Reviewing the Five Former Indians on the Hall of Fame Ballot

While the news of signings and trades has slowed to a trickle in the depths of the baseball off-season, there is still time for other breaking news regarding our national past time this January. Yes, most of the winter’s news is made by the teams and players, but in at least one instance it is actually made by the writers themselves.

And no, I don’t mean in how they can  break the signing of a certain shortstop to his new team too early and cause an embarrassing situation for all of the parties involved (twice!). I am talking about the Baseball Writers Association of America voting on this year’s group of Hall of Fame candidates. Those votes are being tallied as you read this, and the final count to see who makes the Hall in 2023 is due this Tuesday, January 24th.

2023 is an interesting year for the Hall of Fame vote. There is no major sure-fire first-ballot candidate that became eligible this off-season. Some of the more… messy names that have lingered on the ballot in recent years like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have also passed the 10-year threshold and are no longer eligible through the writer’s ballot either (both could have been confirmed by the Contemporary Era Committee of former players, officials and writers earlier this winter, but neither were given the distinction).

Really then, this is a bit of an odd year. All of the household names that even the most casual of baseball fans would recognize are off the ballot. This provides an opportunity for some of the stronger Hall of Fame hopefuls that have flown under the radar for most of the last decade to get some shine. Scott Rolen and Todd Helton may not have been the trendiest players of their time, but they are two great ballplayers that look primed to potentially be awarded. Rolen was the best defensive third baseman of a generation who also wouldn’t embarrass himself at the plate. Helton was one of the best all-around hitters in the game for more than a decade. They are deserving candidates and it’s no wonder that they are currently on track to make the Hall based on the votes that have been made public.

2023 is also a year where 5 former Indians are on the ballot, all with varying degrees of time on the Cleveland roster and with varying reasons for why they unfortunately aren’t likely to be enshrined this summer. Still, just becoming eligible to be on the ballot requires playing 10 years in the Majors. To have the staying power to hang around the show that long is a feat deserving of recognition in itself.

Let’s take a look at the five former Indians on the ballot, celebrate their time in the bigs and explain why they unfortunately shouldn’t be preparing their speech for this July in Cooperstown.

In no particular order,

Omar Vizquel

The Resume

Career Stats: .272 AVG 80 HR 2877 Hits 82 OPS+ .985 Fld%

3-time All-Star, 11-time Gold Glove Winner

Just how good Omar Vizquel was just isn’t quantifiable. I mean that both literally and figuratively. Vizquel played with a flair and personality that was memorable to anyone that ever saw him play. He was an absolute maestro patrolling the shortstop position- a shortstop that was just as comfortable fielding with his bare hand as he was with his glove. But the bare-hand grabs are just a start. He would simultaneously catch the toss from his second baseman and launch himself into the sky in order to avoid the sliding base-runner when turning double plays. He would turn his back to the infield on shallow pop flies to the outfield, using his back to shade from the sun and catch the ball as a catcher would. His range was unlimited and on any given night, if you were watching, Vizquel might do something spectacular. And that goes for his time in Seattle (I always forget he played FIVE YEARS in Seattle before the Felix Fermin trade brought him to Cleveland), San Francisco and even in the short stints he had as a utility player as well as in Cleveland. Vizquel was a Major Leaguer for 24 seasons in total, which is a feat in and of itself. I said how good he was is unquantifiable. I mean that in how his defense elicited immeasurable feelings but also, in the fact that our defensive metrics from his time in baseball just aren’t adequate enough to really know his impact (I’m also personally disappointed about how few of his highlights can be found on the internet, if he played today, there would be reels and reels of highlights on Youtube). It’s true and fair to say that offensively he was never of the caliber that would put him in the Hall of Fame. However, even if the numbers aren’t present, the essence of what Vizquel did on the field was a fantastic performance.

Played in Cleveland 1994-2004

Of course, the brunt of Vizquel’s career did come in Cleveland. From 1994-2001 he won the Gold Glove Award at shortstop every single year while in town. He completed all of the above-listed defensive feats in his time with the Tribe and paired with Roberto Alomar for three years as one of the best double-play combinations in the history of the game. While Vizquel wasn’t the quintessential Hall of Fame hitter by any means, he did improve as a hitter as he got into his prime. He had 30 or more doubles 3 times in his career, all as an Indian. His best offensive season overall also came in Cleveland in 1999 when he hit .333 with 36 doubles and 5 homers. Vizquel was also an accomplished bunter who led baseball in sacrifice hits four times, which was a profile tailor-made for the offensive powerhouse he had around him on the 90s Cleveland teams.

