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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Monday, May 14, 2001
Keith Hernandez for the Hall of Fame
Richard Clayton thinks Keith Hernandez should be in the Hall of Fame. Tell him what you think of his reasoning.
In his book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, Bill James employs a variety of methods intended to shed light on who belongs in the Hall and who doesn?t. These methods include the Hall of Fame Monitor, the Hall of Fame Standards System, and Similarity Scores. James also uses an approach called the Keltner List which, rather than providing a quantitative answer to a specific question (as the above listed methods do), seeks to clarify the discussion surrounding a player by asking a series of questions that one way or another assess his viability as a candidate. The List doesn?t produce a score, just a series of Yes or No answers, together with, in the best case, some justification for those answers.
I?m going to use the Keltner List to evaluate Keith Hernandez as a Hall of Fame candidate. Just to lay all my cards on the table, I?ve never been a Mets or Cardinals fan, and Hernandez was not, while he was active, a particular favorite of mine. Nevertheless, over the last couple of years (really since reading his book Pitch by Pitch) I?ve become persuaded that he deserves election, and moreover that his candidacy hasn?t received due attention from the sabermetrics crowd. One of the advantages of using the Keltner List is that it pretty much forces you to approach the question of who belongs in the Hall in an objective and judicious manner, and specifically to acknowledge a player?s weaknesses as a candidate.? Consequently, I hope that this assessment will persuade the skeptical, if not to support Hernadez?s election, at least to recognize that he is a serious and legitimate candidate.
Anyway, here?s the list, drawn (but not quoted) from James? book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?:
As the following discussion will make clear, several of these questions are intended as a cue to employ one of the methods (HoF Standards, similarity scores) James has developed over the years. But let?s get on with answering the questions ?
1) Was he ever the best player in baseball? While he was active, did anyone
James writes that this is a very tough standard, and that almost every player who was ever considered the best in the game has already made the Hall (or will without an argument). Surprisingly, though, there were people around who did suggest that Keith Hernandez was the best player in the game. In 1979, Sports Illustrated put Hernandez on the cover, with the headline ?Keith Hernandez ? Why You?ve Never Heard of Him and Why He May Be the Best Player in Baseball.? I don?t seriously expect anyone to believe Hernandez was the best player in the game, but the suggestion was made, and that?s what the question is asking.2) Was he the best player on his team?
I?d say Hernandez was the best player on the Cardinals from at least 1979 to 1982. He was also, for at least a year or two in there, the best player on the Mets between 1983 and 1986, but that?s a tough standard for Keith for a couple reasons. First, when Bill James talks about someone being the best on his team, he doesn?t mean just for one season: he means, given that player?s true abilities, and given his age at the time, was he the best player on the team for an extended period? Second, this standard is fairly easy to apply to the Cardinals when Hernandez was with them, but very difficult to apply to the Mets. Gooden and Strawberry were both very young at that time, very promising, delivered on that promise to a degree, but ultimately did not have the careers one imagines they were truly capable of having. So, its difficult to say what their ?true abilities? were, and thus hard to assess who the best player on the team was independently of a year by year analysis.
Hernandez came up with St. Louis for good in 1976, and was a regular the next season. At that point Ted Simmons was the best player on the team, but by ?79 Hernandez had overtaken him with an OPS of? .930 to Simmons? .876. From 1979 to 1981, Hernandez?s runs created totals were 135, 122, and 73 (in 103 games). After Herzog took over the team he made a lot of changes, bringing in Ozzie Smith, Bruce Sutter, and Lonnie Smith. I would argue that Hernandez was the best of this bunch in these years, primarily because Ozzie really wasn?t a good offensive player yet, Lonnie?s offense, while excellent, was about a match for Keith?s while his defense was not, and Sutter, while still good, had entered the decline phase of his career. Here?s some evidence:
The numbers for Sutter are his Adjusted Pitching Runs and Total Pitcher Index. Also, Hernandez?s ?83 season is a composite of his numbers with the Cardinals and Mets. So, while Lonnie Smith was, for a year, about as good a hitter as Hernandez, and played a more valuable defensive position, Total Baseball?s methods show Hernandez to be slightly more valuable. Ozzie in 1982 comes out ahead of Hernandez in TPR because his fielding runs total (33) is huge and he gets a big position bonus. One could argue that in 1982 Ozzie was a better player than Hernandez, but given how weak his offense was, and how wildly Fielding Runs totals vary from year to year, I?m a little skeptical. A year or two later, when he ceased to be an automatic out, I?d agree that he was a better player than Hernandez, but I don?t think he was at that point in his career. Finally, while he settled the St. Louis bullpen situation, Sutter?s best seasons were mostly behind him at this point. Keith Hernandez was creating about a hundred runs a year like clockwork, more in his best seasons, and that was the best the Cardinals had.
