Flashback Friday: Keith Hernandez

Flashback Friday: Keith Hernandez

by April 22, 2022 1 comment

Welcome to a new MLB series that will be covering a player from the past every Friday. The players who will appear in these articles are not in the Hall of Fame. However, they may have a valid argument as to why they should be enshrined in Cooperstown, or they were just very good players that every baseball fan should know a little about. Thanks to a Twitter poll, Keith Hernandez gets the first write-up.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @jball0202 and vote as there will be a poll each week allowing you to select who the next Flashback Friday article will be about. Hopefully, these pieces will bring back some memories for those of us who saw them play while also educating the newer generation of fans on some of the impact players of the past.

Be sure to check out all of the other Flashback Friday articles.

Career

Keith Hernandez was born on October 20, 1953, in San Francisco, California. His father was a former minor league player and would play ball with Keith and his brother Gary. While being an excellent athlete at Capuchino High School, Hernandez sat out his senior year after a disagreement with his coach. However, he went to a local Junior College in San Mateo and was subsequently drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals 785th overall in 1971 at just 17 years old.

After his hitting finally came around, the Cardinals decided to bring up Hernandez for some games in 1974. He did well and earned a starting spot on the 1975 roster out of spring training. Hernandez struggled and was eventually sent down. He made it back as a September call-up that season and hit .350 with St. Louis for the rest of the season. In 1977, the left-handed hitter showed his potential slashing .291/.379/.459 with 15 home runs. The following year Hernandez won the first of his 11 consecutive Gold Gloves despite struggles at the plate. It would all come together in 1979.

The Cardinals first baseman shared the National League MVP with Willie Stargell that year. Hernandez should have won the award outright, or fought with Dave Winfield who finished third, but Stargell was a huge part of the “We are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates who ended up winning it all. Either way, Hernandez led the NL in doubles (48), runs (116), and batting average (.344). It was also the second year in a row he walked more than he struck out (80-78) which would become a trend as well.

A World Champ

Fast forward to 1982 and St. Louis is a force. They brought in the Wizard himself Ozzie Smith along with Lonnie Smith (68 stolen bases) and also had underrated Darrell Porter behind the plate for a second straight year. Hernandez was doing his thing and the Cardinals built a team predicated on getting on base and not striking out to make up for their lack of power (George Hendrick led the team with 19 home runs). Their first baseman had an excellent year again setting career highs in stolen bases (19) and walks (100) while slashing .299/.397/.413. Hernandez continued to be a terror with the glove winning his fifth straight award for his defensive prowess.

In the playoffs, Hernandez was every bit of the player he was during the season. He had 11 hits in 10 games between the NLCS and the World Series while scoring seven runs and driving in nine. He especially came through in Game 7. With the Milwaukee Brewers hanging on to a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth, Hernandez came up with the bases loaded and one out. He singled on a 3-1 pitch and drove in two runs to tie the game for St. Louis. The Cardinals would go on to win the game and the series.

Shipped to New York

In 1983, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog was not pleased with Hernandez. Whether it was the well-documented cocaine use, or the fact that Hernandez was struggling a bit (.784 OPS with just three homers in 55 games), the Cardinals skipper wanted him out of his clubhouse. Hernandez was traded to the New York Mets on June 15, 1983, for Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey. It would be one of the worst trades in Cardinals history.

Herzog shipped Hernandez off to the Mets as punishment. New York was an awful team as they could not manage even 70 wins in a season from 1977-1982. Yes, there was a strike in 1981 but the Mets still were horrible with a 41-62 record. What Herzog didn’t know was that the Mets had some young players coming up who would be teamed with a few veterans, namely Gary Carter, to form a great team. Hernandez got to the Mets and was rejuvenated. He hit .306 and blasted nine homers in 95 games for the rest of 1983. The Mets would be making noise shortly after that.

Another World Series

Hernandez played very well from 1984-1986. He hit .300+ all three seasons and led the league in walks in 1986 with 94. He also finished second in MVP voting in 1984 and fourth in 1986. In the NLCS, Hernandez came through for the team against the Houston Astros. In Game 6, the Astros were up 3-0 in the ninth inning. The Mets knew if they lost this game it would force a Game 7 and Mike Scott, who had dominated them in two games, would be the starter. Hernandez was in the middle of New York’s three-run ninth as he doubled in Mookie Wilson for the second run of the inning and then scored the tying run. The Mets would go on to win in 16 innings.

They would face the Boston Red Sox for the championship. Although many people remember the Game 6 comeback and the ball through Buckner’s legs, all it did was force a Game 7, which the Mets were losing 3-0 heading into the bottom of the sixth. Hernandez came through again with a two-run single that got the Mets on the board. They went on to win the game 8-5 and both Hernandez and the Mets took home their second World Series rings.

The Mets first baseman had another solid season in 1987, but his bat just started showing signs of slowing down as he set a career-high for strikeouts with 104. He also struck out more than he walked for the first time in 10 years. Unfortunately, it would be Hernandez’s last full season. He spent the next two with the Mets before signing with Cleveland Indians in 1990. There he would only play 43 games before hanging up the cleats for good.

After His Playing Days

Hernandez quickly endeared himself to pop culture when he appeared in a two-part episode of Seinfeld called “The Boyfriend” in 1992. He also appeared in the series finale of the show in 1998. Hernandez starred in numerous “Just For Men” commercials with another New York sports icon, Walt Frazier. He has been a broadcaster for SNY since 2006 along with former teammate Ron Darling and play-by-play man Gary Cohen. He has also worked as a studio analyst for MLB Network.

Hall of Fame Case

Hernandez managed to stay on the ballot for nine years, but only barely as he never even got to 11 percent of the vote. He was the best fielding first baseman ever. While that may not mean as much nowadays, back when Hernandez played it was certainly more important of a position simply because of the reduction in sacrifice bunts from then until now. The California native won a record 11 Gold Gloves at the position and is the all-time leader at first base in Total Zone Rating (120) according to baseball-reference.com.

It wasn’t just his glove that was great. The guy could hit a little also. In his prime from 1977-1988, Hernandez had the fourth-most WAR in all of baseball at 57.6 behind Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Rickey Henderson. Not bad company. He also slashed .302/.391/.446 and had a .371 wOBA and 135 wRC+. What likely hurt Hernandez’s chances was his lack of power for the position, but considering his ability to get on base at an elite clip, that should be somewhat looked at as not such of a knock. His JAWS Ranking which attempts to combine overall WAR with a player’s seven-year peak puts Hernandez behind 19 players and ahead of nine Hall of Famers.

Conclusion

The bottom line here is that Hernandez was an underrated hitter and the best ever defensively at his position. He was also the top first baseman in the NL for a solid 12-year stretch. There are a few things that hurt his chances including his counting stats and the aforementioned lack of power from a perceived slugger’s position. Early cocaine use that he was nearly suspended for also does not help. However, his overall offense was quite good especially combined with his prowess with the glove.

Hernandez is already in the Mets and Cardinals Halls of Fame and will have his number 17 retired by the Mets on July 9. The Contemporary Baseball Era Committe, which votes on induction for players from 1980 to present will meet in December. Keith Hernandez should certainly get some support and would get my vote.

Be sure to check out all of our other Hall of Fame cases.


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