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NEW YORK — While reflecting on his career, which earned him a number retirement from the Mets and a congratulatory press conference on Wednesday, Keith Hernandez also came face-to-face with his own mortality.
Specifically, when the topic shifted to his chances of making the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the 68-year-old Hernandez said that if he does earn an induction, he’d like for it to happen while he’s still around to appreciate it.
“It’s out of my hands,” Hernandez said. “I’ve been out of the game for a long time. Hopefully I’ve got another 15, 16, 17, 18 years of life. Maybe it’ll happen before I kick the bucket.”
While Hernandez was typically self-deprecating and careful not to come off as desperate for the recognition (just as he was about his number being retired), he also absolutely has a case to campaign for himself. Hernandez originally fell off the ballot in 2004 after not garnering enough votes, peaking at just 10.8% of the vote. He could still get in by way of the Eras Committee (formerly known as the Veterans Committee), who recently granted Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso and Buck O’Neil a spot in Cooperstown long after they had retired and unfortunately, after they had passed away.
The first line on Hernandez’s Hall of Fame resume is defense. This is usually not a great calling card for a first baseman, whose job is primarily on the offensive side. But when you have an argument for being the greatest defender ever at your position like Hernandez does, you should absolutely make sure people know about it. With 11 Gold Gloves, the cat-like fielder is one of 13 position players in MLB history to win the award 10 or more times.
He’s also the only first baseman to reach double digits and he picked up all of his hardware in order, winning the National League Gold Glove every year from 1978 to 1988. Don Mattingly is the next closest to Hernandez with nine Gold Gloves, and while Mattingly also failed to get into the Hall of Fame the traditional way, Hernandez has more career hits, walks and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) than Mattingly, while also beating him in on-base percentage and wRC+.
Hernandez has other accolades on his side — five All-Star selections, two Silver Sluggers, a pair of World Series rings and a batting title and MVP with the Cardinals in 1979 — but a major part of re-litigating his Hall of Fame case lies in sabermetrics.
“Maybe the analytics will help me,” he pondered. “It’s very interesting.”
Indeed it is. According to FanGraphs’ WAR calculations, Hernandez was a better overall player than Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda and George Sisler. That trio of first basemen are all in the Hall. In his 17-year career, Hernandez also put up more WAR than fellow first baseman Todd Helton, who is trending upward after receiving 44.9% of the vote in 2021.
By Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), FanGraphs’ metric for quantifying a player’s total offensive value, the man normally regarded for his glove is also a better hitter than some titans of the game. At 131 wRC+, Hernandez created 31% more runs than the average hitter during his career. That’s a better number than Eddie Murray (127), Pete Rose (121) and Ernie Banks (118).
Since MLB’s integration in 1947, Hernandez is the league’s 20th-best first baseman by WAR. Aside from Rose, players linked to performance-enhancing drugs, and active players who aren’t eligible yet, Joe Torre, Dick Allen and Darrell Evans are the only players from that top 20 list who are still on the outside looking in. First base was not the primary position for Torre or Evans, though, and Allen played a lot of third base and left field too. As far as pure first basemen go, Hernandez is arguably the best, non-steroid tarnished one who doesn’t have a plaque already.
There are also more traditional numbers and awards on his side. He’s got 2,182 career hits, a .265 average and .370 on-base percentage in 30 postseason games, and a special honor that very few other guys can claim.
“Not too many players who are in two team Hall of Fames,” Hernandez pointed out, referencing his status as both a Mets and Cardinals Hall of Famer.
There’s also his peak, something that Hall of Fame voters love to look at in determining just how good a player was at their very best. From 1979-1986, Hernandez hit .313 with a prodigious .403 on-base percentage. He averaged 34 doubles per season during that eight-year span and ran an .859 OPS and 142 wRC+, all while having the best glove of any first baseman in the world.
The left-handed hitter with the slick swing and even slicker mustache also walked more than he struck out, something that modern thinking may give more credence to. In each year of his prolific peak, Hernandez drew a walk in at least 11% of his plate appearances, leading to a better career walk rate than Albert Pujols and Willie Stargell, and a higher on-base percentage than Harmon Killebrew and Willie McCovey.
The knock against Hernandez will be that he didn’t hit for enough power. This is true. He never hit more than 18 homers in a season and only slugged .436 for his career. But he can make up for that by arguably being the best fielder ever at first base. How far that goes in the eyes of the committee — in this instance, the Modern Baseball Committee, which considers retired players whose greatest achievements happened from 1970 to 1987 — is yet to be determined.
One thing is unassailable, though. Keith Hernandez was a hell of a baseball player. His post-playing days have brought him fame for his media prowess, but if that’s his lasting legacy, it will greatly ignore just how special he was on the field.