Why He Won’t Make It

Vizquel is the one player on this list that I wish would make the Hall but likely won’t for what are very good reasons in the end. Initially, he was left below the 75% threshold in his first few years on the ballot for baseball reasons. A lot of the newer-age voters don’t care for his lack of offensive production and think he acquired such good statistics (like nearly 3000 hits) by hanging on too long and becoming an “accumulator”. Additionally, the defensive metrics we do have don’t favor him to the extent that they do other strong defensive shortstops of the past like Ozzie Smith. Detractors wanted to place him in the same realm as Mark Belanger, another great fielding shortstop who didn’t hit as well as Smith and by the numbers is at least as strong defensively as Vizquel but is not in the Hall (I’d argue our defensive metrics aren’t good enough to split hairs like this and both Vizquel and Belanger deserve in). Even with his naysayers, there was a good chance enough voters would come around to allow Vizquel would make the Hall after a few seasons. Unfortunately, though, a pattern of abuse by Vizquel has appeared in recent years- allegations of harassment as a manager in the White Sox minor league system and domestic issues at home. These very real problems have likely all but closed the book on Vizquel’s ability to make the Hall. He is polling at just 9% on tracked ballots right now when he was as high as 49% just two years ago. The fact that his off-the-field indiscretions will keep him from getting to the Hall is disappointing, but not nearly as disappointing and foul as the indiscretions themselves.

Jhonny Peralta

The Resume

Career Stats: .267 AVG 202 HR 1761 Hits 376 doubles 102 OPS+

3-time All-Star

Peralta was a homegrown ballplayer that ascended through Cleveland’s minor league system in the early 2000s, though his best seasons in baseball are a mixed bag from both his time in Cleveland and after he hit the free agent market post-2010. Peralta spent the vast majority of his career as a bat-first shortstop in an era where having a shortstop that hit 20 home runs was an exploitable inefficiency in baseball. His three All-Star seasons would actually come in 2011, 2013 and 2015- after his time in Cleveland- two coming with the division rival Tigers and another with the Cardinals. The best of these three years was likely in 2011 where he slashed .299/.345/.478 with 21 home runs and 25 doubles.

Played in Cleveland 2003-2010

Despite a lack of hardware for it, Peralta’s first full season in the Majors may have been his best. He hit .292 with a .520 slugging percentage in 2005. It was a season that would see him reach a career-high in home runs with 24, which at that time became the Indians franchise record for homers by a shortstop (Frankie would later break this record before skipping town). This great season came within the backdrop of the Indians asking Peralta to replace a legend, as he was the immediate replacement to Vizquel, who had left for the Giants the previous winter. Strikingly, Peralta’s play couldn’t have been any different. I distinctly remember the company line in regard to Peralta’s defensive being “well, he catches all the balls that he gets to”, the problem was just how many balls Peralta was actually able to get in front of. If we had Statcast data in the mid to late 2000s we would have a better grasp on the impact of Peralta’s lack of range. He really was perfectly adequate when the ball was within his sphere, but our perception was that his sphere wasn’t that large. Still, it’s always hard to replace a legend and Peralta was perfectly serviceable in doing so in his own way. Maybe most memorably, he was clutch at the plate in the Indians’ 2007 playoff run as he hit .333 in October with 2 home runs and 10 RBI, which was probably his most prominent contribution to the team outside of the 2005 season.

Why He Won’t Make It

Peralta is a perfect example of someone who accomplished a great feat by staying the in Majors for more than 10 years but just isn’t really Hall of Fame material. He has yet to register a single vote on the tracked ballots. He will need at least 5% to even remain on the ballot next year and at this point, that seems unlikely. He had a really solid career as a shortstop who you could live with having some deficiencies in the field because he’d hit you 20 homers and 30 doubles a season. Red Sox shortstop of the 90s John Valentin and former Giants SS Rich Aurilla are interesting comps for Peralta, but neither had any type of Hall of Fame consideration nor will Peralta.

Mike Napoli

The Resume

Career Stats: .246 AVG 267 HR 1125 Hits .475 SLG 117 OPS+

2013 World Series Champion, 2012 All-Star

Before Napoli started to bring the party to Cleveland in 2016, he was best known as a power-hitting catcher that spent the first part of his career playing for the Angels and Rangers. He would have his best offensive years in Texas in 2011 and 2012 and while the latter may have been his All-Star campaign, but 2011 was stellar in its own right. He slashed .320/.414/.631 with 30 home runs that year in just 113 games played. Following his stint in Texas, he would give up the tools of ignorance in 2013 at the age of 31 as he would move to first base when he signed that off-season with the Boston Red Sox. The move would pay off as he would win a World Championship a mere two seasons after getting painfully close with Texas in 2011. To this point, Napoli had a reputation as a player that was part of winning movements everywhere he played, and he prided himself on this.

