Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Through the Years: Roberto Alomar

For the last couple of weeks, I've been looking at the greatest second-basemen of the last generation. (I refuse to call them the "second-basemen of the '90s" since, one, all of their careers spanned more than just the '90s and, two, we've had enough debates about "players of the decade".) Craig Biggio was the quiet one, working his way to 3,000 hits and 650 doubles in semi-obscurity. Jeff Kent was the volatile one, at once accepting the benefits of Barry Bonds' presence in the lineup and also fighting against it at the same time. And then there's Roberto Alomar who, while definitely volatile at times, was the flashy one, and the one most recognized for his brilliance in his time.

But Alomar wasn't perfect. Though it didn't take long to prove himself as one of the best second-basemen in the majors, he never played for a single team longer than five years. He also did nothing to help his image in 1996 when he spat on an umpire and then made some less-than-intelligent remarks about the ump's sick child. These character issues, his injury history, and his perception as a "nomad" may all be negatives in some writers' (and fans') minds, but they won't be enough to keep people from remembering the 1990s (and surrounding years) as Roberto Alomar's time.

As with all other "Through the Years" posts, I'll be looking at Alomar's career through my collection of baseball preview guides to see how he was being viewed by writers on a year-to-year basis, and to see if they ever viewed him as the best player at his position.

Alomar began his big league career in San Diego in 1988, as a 20-year-old phenom. He quickly acclimated to the level of play, and performed rather well. His bat struggled some as the season progressed, but he ended the year well enough to gain two first-place votes in the Rookie of the Year voting, finishing fifth. The Sporting News didn't have too much to say about him in the following year's preview guide, but apparently his flashy glove was already being noticed:
"Next to [Jack] Clark will be Alomar (Sandy's younger brother), who struggled early but finished with a .266 average and a team-leading 39 extra-base hits. In the field, Alomar made at least a dozen sensational diving plays."
He improved in his sophomore season almost across the board, though his power dropped some. His defense was also a work in progress, as he finished the season with the lowest fielding percentage of his career (I know, I know, it's not the most advanced defensive metric...). Heading into the 1990 season, Alomar was a prized young player:
"The Padres must again rely on an infield combination that is inconsistent defensively. First baseman Jack Clark, second baseman Roberto Alomar and [shortstop Garry] Templeton totaled 63 errors last season, with Clark (15 errors) and Alomar (28) leading the league at their respective positions.
Alomar hit .295, stole a team-high 42 bases and exhibited wonderful range defensively last year. At 22, he is blossoming as one of the league's top young second basemen. Off-season hand surgery, however, may set him back at the start of the year."
Alomar made his first All-Star team in 1990 for the Padres, though he struggled to better his sophomore season. That winter, however, he was a main cog in one of the biggest star-swaps of the 1990s:
"And in a blockbuster deal, the Blue Jays shipped first baseman Fred McGriff and shortstop Tony Fernandez to San Diego for outfielder Joe Carter and second baseman Roberto Alomar. Carter brings a big bat and a steadier glove to the leftfield spot previously manned by George Bell, who left via free agency as the team's all-time home run king (202). Alomar is a bright young star who made the National League All-Star team last year. His arrival allows Manny Lee to shift from second to his natural shortstop position.
The switch-hitting Alomar, who hit .287 with the Padres last year, should give Toronto its strongest glove at second base since former Blue Jay Damaso Garcia was in his prime. And with the switch-hitting Lee playing shortstop, Toronto figures to be strong defensively up the middle."
The trade worked out well for both clubs, though Toronto clearly got the better short-term returns, winning back-to-back World Series just two years later. Alomar himself benefitted from the change in scenery.
"Alomar was Toronto's best player last year [1991]. The switch-hitting second baseman not only won a Gold Glove, but also was the team's offensive catalyst. He collected a career-high 41 doubles and 53 stolen bases. But he was the lone bright spot in an otherwise disappointing infield."
Winning that first Gold Glove in '91 was a key accomplishment for Alomar, and it signified the beginning of his peak years. He would go on to win five more Gold Gloves consecutively (and 10 overall) and play in 11 more consecutive All-Star games. He also posted his greatest season to date in 1992, topping 30 Win Shares for the first time (with 34).
"Although first baseman John Olerud and second baseman Roberto Alomar are just 24 and 25 years old, respectively, they already have eight years of big-league experience between them.
Alomar, arguably the best all-around middle infielder in the game, keeps getting better. He hit .300 for the first time last year (.310) and has increased his RBI total every season he's been in the majors. Defensively, he is without peer."
Even with Alomar's spectacular offensive output (he won the Silver Slugger with an OPS+ of 141 in '92), it was his flashy defense that people liked to talk about. Advanced fielding metrics have a difficult time matching people's perceptions of Alomar with the statistics (for example, in '92, Alomar's Range Factor of 4.43 was below the league's Range Factor of 4.60). By the end of the 1993 season, though, the combination of Alomar's offense and defense had him near the top of the list of the best infielders in baseball:
"Alomar is one of the best all-around second basemen in the major leagues. He has won three straight Gold Gloves, and he established career highs in average, runs, RBIs, and steals last year while hitting as many homers (17) as he did in the two previous seasons combined. Although he broke his right leg playing winter ball in his native Puerto Rico, Alomar is expected to be ready for the start of spring training."
If one could pick a season to recover from an off-season broken leg, it would be difficult to do better than the strike-shortened 1994 season. In the 107 games he played in after breaking his leg the previous offseason, Alomar posted some solid numbers (.306/.386/.402 with 116 OPS+), but nowhere near his previous two years. Although the "down year" was noticed, it wasn't held against him:
"Alomar should be healthier than last year, when he broke his leg playing winter ball and stole only 19 bases (and grounded into a career-high 14 double plays). A seven-year veteran at 27, Alomar is a bona fide .300 hitter, 40-plus steal man and Gold Glove fielder. But he has an aching back, one aggravated by playing four seasons on artificial turf."
Alomar's 1995 campaign was statistically similar to his '94 year. Heading into free agency that winter, he found a suitor in the Baltimore Orioles and their new GM, ex-Toronto GM Pat Gillick. Gillick made a few moves to improve the O's, including signing Alomar. It was widely considered a very successful offseason in Baltimore.
"The arrival of Alomar and free-agent third baseman BJ Surhoff create the possibility of an infield that averages 25 home runs and 85 RBIs per man.

