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Mets Hall of Fame case: Keith Hernandez

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Hernandez was the best defensive first baseman in the history of the game, but was his bat good enough—and was he around long enough—to warrant induction into the Hall?

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In Part 2 of our Hall of Fame series, we examine the Hall of Fame case for the first team captain in Mets history, Keith Hernandez. Click here to read Part 1, which profiles potentially soon-to-be-Hall-of-Famer Mike Piazza.

After the Mets traded for Hernandez during the 1983 season, he immediately became a cornerstone player for the franchise. From 1984 to 1988, the Mets enjoyed their most successful run in franchise history, averaging 98 wins a year, and winning two division titles and a world championship. Hernandez was a big part of that success. During those five years, the first baseman hit .301/.388/.437 (134 wRC+), and averaged 13 home runs, 82 RBIs, 79 runs scored, 29 doubles, and 4.4 fWAR per year. He also won a Gold Glove in each of those five seasons, and led all National League first basemen with 38 total zone runs (TZ).

Hernandez’s career with the Mets lasted from 1983 to 1989. During those seven years, he hit an impressive .297/.387/.429 (132 wRC+), averaging 11 homers, 67 RBIs, 65 runs scored, 23 doubles, 3.7 fWAR, and seven TZ per year. He also won six Gold Gloves, made three All-Star Teams, and garnered three top-10 finishes in MVP voting.

On top of all that, Hernandez became a fan favorite in New York. After joining the Mets, Hernandez embraced the big city, and brought personality and swagger to an emerging juggernaut in the National League. In 1987, Hernandez was named the Mets’ first-ever team captain. He continues to be an important part of the Mets’ organization as an always colorful and insightful commentator on the team’s SNY broadcasts.

The case for

Hernandez earned his reputation as the greatest defensive first baseman to ever play the game. Among all players at his position, Hernandez ranks first with 120 TZ, the most reliable defensive metric for comparing players throughout baseball history (especially those who played before the advent of more modern defensive metrics like DRS and UZR). Hernandez set the record for his position by winning 11 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1978 to 1988. During that time, he averaged an impressive nine TZ per year and made a number of memorable highlight-reel catches like these:

Hernandez also brought a unique style of play to the first base position. Specifically, he aggressively charged bunts and wasn’t afraid to throw the ball across the diamond to gun down advancing runners. You can see a perfect example of that in the clip below, starting at the 1:10 mark:

In addition to being the best defensive player of all time at his position, Hernandez was no slouch with the bat. Hernandez finished his career with an exceptional .296/.384/.436 batting line (131 wRC+), along with 162 home runs, 1,071 RBIs, 2,182 hits, and 59.4 fWAR. His performance earned him two Silver Slugger Awards—one each with the Cardinals and the Mets—and four top-10 finishes in MVP voting. Hernandez co-won the National League MVP Award in 1979, when he won the batting title and hit .344/.417/.513 (156 wRC+), with 11 home runs, 105 RBIs, 116 runs scored, a league-leading 48 doubles, and 7.4 fWAR for St. Louis. Each of those marks, except for the home run total, was a career best for Hernandez.

Hernandez was particularly good at the peak of his career, which lasted from about 1979 to 1986. During those eight years, the first baseman hit an outstanding .313/.403/.456 (142 wRC+), and averaged 12 home runs, 85 RBIs, 89 runs scored, 34 doubles, and 5.6 fWAR per season. In addition to winning a battle title and leading his league in doubles, Hernandez led the league in runs scored twice, and walks and on-base percentage (OBP) one time each.

Due to his plate discipline and on-base skills, Hernandez was the type of hitter who would probably be even more appreciated in today’s game. Hernandez posted a .400 OBP or better five times, and was among the National League’s top three in OBP in seven of the eight years from 1979 to 1986. He also finished his career with 58 more walks (1,070) than strikeouts (1,012).

As for his place in baseball history, JAWS rates Hernandez as the 19th-best all-around first baseman in the history of the game. His JAWS is better than those of eight Hall of Fame first basemen, including Harmon Killebrew, Bill Terry, Tony Perez, and Orlando Cepeda. Hernandez’s score is also higher than those of non-Hall-of-Fame first base greats like Jason Giambi, Will Clark, Fred McGriff, Gil Hodges, Carlos Delgado, Don Mattingly, and Mark Grace. Tellingly, of the 18 players ranked ahead of Hernandez in JAWS, all of them except perhaps for Todd Helton are either Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers, or would have been Hall of Famers were it not for suspected PED use.

To the extent that signature moments and playoff heroics matter in Hall of Fame voting, Hernandez has those going for him as well. Hernandez was, after all, an integral part of championship teams with two different organizations—the 1982 Cardinals and the 1986 Mets. While his postseason numbers overall were fairly unremarkable, he did have a big World Series for the Cardinals in ’82, going 7-for-27 with a home run, eight RBIs, four runs scored, two doubles, and four walks.

