With his signing with the Giants on November 14th, 2004, the three time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove recipient brings his game to the National League for the first time.
One of the foremost defensive shortstops in baseball history, Vizquel, who perfected the art of barehanding grounders, was born in Caracas, Venezuela on April 24, 1967. It was on Caracas’ dilapidated and neglected ballfields that Vizquel, using a sock or his bare hand as glove, would hone his craft on.
Vizquel, twenty-three days shy of his 17th birthday, was signed as a free agent by the Seattle Mariners in 1984.
At the completion of the 1989 season, Vizquel was raked the number four prospect in the Eastern League by Baseball America. Vizquel made the M’s 1990 Opening Day line-up and made his Major League debut on April 3rd. Three days later, he smacked a single off of Storm Davis, recording his first Major League hit.
In 1993 Vizquel became a footnote in Chris Bosio’s no-hitter when he registered the final assist as he barehanded an Ernest Riles chopper. After winning his first Gold Glove, he was traded by the Mariners to the Cleveland Indians during the off season.
In 1994-1995, Vizquel collected his second and third Gold Gloves respectively. Vizquel made three errors in one of his first games in an Indians uniform, but went 51 games without making another. His 1994 Gold Glove was the first one for an Indians shortstop. Vizquel grounded into only four double plays in 1995, good for second best and his 11 sacrifice bunts in 1994 tied him for third best in the league.
Despite making a career high 20 errors in 1996, Vizquel still nabbed his fourth straight Gold Glove for his play at short. The errors were eventually blamed on a torn labrum and small bone spur. The tear was repaired and the bone spur was removed during surgery in the off season and before the start of the 1997 campaign.
Vizquel stole a career best 43 bases in 1997. In a July 18th, game versus Boston Red Sox knuckle-baller Tim Wakefield, Vizquel collected the 1,000th hit of his career. His 16 sacrifice bunts were best in the American League. Vizquel stole nine bases in nine attempts in the American League Championship Series. Though he only hit a dismal .040 for the series, Vizquel had the biggest “hit” of the series. Vizquel missed a squeeze bunt that allowed Marquis Grissom to score the game-winning run in the bottom of the 12th inning for the Tribe.
1998 was a “streaky” one for the defensive wizard. Vizquel had errorless streaks of both 70 and 54 games and ended the 1998 campaign with a 39 game streak. From 1997-1998 and over the course of 125 games, Vizquel committed just one error. His streaks continued in the post season. With his first ever bobble in game 6 of the American League Championship Series versus New York, Vizquel snapped a 46 post season game errorless streak.
In 1999, despite making 15 errors, Vizquel still managed to win his seventh consecutive Gold Glove. His seven straight Gold Gloves were the first for an American League player since the awards inception in 1957. Again, he was in the top ten (ranked fourth) as one of the toughest batters to strike out. He made his second appearance in the All-Star game and his first, (and only), appearance in right field in an August game versus the Angels. Vizquel established career highs in average (.333), runs, hits, and doubles. He also had 42 steals. His 42 swipes, which included four in one game, were good for second best in the American League.
Vizquel recorded one of the best defensive seasons in baseball history in 2000. He tied Cal Ripken for the then American League record for the most consecutive errorless games by a shortstop with 95 straight games. The streak included 425 errorless chances and was eventually broken by future teammate Matt Lawton. Vizquel’s fielding percentage of .995 was at the time, the second highest in history. He only committed three errors for the entire season out of 648 total chances.
Despite another season in which he struggled offensively, Vizquel still was golden in the field and won his ninth, consecutive Gold Glove award in 2001. Vizquel put together a 54-game errorless streak. Through his numbers were down, Vizquel still was the ninth hardest batter to strike out in the American League and laid down 15 sacrifice bunts, good for second in the league. In the Division Series against the Seattle Mariners, he led the team with six runs batted in and batted .409 in the five game series. His 57 hits and 21 steals are both Cleveland franchise post season records.
