Monday, December 29, 2003
Keith Hernandez was one of the pillars of the mid-eighties' Mets resurgence that culminated in the 1986 World Series Championship. He had previously won the World Series in 1982 with the Cardinals before being sent to New York in a lopsided trade for pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey. With the upcoming Hall of Fame voting, Hernandez will appear on the ballot for the ninth time. Even if he is elected, he would likely be enshrined as a Cardinal, having played most of his career in St. Louis. That would leave Tom Seaver as the only player in the Hall actually wearing a Mets cap.
To this point, the arguments for Hernandez' candidacy have not been compelling enough to garner the 75% vote necessary for election. For my analysis, I am going to defer, as I usually do, to a method introduced by Bill James in his book The Politics of Glory.
This method involves a series of questions that James calls "The Ken Keltner List". The questions are somewhat subjective in nature, but can be considered objectively with a little help from statistics. So, without further adieu, The Ken Keltner List on Keith Hernandez.
Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
No. He tied for first in voting for the 1979 MVP award with Willie Stargell, but received more first place votes (10-4), and had a significant lead in OBP (.417-.352). He also finished second in 1984 (Ryne Sandberg) and fourth in 1986 (Mike Schmidt). However, I doubt anyone ever considered him the best player in baseball, or even one of the five-or-ten best.
Was he the best player on his team?
Yes. Clearly in 1979 and 1984, and quite possibly 1986, though Darryl Strawberry was also very good that year.
Was he the best player in his league at his position?
Yes. Defensively, he won the Gold Glove 11 straight seasons from 1978-1988. Offensively, he was the best in 1979, 1980, 1986, and was close in 1984.
Was he the best player in baseball at his position?
Yes and No. Defensively, he was the class of baseball for a decade. Don Mattingly was the best first-baseman in the AL in the late eighties and early nineties, but that was mostly after Hernandez' best days were behind him. Offensively, 1979 was the only season where Keith was the best first-baseman in baseball.
Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
In 1982 and 1986 for sure. He didn't contribute much to the Mets postseason run in 1988. Two is a number, isn't it? Yes.
Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
Yes. Keith turned 30 after the 1983 season, and put up an average OPS+ of 131 over the next six seasons.
If he retired today, would he be the best player in baseball not in the Hall of Fame?
Maybe. He was probably better than Sandberg, though Jim Rice was probably better with the stick. He's definitely better than Andre Dawson, and maybe even Paul Molitor. I'm going to make this one a "No", but it's close.
Are most of the players who have comparable triple-crown stats in the Hall of Fame?
No. He always hit for a high average, but his HR and RBI are not going to get him elected.
If he retired today, would he be the best player at his position not in the Hall of Fame?
Donnie Baseball was very similar. They had comparable career OPS (.820 for Keith, .829 for Donnie), though Keith holds a slight edge in career GPA (.282-.279). Until Mark McGwire is eligible, I'll say Keith is the best first-baseman out there.
Are the player's totals of career approximate value and offensive wins and losses similar to those of other Hall of Famers?
Hernandez is 57th all-time in offensive winning percentage among players with at least 8,000 plate appearances. Of these players, around 10 are hall-eligible and not inducted. He only has 1265 runs created in his career, which does not compare well with others.
Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
No, I wouldn't say so.
How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
One award, four top-ten finishes.
How many All-Star type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most other players at his position who made the Hall of Fame play in a comparable amount of games or have a comparable amount of All-Star seasons?
He played in five All-Star games, in 1979, 1980, 1984, 1986, and 1987. Not bad, but not really HOF-caliber.
If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
Iffy. While his leadership and glovework were top-notch, he wasn't really a big bopper, and would probably need some help. That being said, he was the best player on the Mets in 1986, and we know how that turned out.
Hernandez' candidacy is no doubt hurt by his lack of power. He only hit 162 homers in his career, though his career .384 OBP is very good. Ozzie Smith was elected on his first try mostly as a result of his ridiculous defense. Hernandez' defense wasn't as good, but his offense was definitely not as bad. He was excellent with the leather, was a very good hitter for a decade, and helped his teams to two World Championships. Longevity is also a factor here, though. Hernandez played in parts of 17 seasons, but he only had 10 seasons with 500+ at-bats.
That said, Hernandez is one of the two best first basemen (currently eligible) who are not in the Hall of Fame and, while he's not a slam-dunk, he is a borderline case for sure. I don't think he stands a good shot at being elected this year or any year by the BBWAA, though the Veteran's Committee could give him the nod sometime down the road. Once Mark McGwire becomes eligible, however, Hernandez' case will be weakened significantly.