Sound crazy? It isn't. Palmiero has averaged 33 homers and 95 RBIs the past three seasons, even though two of them were shortened by labor unrest. Ripken should approach 20 home runs and has averaged 91 RBIs over the past 14 seasons. Alomar drove in 93 runs the last time there was a 162-game season. And Surhoff batted .320 with 13 homers and 73 RBIs in 415 at-bats last year.

Defensively, the Orioles improve with the addition of a Gold Glove second baseman."
The O's made it to the ALCS that year as the Wild Card, losing to the eventual World Champions Yankees in the infamous Jeffrey Maier series. Alomar did his part to help the team that season, breaking the 30 Win Share mark for the third time in his career with a 136 OPS+, and winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.

By 1997, Alomar's stellar production, offensively and defensively, was beginning to be taken for granted:
"The Orioles, who figure to get big performances from Alomar and steady first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, still will have one of the better offensive infield alignments in the league and may have put together the best defensive infield in the game."
It would prove to be a tough year for him, though, as he battled injuries. He did finish the season with a .333/.390/.500 line and an OPS+ of 134 in only 112 games. He played a nearly complete season the next year, but the injuries had started to take a toll on his production. In the Year of Offense of 1998, Alomar managed only a .282/.347/.418 line with an OPS+ of 100. He signed as a free agent with the Indians that winter. Despite the bad year, it was still a heralded signing. Everyone was excited to see the flashy second-baseman line up next to the flashy shortstop Omar Vizquel. From the Sporting News:
"After going through 16 second basemen since midway through the 1996 season, the Indians finally stabilized the one hole they had in the field with Roberto Alomar, who is reunited with his brother, Sandy. Roberto Alomar provides a solid bat and speed at the top of the lineup. Before his average dropped to .282 last season, he hit .300 or better five straight years. The Indians belive the 31-year-old switch-hitter has several good seasons ahead of him.