Also fairly remarkably, Hernandez hit huge two-run sixth-inning singles in the seventh game of both the ’82 and the ’86 World Series. His base hit off the Brewers’ Bob McClure in 1982 tied the game at three; the following batter, George Hendrick, drove in the lead run to give the Cardinals a lead that they would hold onto for the World Series win.

In 1986, Hernandez’s two-run single off the Red Sox’ Bruce Hurst put the Mets on the board after being down, 3-0; Gary Carter followed by hitting an RBI ground out that tied the game, and the Mets added five runs later on to complete the 8-3 World-Series-clinching victory.

Hernandez suffers the opposite perception problem of Mike Piazza, whom we covered in Part 1 of the series. Everyone recognizes Piazza’s tremendous offensive prowess, but many undervalue some of his critically important defensive skills. Hernandez, on the other hand, is generally regarded as an outstanding defensive first baseman. However, because so much of Hernandez’s offensive value came from getting on base—as opposed to hitting long balls—many underestimate how complete of a player he was. The fact that he provided so much value to all of those great teams in St. Louis and New York made him that much more of an important player.

The case against

In terms of his Hall of Fame case, Hernandez’s biggest shortcoming was his lack of longevity. The first baseman had just 12 seasons in which he played 100 or more games. Leg injuries limited him to just 95 games in 1988, then 75 in 1989, and 43 in 1990. Hernandez played his last game in 1990 at the age of 36.

As a result of his diminished longevity and his style of hitting, Hernandez’s cumulative offensive numbers fall well short of the typical Hall of Fame first baseman’s. For example, the average home run total for Hall of Fame first basemen who played in the live-ball era is 369; Hernandez hit 162, or more than 200 fewer. At fewer than 2,200 hits, Hernandez’s hit total is lower than those of 14 of the 19 first basemen in the Hall. While rate stats give a better impression of a hitter’s production per plate appearance, counting stats could be a useful barometer for a player’s impact over a long period of time. By that standard, Hernandez comes up a bit short.

Hernandez’s JAWS backs this up. According to JAWS, Hernandez’s score of 50.5 is nearly four points lower than the average Hall of Fame first baseman’s score of 54.2. Hernandez ranks below 11 of the 19 Hall of Famers at his position in terms of JAWS. Among them are Eddie Murray, Hank Greenberg, and George Sisler, who are rated worse than the average Hall of Fame first baseman, yet still ahead of Hernandez. Hernandez also ranks behind Albert Pujols, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Thome, Miguel Cabrera, and Helton, who are not yet in the Hall, but could be one day.

Finally, there’s the issue of Hernandez’s defensive value as a first baseman. At the risk of angering Keith, who would surely disagree, first base is, in fact, the "easiest" position to play. Or, to put it more delicately, first base is the "left-most" position on the defensive spectrum. In short, good defense is not as valuable at first base as it is at other positions. A great defensive shortstop, for example, is much more valuable than a great defensive first baseman.

Consider that Hernandez, the all-time first base leader in TZ, ranks just 36th overall. The 35 players ahead of him provided more defensive value because they excelled at more demanding positions. This is why Ozzie Smith’s stellar defense was enough to offset his mediocre bat and make him one of the best all-around shortstops in history according to JAWS. Hernandez’s tremendous first base defense, on the other hand, was not enough to propel him onto the level of most Hall of Fame first basemen in terms of all-around production.

It’s unfortunate that injuries cut Hernandez’s career short when they did. Had he stuck around for a few more years, Hernandez could have built up the kind of numbers that would get more Hall of Fame voters' attention.

Prospects for induction

Hernandez debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 1996 and appeared on just 5.1% of the ballots cast. He never came close to the 75.0% threshold needed for induction, peaking at 10.8% in 1998 and only again reaching double digits in 2000 with 10.4% support. In 2004, his ninth year on the ballot, Hernandez garnered the support of just 4.3% of voters, and consequently fell off the ballot for failing to reach the minimum of 5.0%.

Hernandez will be eligible for consideration on the Expansion Era Committee—a byproduct of the overhauled Veterans Committee—every three years. The Expansion Era Committee considers players "whose greatest contributions to the game were realized from the 1973-present era." In order for the Committee to vote a player into the Hall of Fame, a BBWAA Screening Committee first has to vote that player onto the Expansion Era Committee’s ballot, and then the player needs to receive at least 75.0% of the 16-member Committee’s support.

Hernandez’s first year of eligibility under this process was in 2014. However, the Screening Committee did not vote him onto the Expansion Era Committee’s ballot. Instead, the Screening Committee nominated six others players—Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Dave Parker, Dan Quisenberry, and Ted Simmons—most of whom, for what it’s worth, don’t have nearly as strong a Hall of Fame case as Hernandez does. The Steering Committee also nominated six non-players—Billy Martin, Marvin Miller, George Steinbrenner, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre—with the latter three ultimately being voted into the Hall.

Hernandez’s next opportunity for consideration will be in 2017. At this point, there doesn’t appear to be serious momentum for his candidacy. However, perhaps through a reevaluation of both his playing career and a long career in the broadcasting booth that has made him an institution in New York sports, the door for Hernandez could someday reopen.