP (.359). Their number two hitters were 13th in the NL (.706). Their number three hitters were ninth (.833). Of course, with Bonds batting cleanup, the Giants were way out in first (1.323, 358 points ahead of the second-place Cubs). They were fifteenth for number five hitters (.705). Their number 6 hitters were eighth (.767), number 7 hitters fifth (.758), and number 8 hitters sixth (.731).

So the windup is that the Giants desperately need improvement in the order in the number two and five spot and have some trouble at number three. Michael Tucker batted second the most on the team (.614 OPS in 234 plate appearances). The main number five hitter was Edgardo Alfonzo (.760 OPS in 251 PA). The main number three guy was Marquis Grissom (.792 OPS in 322 PA). However, Pedro Feliz had a fair amount of success in the three hole in his first year as a starter (.941 OPS in 167 PA). So he's probably the solution there. Grissom can be shifted down to number five. That should give them a reasonable attack (though Grissom is aging and his OPS would still rank them 13th among NL number five hitting).

I assume that Sabean saw his biggest holes at shortstop defensively and at the number two spot offensively. Vizquel fits both roles. All but six of his at-bats in 2004 were as a number-two hitter. I'm sure that Sabean got a bit giddy killing his two biggest position-player issues with one stone and that's why he ponied up the cash that he did to Vizquel. Vizquel's OPS would rank 6th among NL number-two hitting, and his OBP would rank fourth. Those numbers were in a park that slightly favored pitchers (Ballpark Factor of 98). The Giants played in a stadium that had always very much favored pitchers but suddenly favored batters in 2004 (103).

So Sabean is gambling that a) Vizquel remains at his current level and b) that level of play is what the Giants need at both short and as a number-two hitter. And maybe he's right. But I have no idea why he needed to invest twelve million dollars and three years to find out. Was someone else banging down Vizquel's door with the glut of free agent shortstops on the market?

Besides, the Giants biggest problems were on the pitching staff (11th in NL with a 4.29 staff ERA), so why even chase down a shortstop now? I think that Sabean saw a way to take care of the bulk of his position player issues in one swell foop. He locked up Vizquel as quickly as possible and now can concentrate on filling out the rotation and getting a decent closer if Robb Nen can't come back (and he's technically a free agent anyway). I think this prospect clouded his judgment and he overwhelmed Vizquel in order to get it done.

There is a bright side, however. Nomar Garciaparra, Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Jose Valentin, and the other free agent shortstops must be loving it. And it may help kick off a winter with a little bit more spending after two austere ones. If nothing else, it proves that teams still have money, and that they still don't know how to spend it.

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