Played in Cleveland in 2016

Perhaps surprisingly, Napoli would have one more season of 30+ homers in his career, which would come at 34 years old in his time in Cleveland in 2016 where he hit 34 round-trippers. Napoli would spend the season hitting in the clean-up spot and playing mentor for an ultimately World Series-bound Indians squad. Truthfully, while the power numbers were impactful, Napoli’s veteran voice that guided the Indians through a tumultuous regular and post-season was just as important. His time in Cleveland was short, but definitely still mattered. Unfortunately, though, my biggest memory of Napoli’s time on the field in Cleveland is how startlingly good he was at the plate for nearly the entire regular season, but also how bad he was from mid-September on. Looking back, on September 16th the Indians smashed the Tigers 11-4 at home and Napoli went 3 for 4 with 2 runs scored, 4 RBI and his 34th homer of the season. From that date until the end of the regular season, he went just 4 for 43 at the plate (.093 AVG). Two of his three post-season hits came in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, which was great for that game, but he had only one other hit in the Indians’ entire post-season run while still playing every day. Napoli would depart Cleveland in the off-season as he signed back for what would be his third stint in Texas in 2017. That would be the swan song of his career.

Why He Won’t Make It

It’s clear that while Napoli had a very solid career, including a very memorable season in Cleveland, he is not Hall of Fame material and to this point, the writers unanimously agree. Much like Peralta, none of the tracked ballots have a single vote for him at this point and he will need to reach 5% to remain eligible. Catchers (where Napoli spent most of his career) that profile similarly to Napoli include Terry Steinbach and Mickey Tettleton: strong offensive catchers that held their own in their time but just aren’t really the top tier suited for the Hall.

Jeff Kent

The Resume

Career Stats: .297 AVG 377 HR 2461 Hits .500 SLG 123 OPS+

2000 NL MVP, 5-time All-Star

Kent is the most likely of the former Indians to make the Hall this year as he is currently tracking at 51% of the vote. Ironically, he is also the former Indian also with the shortest tenure in Cleveland. Best known for being the clean-up hitting protection behind the aforementioned Bonds in San Francisco between 1997 and 2002, Kent was a rare power-hitting second baseman. His 377 dingers are the most by a primary second baseman in the history of the game. His best season was likely the 2000 campaign where he won National League MVP (interestingly, hindsight would suggest he stole the award from Helton who led the NL in hits, RBI and every slash line stat that year), hitting .334 with 33 home runs and 41 doubles while driving in 125 RBI. He would also post a slugging percentage of .500 or better in 9 of the 10 seasons between 1998 and 2007, making him one of the most reliable power hitters of the time.

Played in Cleveland in 1996

Kent’s time in Cleveland wasn’t nearly as rosy. I’d say it all got started off on the wrong foot. Kent was received (along with Jose Vizcaino) in a trade that sent Carlos Baerga and Alvaro Espinoza to the New York Mets around the time of the 1996 trade deadline. In retrospect, that trade is pointed to as one of the reasons for a disgruntled clubhouse that season that may have factored into the Indians’ AL Division Series exit at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles. But beyond the bad vibes, Kent only played in 39 games in the remainder of the regular season for the Indians. He hit .265 with 3 home runs, slugging .422 in his time with the team. Kent would actually play a lot of first base in Cleveland, as the team was still looking for someone to fill the hole that had been left by Paul Sorrento‘s departure in the previous off-season. His best game in his short time in Cleveland would likely be during a Sept. 21st 13-4 victory at home against the Kansas City Royals. Kent would go 3 for 3 with 2 doubles, scoring twice and driving in two. Conversely, he would also reach base only one time in nine plate appearances during that post-season series vs. Baltimore. Kent would be packaged with Vizcaino and Julian Tavarez in the winter in the trade that would ultimately land Cleveland their 1997 third baseman Matt Williams.

