When pressed for their favourite memory of Roberto Alomar, Blue Jays fans are just as likely to mention a specific moment of defensive wizardry as they are his home run in the 1992 ALCS against Dennis Eckersley. Asked to close their eyes and picture Alomar, most would see the Hall of Fame second baseman diving through the air to his left and coming up with a ball that no other second baseman in baseball could come up with.
But how accurate is our belief in Alomar’s defensive abilities?
According to advanced defensive metrics, Alomar was actually a sub par defender during his time in Toronto, costing the Blue Jays between six and eight runs a season. With ten Gold Glove Awards in his career despite such a poor zone rating, Alomar might be called the Derek Jeter of his time.
Bringing up this comparison is sure to incite claims that everyone, outside of AL managers at least, knows that Jeter is a bad defensive shortstop, whereas Alomar had no such reputation. But consider baseball’s accessibility in the mid nineties compared to 2010. There was no such thing as a Baseball Reference or FanGraphs website. There were barely websites. Baseball fans couldn’t check the data like they’re able to today.
You might say that you don’t need the internet to know that Jeter has a limited range. It’s as simple as gauging the difference between him moving to his right and left for a ground ball. No such claims were ever made about Alomar while he was being watched.
Again, I’d suggest that this is because of a difference in accessibility. Baseball fans today have the means to watch multiple out of market games thanks to MLB.TV and MLB Extra Innings. I can watch just as much of Derek Jeter as I can Aaron Hill. In the mid nineties, despite their back to back World Series victories, it was mainly Blue Jays fans watching Alomar and the Toronto Blue Jays play. As great as Jays supporters are, no one would confuse us with being unbiased fonts of unprejudiced knowledge.
In fact, evidence does exist that Alomar’s reputation exceeded his actual defensive ability. In a mid-nineties Baseball Abstract, Bill James casually mentions that the Blue Jays scouting staff was wary of the difference between Alomar’s perceived and actual talent as a second baseman.
It could also be argued that defensive zone ratings from the mid-nineties aren’t properly accounting for the playing surface (and I use the term loosely) at the SkyDome. The turf at the SkyDome during Alomar’s time in Toronto was basically a sheet of green carpet over concrete. Batted balls would travel harder and faster than they would in any almost any other stadium.
At first glance, that sounds like a reasonable rationale, but in the immediate years following Alomar’s departure from Toronto, his defensive ratings were similarly below replacement level. This was when Alomar played half of his games on the Maryland Bluegrass in Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a far cry from the pin ball machine that was SkyDome.
Another justification for Alomar’s poor numbers is shifting blame to John Olerud’s limited range at first base. We all remember those plays to Alomar’s left and wondering how he got to them. Well, perhaps he came up with them by shading toward first because of Olerud’s supposed immobility, leaving him vulnerable to balls hit up the middle, and resulting in a misleading defensive range rating.
Again, that sounds like a swell explanation, but Olerud’s defensive numbers actually show that he had the most consistently positive range in the Jays infield during the five year stretch in which Alomar was manning second base. He may not have been the fastest guy on the basepaths, but Olerud regularly got to baseballs that were hit in his vicinity.
The truth of the matter is that Alomar really was our Jeter. Think back to those memories of Alomar sailing through the air. I’ll bet that in your imagination he’s always diving to his left. That’s because he had good range one way and he could look spectacular getting to batted balls that normally would’ve rolled into right field, but he couldn’t move to his right in the same fashion. Unfortunately for Alomar and his zone rankings, more groundballs are hit toward center field as opposed to right.
His lack of range moving right could also explain Alomar’s below replacement level numbers at turning double plays, but I’m slightly more inclined to believe that his troubles with his pivot resulted from having four different regular shortstops feeding him over his five years in Toronto.
None of this is to say that Alomar doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. In fact, he could’ve been far worse at second base and still have deserved enshrinement in Cooperstown. But let’s lay off the Bill Mazeroski comparisons, and recognize Roberto Alomar for what he actually was: the best second baseman of his time at the plate, with or without a defensive upside.