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Why Keith Hernandez Should Be In The Baseball Hall of Fame
One day after the BBWAA inducted no new members into the Baseball Hall of Fame for 2021, we look at why Keith Hernandez absolutely deserves to be there.
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. . . Though he came through in the clutch many times during his major league career, Keith Hernandez did come up short at a crucial juncture of the New York Mets’ storied 1986 season. Before their miraculous comeback in Game Six of the World Series, Hernandez was kicking himself for making the second out in the bottom of the 10th inning, with the Mets down 5-3. Instead of staying in the dugout, Hernandez was so upset that he went straight to the clubhouse and watched the rest of the game from manager Davey Johnson’s office along with Mets scout Darrell Johnson and PR guru-emeritus Jay Horwitz. The famous comeback ensued.
. . . Hernandez is well known for his Hall of Fame-caliber career, but he added to his resume in retirement by guest-starring as “The Boyfriend” in a two-episode arc in season three of Seinfeld. As the story goes, Hernandez heard about the opportunity from a phone call via his then-agent, Scott Boras. Hernandez reportedly had never heard of the show Seinfeld at the time, but agreed to do the gig after learning that he would be paid $15,000 for the guest spot. To this day, Hernandez still makes a couple thousand dollars annually just in royalties from those two Seinfeld episodes.
The Case For Keith Hernandez As A Hall of Famer
By Elizabeth Muratore
In their nearly 60-year history as a Major League Baseball franchise, the New York Mets have had two players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame with a Mets cap: Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza. They have had several other former players who spent some time with the Mets get inducted as well, such as Gary Carter and Tom Glavine. Among all of those greats is one beloved former Met-turned-broadcaster who was the best at his position for over a decade. Keith Hernandez is objectively one of, if not the greatest defensive first basemen of all time, and was a strong offensive bat for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Mets for over a decade and a half. By just about every measure, he deserves to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Hernandez’s strongest case for induction lies with his defense, which set such a high bar for first basemen that he often functioned more as an on-field coach than just a player. From 1978 through 1988, he won eleven straight Gold Glove awards. That is more Gold Gloves than any other first baseman in baseball history.
His defense wasn’t just reliable. It was game-changing. Hernandez frequently made plays like the one below that showed such remarkable anticipation for the upcoming action, it is hard to imagine how anyone on a baseball field could be quite so quick-thinking. To put it plainly, plays like this just aren’t made during a baseball game. Except when Hernandez was on the field.
Hernandez played in an era before terms like Defensive Wins Above Replacement (dWAR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) were a part of the baseball vernacular. Regardless of how many statistics were available to judge his defense on at the time, he was indisputably dominant at his position. A similarly impactful defensive-minded infielder from the same era, Ozzie Smith, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. So why not Hernandez?
Not only did Hernandez reinvent the position of first base, he delivered at the plate time and time again for 17 years. He has the distinction of being the only co-MVP in MLB history, sharing the award with Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell in 1979. That season, Hernandez led the league in hitting with a .344 average, the best of his career. He finished his playing tenure with a career .296 average, accompanied by a .384 on-base percentage and over 2100 hits. He was a five-time All-Star, won two Silver Slugger awards, and finished in the top-25 in MVP voting seven other times in his career besides 1979.
These accolades suggest that Hernandez was clearly among the more dominant offensive players of his era as well, in addition to being a defensive wizard.
If his 162 career home runs don’t sound worthy of HOF induction, consider the career home run totals of other “defense-first” Hall of Fame inductees from the latter half of the 20th century. Ozzie Smith: 28 career home runs. Bill Mazeroski: 138 career home runs. Luis Aparicio: 83 career home runs. If there is one stat that should not be holding Hernandez back in HOF voting, it’s his overall home run totals.
What might be hurting Hernandez in the HOF voting is the fact that he put up these power numbers while playing first base, as opposed to a traditionally “defense-first” position like catcher and shortstop. First base has become a slugger-type position in baseball, and first basemen today are often expected to be potent power threats in any team’s lineup.
Hernandez also did not have a squeaky-clean personal reputation as a ballplayer. He admitted to heavily using drugs while with the Cardinals, which was reportedly part of the reason they traded him to the Mets in 1983 just a year after they won the World Series. He may not perfectly fit the Hall of Fame mold of “darling franchise player who said all the right things and spent his whole career with one team.”
With all of that said, it is shocking to me that Hernandez received such little support on the Hall of Fame ballot when he was eligible for BBWAA induction. He was on the Hall of Fame ballot from 1996 to 2004, and never received more than 10.8% of the vote. By contrast, Ozzie Smith was inducted into the HOF on his first time on the ballot, receiving 91.7% of the vote in 2002.
If part of the qualitative measure of a Hall of Famer is, “were they among the best players at their position in their era?” the answer is a resounding “yes” for Keith Hernandez. He also passes the test of “all-time great in at least one metric,” with his overall defense speaking for itself.
Hernandez still has a chance to be inducted by a future Veteran’s Committee vote, so there is time for a substantial “Hernandez for the Hall of Fame'' campaign to be successful. Mets and Cardinals fans alike have been clamoring for his HOF induction for decades.
As a Mets fan, I do recognize that if Hernandez were to be inducted into the HOF, it would likely be in a Cardinals cap. I would also be willing to bet that if he does end up getting inducted, Cooperstown will be packed with an equal amount of Mets and Cardinals fans regaling him with cheers.
When Gary Cohen or Ron Darling ask Hernandez about how he’d feel about a potential Hall of Fame induction one day, he often brushes off the honor somewhat, but Mets fans who listen to him in the TV booth can read between the lines. They know that he knows he deserves to be a Hall of Famer. Hopefully one day, a future Veteran’s Committee will recognize what he and his fans have known for years and give him the honor he deserves.
Elizabeth Muratore is one of the editors of IBWAA’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter. She also writes for Rising Apple and Girl at the Game. Elizabeth is a lifelong Mets fan who, as you might have guessed, thinks that Keith Hernandez should be in the Hall of Fame. You can follow her on Twitter @nymfan97.
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“Today managers got to be there at 12 noon. It’s a full job, 12 to midnight, for crying out loud. I have no desire, no desire to wear a uniform. I don’t think I’m that great a communicator, to be honest with you. I think I would have a hard time. Things are a little different today. I would have less patience with shoddy play. I don’t have the desire to put the time in. Don’t want to sort of go back in the minor leagues and manage.
That’s hurting the game a little, too, because when I got into the minor leagues, I always had ex-major leaguers as coaches, ‘cause they didn’t make the money. I was right before the big burst in salaries, but I certainly made good money. I don’t think [many stars today] are ever going to manage. . . . Some people need to stay in the game. Some don’t.”