Why He Won’t Make It

As for why Kent isn’t likely to make the Hall, the biggest reason is that he is a known hothead and a bad teammate. One of the biggest headlines he ever made was feuding with Bonds during their time together on the Giants. He also was pretty average at best in the field and while he has plenty of notoriety for being arguably the best power-hitting second baseman of his time, it’s odd how he never reached even 25 homers in the first five years of his career before going to San Francisco. He was just a late bloomer that had a lot of mediocre years early in his career (much like the 39 games he played in Cleveland). Still, his type of resume wouldn’t be unheard of to make the Hall. He compares similarly to another former Indian second baseman in Joe Gordon who has been enshrined, but it doesn’t seem like the voters are buying it with Kent, probably for personality reasons. And to take things a step deeper, 2023 is Kent’s tenth and final year of eligibility, so this year is do-or-die time for him.

Manny Ramirez

The Resume

Career Stats: .312 AVG 555 HR 2573 Hits .585 SLG 154 OPS+

12-time All-Star, 2-time World Series Champion, 3-time On Base Percentage Leader, 3-time Slugging Leader, 1999 RBI Leader, 2002 Batting Champ, 2004 Home Run Leader, 2004 World Series MVP

Manny Ramirez might be the greatest right-handed hitter that I have ever seen. The first act of his career while in Cleveland was transcendent in its own right (more on that in a minute), but what he did after is even more significant. Ramirez was one of the main cogs that helped Boston break the Curse of the Bambino and pushed the Red Sox to not just one but two World Series Championships in the 2000s. Ramirez hit formidably in the clean-up spot of both of those championship-winning teams, was the World Series Most Valuable Player in 2004 and was one of the greatest run producers of his time. The accolades and statistics speak for themselves. Between 1999 and 2006 there probably wasn’t another right-handed hitter that was more dangerous than Ramirez. Unfortunately, though, Ramirez is also an odd guy off the field. He ultimately wanted his way out of Boston in 2008 and was traded to the Dodgers where he continued to produce for two and a half more seasons albeit at a slightly reduced clip. Even then, Ramirez became a cult hero in LA, where the left-field bleachers were renamed “Mannywood”, but Ramirez would inevitably wear out his welcome in Los Angeles as well. Still, 12 seasons hitting over .300 with 100 RBIs will cover up a lot of headaches.

Played in Cleveland 1993-2000

Specifically during Manny’s time in Cleveland, he was part of the youth movement that ended up turning into the ’90s teams that remain so lauded in this city to this day. Everyone loves to bring up how Ramirez hit 7th in the batting order for the 1995 team. This sentiment is a credit to how deep that year’s lineup was. However, Ramirez would move up the order and be one of the best hitters in the game for the next decade and a half following that ’95 season. Among his biggest memories from being in Cleveland is his walk-off home run off Dennis Eckersley in ’95 where Eckersley- a future Hall of Famer himself- was seen on television just exclaiming out loud “WOW!” after the ball landed in the left-field bleachers. Ramirez also attained a franchise record 165 RBI in 1999 which stands to this day. Again, he is likely the best right-handed hitter I have ever seen in terms of all facets: contact, power, batting eye, and natural hitting intelligence. He might even be the best right-handed hitter in Indians/Guardians history and comps similarly offensively to current Hall of Famers like Willie Stargell and Ken Griffey Jr… Again, the numbers speak for themselves.

Why He Won’t Make It

For those that don’t know why then that Ramirez wasn’t a first-ballot Hall of Farmer, let alone why he is polling at only 38% on his 6th ballot opportunity, it’s because he was caught by MLB’s Performance Enhancing Drug testing… twice. And let me be clear, there is no innuendo or question with Manny Ramirez. He was suspended for 50 games in 2009 with the Dodgers for testing positive and then again at the start of the 2011 season after he had signed with the Tampa Bay Rays. Rather than face a 100-game suspension after his second positive test, Ramirez retired from the Majors after playing just 5 games with the Rays. He would flirt with returning the next season and later played in other leagues across the globe, but ultimately Ramirez had an incredibly unceremonious end as a to the Major Leaguer, especially for one of his caliber. We are also left with the question of just how long Ramirez had been using and how much that could have trumped up his numbers. Sadly, we won’t know. Ramirez had pure talent without the juice, but being a known cheater whose indiscretions came after a steroid policy had been put in place likely means he never sniffs enough votes to get close to the Hall.

To Conclude

To see Cleveland baseball represented with 5 of its former players on the Hall of Fame ballot is a feat in itself. Some of these players were good, but just not good enough. Others were brilliant, but have made really poor decisions that leave them unworthy of enshrinement. Regardless, I choose to remember the negatives (whether they are going 3 for 52 in the post-season or something far more serious) but also hold onto the positive feelings that each of these ballplayers provided. Those memories will exist for all time and are a huge part of just what this game is about.

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