Posts Tagged ‘Keith Hernandez’

First in St. Louis

March 3, 2016
Johnny Mize with the Cardinals

Johnny Mize with the Cardinals

Did you ever notice how certain teams breed players at particular positions? The Yankees do it at Second Base, in Center Field, and Catching. The Red Sox produce great left fielders. The Dodgers and Giants come up with superior pitchers. St. Louis is one of those. As the title of this little excursion should alert you, for the Cards it’s First Base.

The Cardinals began business in the 1880s as part of the fledgling American Association. They were then called the Browns and were immediately successful and began with an excellent first baseman. Charles Comiskey started at first for the Browns for most of the 1880s. He wasn’t that great a hitter, but he was considered a good fielder (for his era), an innovator in first base play, and spent much of the decade as the team manager. The team won four pennants with him as player-manager.

The team moved to the National League in 1892 and slipped back toward the bottom of the field. They got very little out of their first baseman until Jake Beckley joined the team in 1904. He had one great season, winning a number of league titles, but wasn’t much beyond that. He was followed by Ed Konetchy and Dots Miller as first basemen for the rest of the Deadball Era. They weren’t bad (Konetchy hit over .300 a couple of times), but weren’t particularly notable either and the Cards floundered.

That changed in the 1920s. St. Louis began a long drive toward the top of the standing that culminated in the 1926 National League pennant. Most of the glory had to go to Rogers Hornsby, but the Cards found a pretty fair first baseman to help the Rajah along. He was Jim Bottomley and he was good enough to enter the Hall of Fame, although some think he’s one of those guys who shouldn’t be there. Bottomley won a home run crown and a couple of RBI titles. He lasted through the championship seasons of 1926, 1928, 1930, and 1931 before being replaced by Rip Collins. Collins was a power hitter who fit in quite nicely with the raucous Cardinals team of the 1930s. He hit well, won a home run title, drove in a lot of runs, and became a mainstay of the “Gas House Gang.”

But by 1936 St. Louis had found another power hitting first baseman. His name was Johnny Mize and he became the dominant first baseman in the NL for several years. (I’ve never done anything on him and I need to remedy that). He won a batting title, and RBI title, and a couple of home run titles before being traded to the Giants. He did well there and later helped the Yankees to a couple of championships. But he left just as the Cardinals found the promised land again. The 1942 through 1946 Cards won three championships and four pennants. Ray Sanders did most of the work at first (with Johnny Hopp holding down first in 1942). He was no Mize, but he played well enough. His departure led to a long series of Cardinal first basemen that didn’t last long nor did they provide a lot of thrills. But in some ways it didn’t matter. If all else failed, St. Louis could always bring Stan Musial in from the outfield to play first. He did it a lot and no one cared if he could field or not. He was pretty good with the glove, but his forte was the use of the bat.

Things got back to normal for St. Louis at first with the arrival of Bill White in 1957. He would hold down the position through 1965 and become a major factor in the Cardinals championship run of 1964. He was good with the bat, good with the leather. He was one of the men who constituted an all-St. Louis infield in the All Star game of 1963 (Julian Javier, Dick Groat, and Ken Boyer were the others). White hung around until replaced in 1966 by Orlando Cepeda. Cepeda had been, with Willie McCovey, part of a terrible fielding left field combination at San Francisco. One of them could go to first, but the other would have to stay in left and leak runs or be traded. McCovey was younger, so he got to go to first and Cepeda was traded. The trade was to St. Louis where he ended up at first also. It worked. He won an MVP in 1967 and was part of two pennant winning teams in 1967 and 1968, the ’67 team winning the World Series.

But Cha Cha was getting old and was never much at first, so by 1969 the team was looking for a new first baseman. They tried a couple of different options, but finally settled on ex-catcher, ex-third baseman Joe Torre. He lasted a couple of years before moving on for Keith Hernandez.

Hernandez was the great fielding first sacker of his day. He was universally touted for his defensive skills, so much so that people forgot he could also hit. He won an MVP in 1979 (a tie with Willie Stargell of Pittsburgh), then joined in a championship season in 1982, before moving on to the Mets. And that was it for a while for St. Louis at first base. True they had Jack Clark for a while (and picked up a couple of pennants with him at first) and Pedro Guerrero but neither was a satisfactory answer to their woes at first. That changed with the arrival of Mark McGwire in 1992.

