Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Keith Hernandez

Claim to fame: Hernandez was a five-time All Star, 11-time Gold Glove winner, and ranks among the best first basemen not in the Hall of Fame. He has the most Gold Gloves of any first baseman all-time, ranks third in career Wins Above Replacement for non-enshrined players at his position, and in his prime, was perhaps the best first baseman in the National League, if not the majors. In 17 seasons, Hernandez had 2,182 hits and a .296 lifetime batting average.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Hernandez spent nine years lingering near the bottom of the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for Cooperstown, consistently receiving about 5-10 percent of the vote. First eligible with the writers in 1996, Hernandez peaked at 10.8 percent of the vote in 1998 and finally got less than 5 percent in 2004, which removed him from future ballots. He is now eligible for enshrinement through the Veterans Committee.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This one’s for Rory Paap of who left a comment last week on my starting lineup of players not in Cooperstown. I picked Don Mattingly to man first, and Rory said:

I’d go with Keith Hernandez over Mattingly. He happens to be a distant cousin of mine, but still!! Check his career numbers…he was better than most people realize and an astounding defender.

Hernandez is definitely better than I realized. I had no idea he had so many Gold Gloves or such a high WAR ranking, 61.0, which is worse only than Dick Allen and Mark McGwire for eligible first basemen not in Cooperstown. Hernandez also had the All Star nods, defensive accolades, and 1979 National League MVP award, and in his prime regularly hit .300, boasted a .400 on-base percentage, and helped two teams win World Series. His appearances on Seinfeld can’t hurt either.

But the negatives here might outweigh the positives. Hernandez was involved in a cocaine scandal during his prime, declined dramatically in his mid-30s, and finished short of 3,000 hits, when with normal production from age 33 on, he might have attained it. Hernandez also never offered much for power, ranking significantly below Mattingly and (my all-time favorite player) Will Clark.

Here’s 162-game averages for the three men:

Hernandez 87 169 33 5 13 83 .296 .384 .436 .821
Clark 97 178 36 4 23 99 .303 .384 .497 .880
Mattingly 91 195 40 2 20 100 .307 .358 .471 .830

I’m not even that wild over Hernandez’s Gold Glove record, considering that the award wasn’t given before 1957, which might have kept players like Gil Hodges and Hal Chase from challenging.

But the biggest deterrent to enshrining Hernandez is that there are so many other good first basemen not in the Hall of Fame. In fact, besides catcher, relief pitcher, or stolen base specialist, I think playing first might be the hardest way to earn a plaque. I count a couple dozen first baseman at least worthy of debate for Cooperstown, and if Hernandez gets enshrined, so should McGwire, Allen, Clark, Mattingly, Hodges, Jake Daubert, Steve Garvey, Mark Grace, Fred McGriff, and Hal Trosky, for varying reasons I won’t get into (I’ll list the reasons in the comments section here, if anyone cares.)

Things could get even more interesting over the next couple of years as other good first basemen like Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, and Frank Thomas become eligible. While I’m curious how the Veterans Committee will regard Hernandez, I suspect he might become even more of a forgotten man to Cooperstown.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Others in this series: Al Oliver, Albert Belle, Bert Blyleven, Cecil Travis, Chipper Jones, Dan Quisenberry, Dave Parker, Don Mattingly, Don Newcombe, George Steinbrenner, Joe Carter, Maury Wills, Mel Harder, Pete Browning, Rocky Colavito, Steve Garvey, Thurman Munson, Tim Raines

7 Replies to “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Keith Hernandez”

  1. Nice work! Remember: I said I would take Keith over Mattingly, not that he was a Hall of Famer. I think I share your belief that he falls short, brilliant Seinfeld episode withstanding. Which, by the way, I do hear plays some factor in the voting of the Veterans Committee. We also know the blow and bad press can hurt worthy candidates (see Alomar and Raines) let alone fringe ones. If anything is enshrined, it should be the epic mustache, no?

  2. More: Keith’s OBP advantage is more than enough to close the gap on Mattingly’s not so significantly greater power (36 points slugging), as is evidenced by his superior wOBA: .365 versus .361. Mattingly also played about two fewer seasons than both Thrill and Keith. He’s third in this group, leaving us with Clark, who was clearly the superior hitter. Keith was clearly the superior fielder, so much so in fact, his career WAR is about +7. I’m not so comfortable with the fielding WAR, especially for players from the past, so I’m more than happy to probably give the Thrill the edge. But I can’t say with certainty he was more valuable, but Will did deserve the ’89 MVP. Lastly, I don’t think any of three are worthy of the Coop.

  3. If they had a stat for bring clutch, Keith would be a lock. What hold him back is the cocaine scandal and the fact that he wasn’t a power hitter. Keith was awesome in the postseason. Look at his stats of the ’82 & ’86 series. they were awesome. He redefined the way first base was played defensively and i can’t think of any would even has come close to playing that way since.

  4. I was just looking back through old posts and found this to be an interesting discussion. I think Mattingly is a step below Clark and Hernandez, having played such a short career with a short peak. It’s not fair to compare per-year numbers when Mattingly played several fewer full seasons than Clark and Hernandez.

  5. Joe, the closest thing to a “clutch” stat is WPA, or win probability added. This combines the positive and negative impact of a players play on the probability of his team winning at any given point in the game (with 1 WPA = 1 Win or 100% chance to win). Keith had 38.5 WPA, or 61st since 1974 ( plus incomplete 1950-1973 records). Will Clark has 45.9 WPA, and Don Mattingly had 23.0 WPA.

  6. I have no argument that Clark is better and Mattingly not better, at least as far as the numbers are concerned. So much of Mattingly’s glitter really belonged to Rickey Henderson being on second base every time he came to bat.

    But I have never, in 60-plus years of watching baseball, seen a defensive player change the game as much as Hernandez did during his years with the Mets, with the arguable exception of Willie Mays. In sacrifice situations, the other team’s options were totally skewed by the fact that he could make plays nobody else could. And he dominated the team’s defense setting by sheer knowledge of where to position everybody, not to mention that Met second basemen could cheat towards the bag because he covered so much ground.

    Hall of Famer? Probably not. But he’s a hell of a lot closer than Mattingly and superior as Clark was, when you consider the totality of what he brought onto the field, he’s right up there with The Thrill.

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