Ex-St. Louis Cardinals legend Ozzie was no Omar — he was better

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CHICAGO - JULY 13: Andrew Firestone jokes with former Major League players Ozzie Smith and Ryne Sandberg during the All Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game on July 13, 2003 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO - JULY 13: Andrew Firestone jokes with former Major League players Ozzie Smith and Ryne Sandberg during the All Star Legends and Celebrity Softball Game on July 13, 2003 at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /
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Stop it with the sloppy comparisons of St. Louis Cardinals! Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel were far from equal, and Pujols was always better than Howard.

Omar Vizquel admirers appear alternately cheered and chapped when reminded of ex-St. Louis Cardinals player Ozzie Smith’s first-ballot entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002.

Columnist Bill Madden of the New York Daily News wrote in December that Vizquel, the former Mariner, Indian, Giant, Ranger, White Sock and Blue Jay “was the greatest defensive shortstop I ever saw, better than Ozzie Smith …” Writing for Forbes in January, John Perrotto said Vizquel was “Ozzie Smith without the backflips and hype.” That same month Jay Greeson of the Chattanooga Times Free Press called it “hypocrisy” that “we say no to Vizquel and think that Ozzie Smith was a no-doubt first ballot entry.”

This isn’t about Vizquel’s Cooperstown qualifications. It’s about how some of us link players or events that are far from equal.

For example, who recalls the Albert Pujols-for-Ryan Howard trade rumors that surfaced in May of 2010? ESPN’s Buster Olney likened a Pujols-for-Howard deal with the time the Red Sox and Yankees entertained a trade of Ted Williams for Joe DiMaggio.

There was a problem with that analogy. Williams and DiMaggio were roughly equivalent players, with the first a better hitter and the second a better fielder. Most stories about the Pujols-Howard rumor never mentioned that Pujols was a far better player in every way than Howard. In fact, a Bleacher Report story claimed that if the Cardinals were to get Howard “the offensive drop-off will be near negligible.”

That was wrong — way wrong. In the three seasons before the trade rumor, Howard had an offensive WAR of 2.9, 1.8, and 3.8 compared to 8.7, 9.2 and 9.7 for Pujols. Plus the latter was a far better fielder and base runner. Howard was a fine player but he was no Albert Pujols.

Another ex-Cardinal, David Freese, has had his 2011 postseason compared with a series of lesser playoff exploits, including Aaron Boone’s walk-off homer for the Yankees in the 2003 American League Championship Series.

On a 2016 Sunday Night Baseball telecast, ESPN’s Dan Shulman likened his booth partner Boone’s ALCS blast to Freese’s 2011 World Series feats, and a 2016 AOL.com list of the “Top 25 MLB playoff heroes of the last 25 years” ranked 2011 Freese 22nd — and 2003 Boone 13th!

That’s just ignorant. Boone hit .176 vs. the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS and .143 vs. the Marlins in a World Series loss; Freese hit .545 with a 1.691 OPS vs. the Brewers in the NLCS and .348 with a 1.160 OPS vs. the Rangers in the World Series.

Also, Boone’s 11th-inning game-seven walk-off homer occurred with nobody out. According to Grantland.com’s Rany Jazayerli, the Yankees “were already about a 65 percent favorite to win the game” since “the home team had its full allotment of three outs to try to bring home the winning run.”

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By contrast, the Cardinals had just an 8 percent chance of winning Game 7 of the 2011 World Series when Freese smacked a two-out, two-strike, ninth-inning triple off of Neftali Feliz to tie the game. Two innings later, he won it with a home run to dead center.

To equate Boone’s no-out ALCS homer in 2003 with Freese’s two-out triple and walk-off homer in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series is like saying that Mighty Mouse is a superhero —just like Superman.

The Ozzie Smith-Omar Vizquel comparisons are especially persistent — and irksome. Just looking at the offensive numbers (.272/.336/.352 for Omar, 262/.337/.328 for Ozzie) and counting up the Gold Gloves (11 for Omar, 15 for Ozzie), one can find surface similarities.

But Smith’s offensive numbers, compiled in a run-scarce era, resulted in a 47.8 oWAR that easily surpasses Vizquel’s 32.2 oWAR. Defensively, Smith has a considerable advantage with a 43.4 dWAR compared to a 28.4 dWAR for Vizquel.

Vizquel’s Cooperstown boosters don’t buy the defensive stats. Terry Pluto, the fine longtime reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, rues how “the modern numbers trash Omar Vizquel, who is the best defensive shortstop I’ve ever seen.” Plain Dealer sports editor Hal Lebovitz told Pluto that Vizquel and Smith were the finest shortstops he ever saw but “Omar was the best.”

Bill James, on the other hand, wrote in 2001’s The New Bill James Historical Abstract that Vizquel, then active, was a “very good defensive shortstop” but “whether he is actually the glove magician reflected in Gold Glove voting is a question capable of debate.”

Next. Cardinals in the College World Series. dark

Saying that Ozzie was better than Omar is no insult to Vizquel. The longtime Indian was a tremendous player. It’s just unfortunate that in stumping for their man, some of Vizquel’s boosters try to disparage Smith with taunts that he was all “backflips and hype.” As if the greatness of Ozzie Smith was just a cooked-up media fantasy. Please! The best available evidence tells us that Smith was great and Vizquel was very good. Let’s stop pretending they were one and the same.

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