McGwire was the power hitting machine that eventually set a single season home run title. We’ve come to see that record as dubious because of the steroid issue, but for St. Louis it provided a boost in attendance and in winning. By 2001, after a couple of playoff appearances, injuries, questions about steroids, and age took McGwire to the showers. But St. Louis had one throw left at first.

Albert Pujols came to the Cards in 2001. He was rookie of the year and a heck of a hitter. But he had no set position. They tried him in the outfield, then at third. Finally they decided to move him to first. He wasn’t very good at first, at least not for a while. But he got better with the leather and there was never anything wrong with the way he swung the lumber. The team won a pennant, then two World Series’ with Pujols at first. He picked up a ton of hardware including three MVP awards. In 2012 he left for Southern California. St. Louis has yet to replace him.

Although there have been periods when St. Louis first basemen were pedestrian, it’s not all that common. Throughout most of their history they’ve managed to find excellent, if not truly great, first basemen. There’s no Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle handoff nor a Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski baton pass, but over a century and a half, the Cardinals have produced an excellent first base tree.

 

The Case for Keith Hernandez

December 24, 2014
Keith Hernandez in civvies

Keith Hernandez in civvies

Glen sent me an email with a link to an article about the Hall of Fame. He asked what happened to Keith Hernandez and his chances for the Hall. Legit question. Here’s my take on Hernandez and the Hall.

First, Hernandez played from 1974 through 1990. He was with the Cardinals from ’74 through mid-1983. With them he won a World Series (1982), an MVP (1979–shared with Willie Stargell), won five Golden Gloves, a batting title, a doubles title, and led the National League in runs scored twice. In 1983 he was shipped to New York where he settled in at first for the Mets. He remained through 1989 helping the Mets to a World Series championship in 1986, a couple of playoffs which they lost to the Cards and Dodgers, led the NL in walks once, won another five Golden Gloves and finished as high as second in the MVP race. His last year was 1990 at Cleveland. In part-time duty he hit .200 and was through. Since then he’s done hair treatment commercials which probably shouldn’t be held against him in Hall of Fame voting (although as a pitchman he’s a great first baseman).

Hernandez’s final numbers look like this: a triple slash line of .296/.384/4.36/.821 with an OPS+ of 128. He has 162 home runs, 98 stolen bases, 426 doubles, 1124 runs scored, 1071 RBIs (and 1070 walks). His Baseball Reference.com version of WAR is 60.0. In postseason play he hit .265 with a couple of  homers. In fielding he has 11 Gold Gloves and was, by everyone’s estimation one heck of the defensive first baseman.

But he’s never gotten much of a Hall of Fame push. It’s a little hard to know why. He was generally well-liked, but he’s still never gotten much of a push for the Hall (the Hall of Miller and Eric guys have put him in, but not the guys in Cooperstown). I think a couple of things work against him. First, he is considered more a “fielder” than a “hitter” and as a character called “Baseballidiot” who shows up here occasionally once put it “It’s a hitter’s Hall.” Second, the Cardinals were in contention frequently, but only got to the World Series once when Hernandez was there. Some thought, and I remember hearing this from guys I know, that with a “heavier” hitting first baseman (think Mize or Pujols, to stay with the Cardinals) they might have gotten over the top more often. And it doesn’t help that when he leaves St. Louis the Cards go to the World Series in 1985 and 1987 (losing both) while Hernandez only goes to one with the Mets. Now it’s true the Mets won their Series (1986) but the team was seen as something of a disappointment. They were supposed to dominate the NL in 1985, 1986, 1987, and 1988 and managed to get to all of one World Series. In 1985 and 1987 they lost the NL East title to Hernandez’s old team the Cards (who seemed to be better without him) and in 1988 they finally broke through (as they’d done in 1986) only to lose to a Dodgers team they’d beaten 11 times in the regular season. And it didn’t help that he was seldom seen as the best player on his team (1979 being an obvious exception). With St. Louis the press went to Ozzie Smith and to some extent to Willie McGee. In New York there was Gary Carter, Daryl Strawberry, and Dwight Gooden who got more press. That surely had to hurt him.

