John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Harold Baines, really?
A very good player, obviously, yet upon hearing that Baines was elected to the Hall of Fame on Sunday by a 16-person committee, I couldn't help but think immediately of a couple of dozen former star players who are more deserving.
One of them being Keith Hernandez.
Never mind that White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf's presence on the committee raises questions about whether he wielded too much influence on the voting process; Baines' election, along with that of reliever Lee Smith, practically demands that many others who have been passed over get in at some point.
And certainly you can find more direct comps, outfielders such as Dale Murphy and Bernie Williams whose time on the annual baseball writers' ballot has come and gone; Fred McGriff and Larry Walker, who are still on that ballot -- and certainly DH Edgar Martinez, who seems likely to get voted in this, his final year of eligibility.
Yet Hernandez, the former Met first baseman, has a particularly intriguing case, in part because two areas of the game in which he excelled, defense and on-base percentage, are more highly valued in this era of analytics-savvy voters.
Hernandez earned 11 Gold Gloves, as he occasionally reminds viewers in his inimitable, "I'm-Keith-Hernandez" persona while working Mets' games as an analyst for SNY, but even that gaudy number doesn't do justice to the impact he had defensively.
He was most famous for how aggressively he charged bunts, turning them into force-outs at second or third, and he saved countless errors from infielders with his slick footwork and sure hands.
Even more than that, however, Hernandez influenced games with positioning. Before shifts became all the rage, he was rearranging the Mets' infield, playing so far off the bag at times as to allow his second basemen to move well to their right and take hits away up the middle.
As his former teammate Wally Backman once told me, "I never saw anybody run a game on the field like Keith. He set the defense, he was in the pitchers' ear from first base, reminding them what the guy at the plate couldn't hit, and he made all the plays. He won some games even when he didn't get a hit that day."
Hernandez also had a Hall-of-Fame-worthy .384 on-base percentage over 17 seasons, to go with a .296 lifetime batting average and an .821 OPS.
His relatively low total of 162 home runs worked heavily against him when he was on the writers' ballot for nine years, but more significantly, Hernandez received MVP votes in eight different seasons, finishing first (in 1979 with the Cardinals, when he shared the award with Willie Stargell), second, and fourth in three of those seasons.
One statistic that speaks to the respect he garnered from pitchers is the 130 intentional walks he received during his career, the 71st-highest total in baseball history.
With all of that in mind, Hernandez fares well in sabermetrics-based stats: he ranks 74th all-time in win probability added (WPA), which measures the change in win probability caused by his at-bats on a per-game basis; and he ranks 120th all-time among position players in the more well-known wins above replacement (WAR), an all-consuming evaluation that factors in defense and baserunning in a significant way.
With the influence of sabermetrics rising dramatically over the last decade, Hernandez likely would fare better if he were on the BBWAA ballot these days. As it was, from 1996 through 2004, the highest percentage of vote he received was 10.8, or miles away from the 75 percent needed for election.
Of course, to some degree you can make the same case for Don Mattingly, the former Yankee first baseman who earned nine Gold Gloves playing mostly in the same era as Hernandez.
At his best, in fact, Mattingly was the better player, and perhaps the best in baseball for a period of about three or four years in the mid-1980s, when he won an MVP Award and put up huge offensive numbers.
Had Donnie Baseball not suffered a back injury in the late '80s that robbed him of his power and diminished him overall as a player, he almost certainly would have been a lock Hall of Famer.
As it was, Mattingly fared better on the BBWAA ballot than Hernandez, earning a high of 28.2 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility, in 2001, and getting enough support to remain on the ballot the maximum 15 years.
In Mattingly's case, he simply didn't play long enough at a high level to sway enough voters, which is different from Hernandez, whose overall game wasn't appreciated as much as it should have been.
And now, considering that Baines never received more than 6.1 percent of the vote on the BBWAA ballot, certainly Hernandez deserves another look -- and MLB needs to make sure he gets one when new player-pools are created for consideration in future years.
In truth, the Baines election may prove to be more of an anomaly than a new standard, but if these committees are determined to get more players into Cooperstown, they should at least start with the most deserving.
Hernandez fits that description.