“I’mmmm Keith Hernandez”
And so goes the classic kiss scene between Keith Hernandez and Elaine Benes on Seinfeld.
Keith Hernandez is the quintessential NYC ball player. He is what many guys picture how they would be if they ever made it to the bigs.
Keith would hit a double, a sac fly, and draw a walk. He would finish a game 1-3 with 2 RBIs (or rib-eye steaks, in Keith speak).
And then he would start his night.
It is said that Hernandez required a bucket of beer, in ice, in front of his locker after ever game.
Keith was active on the NYC nightlife scene. He’s not shy of mentioning his nights starting at Smith and Wollensky’s and ending at popular upper east side celebrity hangout Elaine’s.
Keith was an all star on the field, and clearly a Hall of Famer off the field.
But does he belong in Cooperstown?
He started his career in 1974. As a 20 year old, Hernandez played in 14 games for St. Louis. 17 years later, Keith finished his career unceremoniously in Cleveland, playing a total of 43 games for the Tribe.
Keith wasn’t a full time player until 1976, when he played 129 games for the Cardinals. He was limited to an average of just 71 games his last three seasons. This all limited his opportunity to put up Hall of Fame numbers. Looking at his stats, while he was in the big leagues for 17 years, Keith Hernandez really only played 10 full season.
Comparing Hernandez’s numbers with other Hall of Famers is incredibly difficult. First you have some all time baseball greats in Lou Gehrig, Willie McCovey and Jimmie Fox.
If you try to compare Keith with more modern players -players from Hernandez’s time or just after- you see Kieth’s power numbers just don’t hold up. The most homeruns he hit in a season was in 1987, hitting 18.
Guys like Orlando Cepeda, Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Murray all have way more then Keith’s 162 career home runs.
Keith Hernandez does fall victim to the time he played. Keith was a doubles, rbi and on base guy. Not a homeruns guy. He played in an era where the homer became more and more important. Especially true for first base.
Keith lead the league in runs in both 1979 and 1980. In 1979, his Co-MVP season, he also lead the league in doubles. He led the league in batting in 1979, and OBP a year later.
His BB/K rate has always been strong. He racked up an even 100 walks in 1982. In ‘86 Keith led the league in free passes, with 94.
If there were men on base, Keith would drive them in. If the bases were empty, Keith would get on base. In the 1970’s and early ‘80’s, Hernandez was a prototypical 3 hole hitter, sandwiched between the speed guys in front of him, and the sluggers behind him. And in his prime, he was one of the hardest outs in the game.
A close look at his numbers, says that if Keith was playing today, he would probably project more as a 2-hole hitter. As crazy as it sounds after watching him play, some teams today might even bat Keith lead off.
He had doubles power- but not homeruns power, and could get on base at an elite level.
Matching Keith’s stats with other Hall of Fame first baseman, shows his 2182 hits is good, but there are other first baseman with 2,000 AND between 300 to 500 homeruns.
Hernandez really only put up numbers for 10 out of the 17 years he was in the majors. If he had another 5-7 productive years, he would have passed 2,500 hits, and 200 home runs. Add a projected 500 doubles, and 1,500 RBIs and those are Hall Of Fame caliber numbers.
The Gold Glove
It’s not a reach to say that Keith Hernandez is the best defensive first baseman in the history of baseball. He won 11 consecutive gold gloves.
Is his defense good enough to push his offensive numbers up, to Hall of Fame levels?
Ozzie Smith, a contemporary of Hernandez, made a career with his defense, and made it to the Hall, in large part, because of his defense. Ozzie Smith changed the way short stop was played. Smith played shortstop, a premium defensive position, and was the best defender there of all time.
You can see flashes of Ozzie Smith in shortstops around the league. From Carlos Correa, Fransisco Lindor, to Xander Bogarts, you can see Smith’s influence on how they play defense.
Where are the hard charging first basemen, that field bunts and nail runner at second? Where are the first basemen that play deep and far in the hole?
Hernandez was the best defensive first baseman. But he didn’t change the way the position was played. Not the way Ozzie Smith changed shortstop. Keith just played first base different then anyone else.
Again, Keith could be a victim of modern baseball. Many teams don’t want their first baseman being too aggressive on defense. They don’t want him to charge bunts hard. They think throwing to second is too risky.
In modern moneyball times, a popular theory is taking the easy out at first far outweighs the risk of throwing to second on bunts.
In his prime, Keith was an elite hitter. One of the toughest at bats a pitcher would have each night. At that time, Hernandez was one of the games best run producers.
Unfortunately, Keith Hernandez is not a Hall of Fame player. He needed five to seven more season of production offensively, and his defense isn’t the game changer like it is for other players.
If Hernandez had another few productive years, hitting those milestones- 2,500 hits, 1,500 RBIs, and how ever many more gold gloves, he would have gone down as one of the best players in the game.
But Hernandez didn’t have those five to seven more years. He aged quick, and his career ended just as quick. Players didn’t work out in the off season back then, they way they do now. Maybe Keith’s late nights just caught up with him.
That doesn’t diminish the legend that is Keith Hernandez. Mets fans will always love Keith. His hard play on the field, combined with his work now as a Mets broadcasted, added to Keith’s wild nights roaming around NYC like only a professional ball player can do, make Keith an all time favorite.
Keith Hernandez will always be a legendary sports figure in New York.
Just not a Hall of Fame baseball player