So would I vote for him? They answer is a definitive “maybe” (can I cover my backside or what?). My problem is that I think he’s a heck of a  player but there are a number of players I’d rather see get in first. On my current hypothetical ballot for this year’s Hall, I had no problem voting for 10 and complained about leaving off four more (that’s without reference to the steroid guys). If Hernandez were on this year’s ballot, he’d join the “four more” that I left off.

 

A Look Back Twenty-Five Years

September 1, 2011

First Baseman Keith Hernandez

Last year I did a post about this time of the season commemorating the 1985 Kansas City Royals. It was the 25th anniversary of their single World’s Championship. Seems like a good idea to do again, so this time let’s look at the 1986 Mets, who won their second (and so far final ) World Series 25 years ago.

The ’86 Mets were a heck of a team They were built to win not just a championship, but multiple championships. They hit well, the ran well, the pitched well, they even fielded pretty well. What’s not to like? Gary Carter was an All-Star catcher and future Hall of Famer. The infield consisted of Keith Hernandez, generally considered the finest fielding first baseman of the era, a pretty fair hitter (with or without Clyde Frazier and hair tinting), the league leader in walks (the only category a Mets hitter led the NL in), and a former MVP (1979). At second New York had Wally Backman. He hit .300 for the season, had no power, stole a handful of bases, and was something of a sparkplug. Rafael Santana played short, had a good glove, and batted low in the order for a reason. Ray Knight, only a couple of years removed from Houston was the third baseman. At the time he was best known as a good fielding third baseman and the husband of golfer Nancy Lopez. The outfield had 24 year-old Darryl Strawberry  in right field. He led the team in home runs and was second in RBIs (to Carter). Len Dykstra in center was even younger at 23. If there was a man considered the spark, it was  Dykstra. He played center well, led the team in stolen bases (and tobacco spitting), and had more walks than strikeouts. Veteran Mookie Wilson was in left. He’d been there a while, had decent speed, and tended to pull the ball to right field a lot, as Bill Buckner was about to find out.

The pitching was good and was pretty typical for the era in that there were a lot of good pitchers and no real standout “ace.”  Lefty Bob Ojeda led in wins (18), former Cy Young winner Dwight Gooden was only 21 and tied with flame-thrower Sid Fernandez for the team lead in strikeouts (200). A number of  people thought Ron Darling had the best stuff and Rick Aguilera, not yet the Minnesota Twins great reliever was the fifth starter. Jesse Orosco had 21 saves from the left side and Roger McDowell had 22 from the right. It was one of the last teams to use both a right and left-handed reliever tandem. The manager was Davey Johnson, the old Orioles and Braves second baseman and the bench featured Kevin Mitchell and Howard Johnson (who didn’t run a  hotel).

The team won their division by 21.5 games over Philadelphia then played a great LCS against Houston, climaxing with the game six I detailed in the last post. In the World Series they took on Boston and won in seven games. After dropping the first two games, they won four of the next five, including the extra innings game six that featured Wilson’s roller through Buckner’s legs.

It was a team built for a long haul. They were expected to win multiple championships and dominate the NL for five or six years. They didn’t. They managed one more division title (in 1988) and that was all. No one seems to have told the St. Louis Cardinals (in 1985 and 1987) or the Los Angeles Dodgers (in 1988) that the Mets were invincible. Part of the problem was the team itself.  Carter got old, so did Hernandez and Wilson. Ojeda had a few good years but was never an ace and Backman was no Joe Morgan. Darling never panned out. Both Gooden and Strawberry ended up with drug problems and never became the transcendent players some thought they would become. Then there were the trades. Aguilera became a star reliever, but for Minnesota. Bench player Mitchell won an MVP but did it at San Francisco.  And Orosco did win another championship, he just did it two years later with the Dodgers when they beat his former Mets teammates.

This was a team that reminds me a lot of the 1984 Detroit team. Good hitting, good pitching, a powerful bullpen, and one championship. I always thought they’d do better, but was wrong. Still, it’s nice to celebrate them for their one magnificent run.