With the Mets, the evidence is more clear:
Carter was in Montreal in ?83 and ?84, but I included his numbers because we want to get a sense of each player?s true ability, not simply his performance in a given season. I would say that, with the exception of Gooden (and Carter) in 1985, Hernandez was the best player on the Mets from ?83 to ?86. He was creating more runs than any of his teammates, and he gets such a boost from his Fielding Runs that it more than makes up for his position penalty relative to Carter and Strawberry. Again, Fielding Runs are an oft and fairly criticized stat, but Hernandez was clearly the best offensive player on the Mets in these seasons. Starting in 1987, Strawberry and Howard Johnson really come on (while Carter quickly fades), but I think we can safely answer Yes to question 2: Keith Hernandez was the best player on his teams over a period of many years, if not the best by an overwhelming margin.
3) Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
From about 1977 to 1987, which covers Hernandez?s best seasons, I?d say that the best first baseman in baseball was Eddie Murray. Cecil Cooper also had some real good seasons in those years. Again, the evidence, though this time just the hitting stats:
Hernandez led this trio in offense four times in these eleven seasons, as against five times for Murray, and twice for Cooper. In his best seasons in the mid-1980?s, Murray is 20-30 runs a season better than Hernandez, but Keith?s best years (?79-?81) match up very well with Eddie?s. Frankly, I?m surprised that the difference isn?t greater. If park and league adjustments were made, I suspect Hernandez might turn out to have been the best hitter for at least a couple more seasons. If Hernandez wasn?t quite the best first baseman in baseball, he was certainly the best in the National League.4) Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
In 1982, 1984, 1985, and 1987 Hernandez?s teams were in close races, though his team only won in ?82 (there was not any kind of pennant race in the NL East in 1986). I can only imagine that Hernandez had an impact. Yes.5) If he was the best player on a team, could that team win the pennant?
Well, I?ve already argued that he was the best player on both the ?82 Cardinals and the ?86 Mets, and they both won the pennant, so the answer is obviously Yes.6) Was he good enough to keep playing regularly past his prime?
Frankly, I?ve never been quite sure what James had in mind with this question. I believe that it?s meant to assess whether a player is able to keep a major league job after he hits 30, since a player who cannot do so is unlikely to be much of a Hall of Fame candidate. Hernandez?s ?30 year? was 1984, and he played regularly for several seasons beyond that. Also, his best season came in 1979, and he played nearly a decade as a regular after that, if that?s what the question means. On the other hand, he did not have an especially long career, all things considered (much shorter than Eddie Murray?s). I?d still answer Yes.7) Does he meet the statistical standards of the Hall of Fame?
I can think of two ways in which to approach this question. The first, which I?m pretty certain is the sense that James intended, is to examine how the player stacks up using the Hall of Fame Standards (or Career Assessment) system. This system primarily relies on a player?s career counting stats (hits, RBI, etc) and gives a player an overall score for the number of standards he meets; an average Hall of Famer will meet 50% of the standards. Hernandez meets 32% of the standards, decidedly on the low side for a Hall of Famer.
The second way of evaluating a player in terms of the Hall?s established standards is to compare him to those players at his position who have already been enshrined. Ignoring the 19th century players (and hence most ?quality of play? issues) there are 14 first basemen in the Hall of Fame. I have included Harmon Killebrew and Tony Perez in this list, though each of them played a number of years at third base. I?ve also included Eddie Murray, who I believe will be a Hall of Famer very shortly, along with Hernandez. They are listed below with three statistics from Total Baseball: Adjusted Production (PRO+) which is league and park adjusted on base plus slugging percentage indexed to the league average at 100; Adjusted Batter Runs (BR) runs above an average player adjusted in the same way; and Total Player Rating. I?m only switching from Runs Created because it?s much easier for me to get a hold of these stats. Here they are:
I?ve ranked them by PRO+, but it should be pretty obvious that, as a hitter, Hernandez is well above the level of the least valuable Hall of Fame first basemen. There are four first basemen in the Hall with lower PRO+ than Keith, and a couple others (Cepeda and Murray) who are only just above him. There are five first baseman with fewer adjusted Batting Runs in their careers than Hernandez, with Cepeda and Terry only a little above him. Now, some of these selections were clearly mistakes: Kelly and Bottomley, most obviously. However, Hernandez would by these measures appear to have been a significantly more valuable hitter than George Sisler (66 BR), Frank Chance (112 BR) or Tony Perez (50 BR). I have never heard anyone argue that Sisler was a mistake, and if Perez was a mistake he wasn?t an enormous one; he meets 40.3 % of the Hall of Fame Standards. Chance was the best hitter on one of the most dominant teams in baseball history, so I don?t think you can dismiss him either. Cepeda?s selection was more or less endorsed by James in Whatever Happened, and Murray is going to be elected as soon as he?s eligible; they?re both only just a hair better than Hernandez ranked by PRO+, though Murray outdistances both in BR.