The team probably could sell tickets just so fans could watch Alomar and shortstop Omar Vizquel operate around the keystone bag. The two have 13 Gold Gloves between them (seven for Alomar and six for Vizquel) and will be one of the best double-play combinations in history."
Athlon was more concise, but much more excited:
"Fans came to the ballpark early to watch Mark McGwire take batting practice in his pursuit of Roger Maris' record. They should do the same to watch shortstop Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar take infield. They own 13 Gold Gloves between them. By batting Kenny Lofton first, Alomar second and Vizquel ninth, Hargrove can bring out three legitimate basestealers in a row."
Alomar again responded well to a change in scenery, posting the best season of his career to date. His .323/.422/.533 and 139 OPS+ led to a 35 Win Share season and a third place finish in the MVP voting (behind Ivan Rodriguez and the more-than-deserving Pedro Martinez). The greatness of his season was not lost on TSN:
"Roberto Alomar became the first player in team history to hit 20 homers, score 100 runs, steal 30 bases and drive in more than 100 runs in one season. Alomar's 120 RBIs were a career high, and he led the American League with 138 runs. Known for his spectacular defense, he made only six errors and won his eighth Gold Glove."
His 2000 campaign would inevitably be a letdown following that spectacular season, but it would not be the end for Alomar. In fact, his greatest season ever was in 2001, at age 33, when he accounted for 31 Win Shares and posted a .336/.415/.541 line with a 150 OPS+. He would finish fourth in the MVP voting that year, behind Ichiro, Jason Giambi, and Bret Boone.

And though 2001 was the best season of Alomar's career, it would also be the last truly productive year of his career. He would play two more full seasons, mostly for the Mets, but his numbers would never be in the upper echelon of second-basemen again.

It's actually this sudden and complete drop-off in production, I think, that harms his Hall of Fame case the most, if only because it makes it hard for voters to remember his peak or his legacy. There are also character issues to consider - the spit incident was very big news in its day. I think, though, that voters' memories of his flash, no matter how substantiated they are, will overwhelm the character question. I fully expect Roberto Alomar to get elected into the Hall of Fame on his first ballot next year and that, despite the superior counting numbers of Kent or the superior character points for Biggio, he will be remembered as the best second-baseman of his generation. It was quite a generation, though, and fans of Houston, San Francisco, or Toronto/Baltimore/Cleveland should be glad that they got to be such a big part of it.


The Common Man said...

Your breakdown made me think of two things. First, I wondered whether Robbie was somehow unpopular with his teams, given how often he moved around. But when you mentioned Gillick's tenure with the Orioles, it's clear that Robbie was recognized as a dynamic, desirable player rather than a headache to be shipped off (until the end, anyway). I hope voters will take that into account. Second, 11 All Star a row! If that's not the definition of a Hall of Famer, I don't know what is.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

I agree. Alomar was the first player I really knew anything about, and he was always a favorite in my book. Ultimately, there are a lot of guys in the Hall with personality issues (the more I look, the more I find), so that shouldn't hurt him. Statistically, I don't think there are any arguments for keeping him out. He did everything well. Truly one of the greats of our generation. Nice post.

Paul said...

I can't believe you decided to write a look back at Roberto Alomar less than a week BEFORE his salacious lawsuit hit the news. Nice timing.

That said, I can't imagine Alomar's career not getting him into the HOF. If his perceived "character" keeps writers from voting for him...I don't know what to say. How long do you have to be a card-carrying blogger to get into the BBWAA?

I'm the ultimate Big-Hall guy though. I really believe the Hall of Fame should also be much more like the Baseball Reliquary than it is today.