The Mets recently announced that Keith Hernandez‘s #17 would be retired by the organization in a ceremony during the 2022 season. As Hernandez’s numerous career accolades are again recounted, fans have renewed the push to place Hernandez in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Hernandez debuted for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1974, at just 20 years old. He impressed with a 140 OPS+ in 41 PA. The following year he struggled in part-time play though, with an 83 OPS+ across 64 games. That would be the only season in which Hernandez posted an OPS+ below 108 until 1989. Across a 17-year career, he held a 128 OPS+, 2182 hits, and 60.3 bWAR.
In 1979, a 25-year-old Hernandez posted the best year of his career, with an incredible .344/.417/.513 slash line, and would go on to win the National League MVP award. That same year he was named to his first of five all-star teams, and won his second of ten gold gloves with stellar defense at first base. Just in the midst of his success, Hernandez was traded from the Cardinals to the New York Mets in 1983. He would go on to become an integral piece in the fabled 1986 championship team, posting a 140 OPS+ from the three-hole that year.
Since the implementation of the gold glove award in 1957, just sixteen MLB players have won the award ten or more times. Of that elite group, twelve are already enshrined in Cooperstown. The remaining four include Ichiro Suzuki, Omar Vizquel, Andruw Jones, and Keith Hernandez. Suzuki is a lock for the hall once eligible in 2025, and Vizquel was on track for election before allegations of sexual harassment and domestic violence completely derailed his run. Jones just passed his fifth year on the ballot, secured 41.4% of the vote, and remains on an upward trajectory.
As for Hernandez, he appeared on the ballot for nine years, but never received more than 10.8% of the vote. Hernandez, at the very least, deserved a much better showing than that. Given the recent attention paid to defensive-minded players like Scott Rolen, Hernandez is deserving of another review.
JAWS is a unique statistic developed as a tool for assessing HOF candidacy. It provides an output of the average of a player’s career WAR and their WAR7, or the WAR they accumulated across their best seven-season peak. This measure is designed to give equal weight to players who accumulate stats over a long career, as well as those who dominated the competition for a few brief years.
Among first basemen, Hernandez ranks 20th all time, with 50.8 JAWS. Of the top 22 first basemen, 15 have already made it to the hall of fame. Four are seemingly on their way, including active players Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Joey Votto, plus Todd Helton, who is on pace to make it with 52.0% of the vote in just his fourth year on the ballot. Two, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, have been de facto banned from Cooperstown due to their use of performance-enhancing drugs. The sole remaining first baseman? You guessed it, Keith Hernandez.
Beyond the Field
While the numbers on a page certainly make a good case, Hernandez’s impact goes far beyond that. He has become a New York Mets legend for his role in the 1986 championship team and has further ingratiated himself with the younger audience as one-third of baseball’s best broadcasting team. Not to mention that he cemented his legacy in New York culture when he appeared as a guest star in season 3 of Seinfeld.
Hernandez almost certainly deserves to be reconsidered for a place in the Hall of Fame. At the least, his career stats and accolades deserve far more than a measly 10.8%. Since he fell off the ballot, the voting base has become much more in tune with the value of good defense. Not only was Hernandez one of the best first-basemen of all time, but he deserves significant credit for revolutionizing the perception of the position, paving the way for similar players like Don Mattingly and John Olerud.
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