After having his offensive numbers slide the past couple of seasons, Vizquel responded, and in 2002, he enjoyed one of his best offensive seasons in his career establishing career highs in both homers (14) and runs batted in (72). Vizquel had a phenomenal offensive first half, having launched (9) and knocked in (41) more than half his season totals in homers and runs batted in by mid June. Vizquel recorded double digits in homers for the first and only time when he drilled his tenth in a contest versus the Montreal Expos. After collecting his second five hit game of his career against the Texas Rangers, he was named co-American League Player of the Week. Vizquel’s strong first half got him an invitation to his third mid summer classic
Though his offensive numbers dropped in the second half, Vizquel still enjoyed a career high 18 game-hitting streak. Vizquel tied for fourth in American League with ten sacrifice flies and was eighth toughest batter to double up in the Junior Circuit.
Defensively, Vizquel’s Gold Streak came to end at nine, losing the honors to Alex Rodriguez. Vizquel did amass two consecutive errorless streaks again in 2002. One of 57 games (that had been carried over from the 2001 season) and one of 34 games.
The 2003 campaign was a painful and injury plagued one for Vizquel, appearing in only a career low 64 games.
In his final season in Cleveland, Vizquel came back strong from his injury riddled 2003 season. Vizquel led the Junior Circuit in sacrifice hits for the third time in his career. His .332 batting average with runners on base was good for tenth best in the league.
Once again Vizquel was one of the hardest hitters to strikeout, whiffing once for every 10.4 plate appearance, good for fifth toughest in the American League
On April 22, Vizquel smacked career hit 2,000 off Kansas City Royal starter and former teammate Jason Grimsley. In the May 1st, game versus the Baltimore Orioles Vizquel became the 15th shortstop in Major League history to appear in 2,000 games at short. In Cleveland’s 22-0 rout over the New York Yankees, Vizquel was one hit short of establishing a new American League record for most hits in a nine- inning contest with six hits.
Vizquel left Cleveland as the Indians leader in sacrifice flies (62), second in stolen bases (279), games played at short (1,472), at-bats (5,708). He ranks sixth with 906 runs scored and seventh with 1,616 hits.
The switch-hitting Vizquel is an ideal number two hitter. His seasons in Cleveland have matured Vizquel as a hitter. Vizquel, as his statistics show, can lay down and beat out a bunt, move the runner, take a pitch, and most importantly, not strike out. He also has some pop remaining in his bat, especially when he bats from his stronger, left side. Against right-handers, Vizquel is more dangerous and tends to hit to all fields. This is clearly illustrated by his gift for finding the left and right field lines for doubles. From his weaker side, the right side, he gets himself into trouble when he chases the high fastball or breaking balls down and away.
St. Louis and the National League had a wizard at short. Cleveland and the American League had an acrobat. A season highlights reel all his own; Vizquel still makes the most difficult play look like child’s play.
While his range at short might not be what it once was, it is still further and more impressive than most shortstops today or in the history in the game. Although he hasn’t won a Gold Glove since 2001, he still has only 11 errors in the past three seasons. He still has some speed left and is still a threat when he gets on.
Age and injuries are slowly starting to catch up with Vizquel and his body. Offensively, it will be interesting to see how long it takes Vizquel to adjust and learn the pitchers. Defensively, he has never had what one would consider a strong arm, Vizquel’s strength is in his positioning. He studies the game and its hitters and just as important, he knows his pitchers and positions himself accordingly. Rarely does one find Vizquel off guard.
Vizquel, will be 40 when his contract expires. If he stays healthy he should draw Hall of Fame consideration.
Wendy J Sotos is a Cleveland based writer who loves nothing more than a Jim Thome blast and an Omar Vizquel barehanded scoop. Both of which, she believes, will be Hall of Famers when their playing days are over.
Wendy can be reached at: designatedwriter@yahoo. com
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