In the second in our series of posts on underappreciated stars from the 1970s, today we take a look at Keith Hernandez. If you caught the Ted Simmons post last week, you will remember that the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s represent a depressed offensive era. Hall voters seem to have a good idea what milestones make a Hall of Famer. They do a perfect job identifying the very best at every position. But sometimes they’re blinded to a player who had superior contemporaries or who didn’t hit in the manner they hope.
The 1970s and 1980s are way underrepresented in the Hall of Fame. Today we’re going to explain how the Hall could right a wrong at first base.
Who He Is
Keith Hernandez was a first baseman who essentially never played elsewhere because he added so much value to his employers with his glove that they dared not move him. Hernandez debuted for the Cardinals in 1974 about seven weeks before his 21st birthday. Though he was an excellent player in St. Louis, and even co-MVP with Willie Stargell in 1979, he was shipped to the Mets in June of 1983 for Neil Allen. Hernandez played some of his best baseball in New York, helping them to a World Series title in 1986. After the 1989 season, he became a free agent and finished things up with one year in Cleveland.
Why He’s Not In
It’s very possible, maybe even likely, that Keith Hernandez is the greatest defensive first baseman in baseball history. If there’s one reason he’s out of the Hall, it’s because voters don’t care enough about defensive greatness at first base. If we want a secondary reason, it’s because his defensive greatness helped to obscure his impressive offensive value. As an example, BBREF has a statistic called Offensive Winning Percentage. It represents a team’s theoretical record with average pitching and an average defense if all nine batting order slots were occupied by this player. For Hernandez, it’s .688. That means throughout his career, if a team had average pitching and defense and only him on offense, the team would go 108-54. That’s year in and year out, and it’s the same record as those World Series winning 1986 Mets.
How He Fared
In his first year on the Hall ballot, Hernandez just hung on with 5.1%. That year he was bested by 151 votes by the far inferior Steve Garvey. Two years later he peaked at 10.8%. By 2004, his ninth time on the BBWAA ballot, he fell to 4.3% and fell off the ballot. Don Mattingly, a lesser player, almost tripled his vote total that year.
With Hernandez, it’s not just defense. Even though there are 113 first basemen ever with 5000+ plate appearances, Hernandez is tied for 43rd in OPS+. The guy could hit. There are only 18 retired first basemen with 5000 plate appearances, an OPS+ equal to his, and positive rfield. But let’s not focus solely on fielding. There are only thirteen 1B who can match Hernandez in OPS+ and WAR. If we simply eliminate those who didn’t hurt their teams on defense and played more than half of their careers after the mound moved to 60’6” in 1893, we’re looking at just seven retired players: Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Johnny Mize, Eddie Murray, and Todd Helton.
Hall of Famers
Defense counts though. And Hernandez is so clearly better than High Pockets Kelly, Jim Bottomley, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez, Frank Chance, and Harmon Killebrew. It’s debatable that he’s also better than Jake Beckley, Bill Terry, Eddie Murray, Hank Greenberg, Willie McCovey, George Sisler, and Ernie Banks. Keeping him out of the Hall is indeed a crime.
Who to Dump
Tony Perez. Like the catchers discussed last week, Hernandez and Perez have the exact same AIR number, which represents the offensive environment in which they played. Unlike the catchers, it’s possible for someone not looking deep enough to get this call wrong.
Hernandez Perez ================================= PAs 8553 10861 Hits 2182 2732 Runs 1124 1272 Home Runs 162 379 RBI 1071 1652 BA .296 .279 OBP .384 .341 SLG .436 .463 OPS+ 128 122 So on one hand, it appears Perez had better numbers. Then again, despite 27% more trips to the plate, Perez wins by only 13% in R. Checking out the rate stats shows this comparison is quite close. ========================================================== Rfield 118 14 DRA 220.2 -0.9 The first is the defensive number at BBREF. The second is defensive regression analysis. I trust the second more. Either way, you see how Hernandez massacres Perez. ===================================================================== Actual WAR 60.0 53.9 My Conversion 69.5 53.7 MAPES 1B Rank 19 34 MAPES is my personal ranking system. Hernandez jumps up so much because of my DRA substitution.
I don’t believe I’ve necessarily convinced you that Keith Hernandez belongs in the Hall, but I hope you see that he’s better than Hall of Famer Tony Perez. Though Hernandez didn’t homer much, and though Perez hit behind the likes of Pete Rose and Joe Morgan, thus upping his RBI total, they were very similar hitters in terms of value. And then there’s defense. Hernandez destroys him. If this trade were made, the Hall would have a stronger roster.
In our next installment, we’ll get Bobby Grich into Cooperstown.