??????????? Having said that, it?s clear that Keith Hernandez was not as good a hitter as an average Hall of Fame first baseman (Cap Anson and Bill Terry are about average for this group), but he was at least as good a hitter as many Hall of Famers at his position, players who no one can fairly argue have no business being in there. I don?t know that we can answer Yes to this question, but I don?t think a definitive No is appropriate, either.
8) Are most players with comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
This question invites the use of another James method, similarity scores. Basically, this system takes two players and compares their career hitting stats (again, mainly the counting stats), subtracting points for increments of difference in their career statistical lines. The system starts at 1000, and truly similar players will have scores over 900. Any score under 700 is not really similar at all. There are special adjustments for position, but you get the idea. Here are Keith Hernandez?s ten best comps, courtesy of Baseball Reference.com:
Grace, Joyner, and McRae rate as truly similar players. None of these guys are in the Hall of Fame. The answer to this question, clearly, is No.
9) Is there evidence to suggest that he was better or worse than his
You bet there is. There are many reasons to believe that Keith Hernandez was a great deal better than his career offensive counting stats would indicate. To begin with, rated by those statistics, Hernandez doesn?t look at all special, and isn?t close to being a Hall of Famer. But using Total Baseball?s sabermetric stats, Hernandez looks much closer to guys like Cepeda and Murray than he does to Mark Grace or Ken Griffey Sr. I think part of the reason for this discrepancy is that Hernandez drew many walks, and consequently had very high on base percentages, throughout his career: the sabermetric stats reward him for this performance, but walks and on base percentage don?t get much weight in James? Hall of Fame Standards and Similarity Score systems (to be fair, the purpose of these systems is not to tell us how valuable a player was).
Another part of the explanation for this discrepancy is that Hernandez played in two pretty tough hitters parks (Busch and Shea) during an era when there was not a whole lot of offense. More than in the ?60?s, to be sure, but much less than in the ?20s, ?30s, or ?90s. Thus, Hernandez accumulated career totals similar to those of Grace, Joyner, and Kuhel, but under significantly more difficult conditions. It is noteworthy that Jose Cruz and Cesar Cedeno show up among Hernandez?s comps, because their careers overlapped with his, and they played in an even tougher hitters park (the Astrodome).
But the most important evidence that Hernandez was better than his hitting statistics, of course, has to do with his defense. Total Baseball rates Keith Hernandez as the best defensive first baseman in history, and as a result, his TPR is quite high, 71st all time. His TPR would rank 5th among Hall of Fame first baseman. Hernandez won 11 Gold Gloves and was universally regarded as the best defensive first baseman of his era. That may not be saying a whole lot, but it is saying something, and what it?s saying is that Keith Hernandez was better than his hitting statistics alone would suggest. And, looked at with adequate sophistication, his hitting statistics are very good indeed.
10) Did he ever have an MVP type season, and did he ever win the MVP award? How did he perform in MVP voting over the course of his career?
Keith Hernandez was the co-MVP of the National League in 1979, his best season. He did pretty well the rest of the time in MVP voting, finishing second in 1984, fourth in 1986, eighth in 1985, and eleventh in 1980. He ended up with a career award share of 2.06. No reason for a Hall of Famer to be embarrassed by that record.
11) How many All ?Star games did he play in? How does this total compare to other Hall of Famers of his era?
