Keith Hernandez is an interesting Hall of Fame case. Since he’s kept a fairly high profile since retiring, it’s prizes some people that he’s not in the Hall of Fame. I think he has a case, but there are also clear reasons why he wasn’t a slam dunk. I think he has a fair bit in common with two of his contemporaries, Don Mattingly and Dave Parker.
Keith Hernandez has a case for the Hall of Fame, but his Hall of Fame case comes down to being in the right place but not the right time, and probably not long enough.
The Keith Hernandez retrospective
Keith Hernandez was a smooth fielding first baseman with a good batting average. Hall of Fame worthy, even. But he didn’t have the kind of home run power we normally associate with first baseman.
He came up with the Cardinals in the mid-1970s. By the time he was 22, he was a minor star. In 1979, he won a batting title and an MVP award, and he played a key role on the Cardinals 1982 championship team.
Then, in the summer of 1983, the Cardinals traded him to the New York Mets. Even at the time everyone thought it was a lopsided deal. Hernandez went on to play a key role for the 1986 Mets championship team.
He had the key ingredients of a Hall of Famer. He played on two championship teams, made a few All-Star teams and piled up some nice statistics. But he tapered off at the age of 34. In 1986, he seemed like he could make the Hall of Fame, but ultimately he fell short.
Hernandez didn’t hit for a lot of power. Part of that was his era, and playing all those years in cavernous Busch Stadium. But his power numbers didn’t improve much in New York either, even when he was surrounded by a 1986 team that could do it all.
Without booming home run power, he needed to make up for it with batting average, and/or sheer number of hits. His career batting average of .290 falls into the very good category, but not quite great. He had over 2,100 career hits. That’s good, but 3,000 is the threshold that punches your Hall of Fame ticket. When he retired, it was pretty clear he didn’t have a path to 900 more hits in his career.
His former teammate, Ozzie Smith, provides a bit of a precedent. Smith was a good but unspectacular hitter as well, and made it to the Hall of Fame based on what he did with his glove. Hernandez was an outstanding defensive first baseman. He caught everything in sight. But he also had a good enough throwing arm to serve as the cutoff man on balls hit to right field. Normally, the second baseman takes that throw. Hernandez had an unusually good throwing arm for a first baseman.
The drug scandal
It was something of a mystery why the Cardinals would trade a superstar to a division rival for two unremarkable pitchers, neither of whom pitched two full seasons for the team. Whitey Herzog, his manager, said in his autobiography it was because he didn’t hustle. Herzog didn’t mention drugs. But in 1985 his cocaine use came out, and word got out that the Cardinals suspected he was using. Hernandez was not the only player on the team who was using, but the others went to Herzog and asked for help. Hernandez did not.
The Mets team he joined was notorious for partying harder off the field than they played on the field. And in 1985, word of the cocaine problem across Major League baseball had gotten out. Dave Parker was another superstar who was implicated, along with eight other players.
Being caught up in that scandal seems to have hurt both Parker and Hernandez’s cases. Hernandez has a similar case to Ozzie Smith, but Ozzie Smith was squeaky clean.
When you look at modern statistics, Hernandez has a case. His adjusted OPS for his career was 128. That’s better than Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, and Harold Baines. And unlike Rice and Baines, Hernandez was an elite fielder, scooping up 11 gold gloves in his career. He didn’t play a premium position like Dawson, but having him at first base saved the Mets some runs, and allowed them to skimp on defense at third base and shortstop.
But being one of the best defensive first basemen of all time doesn’t carry the weight of being one of the best of all time at another position. First base is where you plant a clumsy oaf who can mash home runs. Hernandez was a great athlete who happened to be left handed, so first base was the only place in the infield he could play. He doesn’t get much credit for being a smooth fielder who played first base because he was left handed.
Hernandez was also, to a degree, a victim of his era. He came up at a time when you could play first base, not lead the league in home runs, and still be a star. Hernandez wasn’t the only example of that type of player. Steve Garvey and Bill Buckner were similar types of players. But by the time he was being considered for the Hall of Fame, between 1996 and 2004, first basemen were supposed to be muscle bound and hit 40 home runs per season. Derek Jeter played shortstop and hit a lot like Hernandez.
Ultimately, what seems to have done Hernandez in was not playing long enough. He was playing regularly by age 22, which gave him a bit of a head start compared to some of his peers. He played his final full season in 1987, at the age of 33, and had a good year. But he never played more than 95 games in a season after that. He had 2,000 hits at the age of 33. If he’d been able to play seven full or nearly full seasons and get enough at bats to get around 150 hits each year, he’d have finished with 3,000 hits.
Instead, he ended up splitting time with Dave Magadan at first base in 1988 and 89. Magadan was younger and was one of the Mets’ hot prospects. Objectively, he wasn’t any better than Hernandez those two years but no one faulted the Mets at the time for phasing Hernandez out to get their new phenom in the lineup.
The final 1990 season
And in 1990, he signed with Cleveland, who wanted a veteran first baseman to replace Pete O’Brien, who departed to Seattle via free agency. But he couldn’t stay healthy, so Cleveland ended up moving Brook Jacoby across the diamond from third to first, and playing a young Carlos Baerga at third. Hernandez only played a partial season, didn’t produce much at the plate, and retired at age 36. Losing playing time to Jacoby and Baerga sounds foolish today. But like the Dave Magadan situation in New York, it seemed like the right move at the time.
The style of pitching is a bit different in the American League, and he may have had difficulty adjusting. Signing with a National League team probably would have been a better bet, but there just weren’t any good fits in the NL that year. Ironically his best bet was St. Louis, but Whitey Herzog wasn’t going to play the clumsy Pedro Guerrero in right field to make room for a player he never reconciled with.
Keith Hernandez’s Hall of Fame case, in conclusion
In Hernandez’s case, it seems like a combination of things kept him out. Longevity probably being the biggest.
Baseball gets a lot harder after the age of 32. Rod Carew says he warned a lot of his peers that if they didn’t take extra batting practice, they’d be out of baseball by age 32. And he wasn’t pulling that age out of thin air. Hernandez was still productive past age 32, but his decline after age 32 was noticeable.
Given that Hernandez was considered the best first baseman of his era, played for two championship teams, and spent the bulk of his prime in New York, it surprises me that he didn’t get more Hall of Fame consideration. But much like his teammate Dwight Gooden, his case just wasn’t quite strong enough to overcome the lack of longevity and perhaps the drug stigma.