Hernandez played in five All-Star games in his career, in ?79 and ?80, and then in ?84, ?86, and ?87. This is not an especially impressive total for a player of his era: Steve Garvey, who?s career overlaps Hernandez?s to some degree, played in 10 All-Star games, while Eddie Murray played in 8, and Cecil Cooper also played in 5. I would argue, though, that in this case, the All-Star voting didn?t accurately reflect the value of NL first basemen. Let?s compare Hernandez to the NL All-Star first basemen in the years he had good seasons but didn?t make the team:
~ = calculated by the author
As you can see, in 1981 Hernandez had a better year than any of the three All-Stars. In 1982, only Al Oliver had a better season, and in 1983, only Darrell Evans. In 1985, Jack Clark had an excellent year, but Hernandez was healthier than Clark and a better hitter than Garvey or Rose. While Hernandez does not have the All-Star record you would expect of a Hall of Famer, that seems more likely to be a result of questionable selections rather than his failure to be consistently among the best at his position.
12) Is he the very best player in the history of baseball who is not in the Hall of Fame? Is he the best player at his position who is not in the Hall of Fame?
Not counting 19th century guys like Gorgeous George Davis and Parisian Bob Caruthers, I?d say the best player not in the Hall is Ron Santo, followed closely by Bobby Grich and Darrell Evans. None of these guys is currently eligible for the BBWAA vote. Of those for whom the writers can still vote, I?d say that only Gary Carter was a better player, and then not by a whole lot. I think Keith Hernandez is the best first baseman not in the Hall of Fame who is currently eligible.
However, first basemen who are currently eligible are not really the group with whom I?d expect most readers to compare Hernandez. Instead, I think many people will group Hernandez with players like Jack Clark, Will Clark, and Fred McGriff,? the last two of whom came up when Hernandez was nearly finished. I can easily imagine a reader pointing out that each of these gentlemen was a better hitter than Keith Hernandez, and at least the Clarks had good defensive reputations (though Jack?s was based more on his outfield play). Let?s compare them:
*????????? *??????????? *
So where does that leave us? On the one hand, Hernandez would not be nearly the worst hitter among Hall of Fame first baseman, if he were elected, though he would be a little below average for that group. Hernandez did not play in many All-Star games, and the players with career records most similar to his are either not in the Hall or very unlikely to be elected. However, Hernandez was the best player on his teams for many years, those teams contended and won championships, and he was the best first baseman in the National League from about 1979 to 1986. On the other hand, in recent years we?ve seen a number of first basemen (or 1B/OF to include Jack Clark) with better hitting records than Hernandez, and who we may safely say at this moment are not considered Hall of Fame material. Each of these players (the Clarks and McGriff) produced offensive numbers as good as or better than an average Hall of Fame first baseman, but Hernandez did not, so electing Hernandez to the Hall would seem to imply either that a) these three would also have to be elected or that b) Hernandez would have to get a fair bit of credit for his defense.
What I mean by a ?fair bit of credit? is about 100 runs. If you can believe that Keith Hernandez saved his teams 100 runs over the course of his career above that which another first baseman could have been expected to save his team, then I think you can bump Hernandez above the Clarks and McGriff, and endorse his election. If you don?t think his defense could have been worth even close to that much, then you can?t really endorse his election above the others. Total Baseball takes the former position, crediting Hernandez with 130 Fielding Runs (the best total for a first baseman in baseball history), and rating him (by TPR) the fifth best first baseman ever.
However, Fielding Runs is not a ideal measure of defense, and for first baseman the authors of Total Baseball have devised an especially arbitrary system for calculating defensive value: they give first basemen credit for assists, but not for putouts. The authors justify this decisions by claiming that most putouts are routine plays for first basemen, an argument that is not only probably wrong, but also irrelevant: Fielding Runs compares the number of outs a player makes to the number of outs an average player would have made in that league and year, so the statistic already controls for routine plays, that is plays you would certainly expect an average player to make. So, what if we just compare the number of outs Hernandez made for his career as a whole with those of a league average first baseman for the same years?
Well, what you find is that Hernandez made 9.70 outs per game, compared to 8.62 for an average NL first baseman for those seasons. In other words, Hernandez made 1.08 outs per game above average. Hernandez played 1924 games at first in his career, so that comes to about 2078 outs above average. Total Baseball estimates the value of an out to be about a fifth of a run (.2) so using that coefficient, Hernandez contributed about 416 runs to his team with his defense above what one would expect from an average defensive first baseman. That?s a huge, probably unrealistically large number, but even if you only think Hernandez was ? that good, he still contributed enough defensively to more than make up for the difference between his offense and that of an average Hall of Fame first baseman.
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