Who’s On First: How one man revolutionized baseball

Predicting what players will gain entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame and what players will be left out is more confusing than ever. Some of the game’s all-time greats are being left out because of their connection to performance enhancing drugs, while others who played in the steroid era are finding their way into the Hall. Meanwhile, so many deserving players who have no connection to steroids are still left out. One player who absolutely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame is first baseman Keith Hernandez.

Hernandez spent nine years on the Hall of Fame ballot and never got as close to the 75% mark as he should have. He was a five-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion. He won both the MVP and batting title in 1979. He also won 11 consecutive Gold Gloves. With over 2,000 career hits and a career .296 batting average over the course of 17 major league seasons, Hernandez should at least be a borderline Hall of Famer.

But the real reason Hernandez belongs in the Hall is the way he revolutionized first base defensively. Long before defensive shifts became a fundamental part of baseball, Hernandez was proactively changing his positioning based on the tendencies he observed in each hitter. He typically played further away from the bag than any other first basemen and covered more ground than most first baseman could ever dream. When it comes to defense, he is the watermark by which all first baseman are measured.

In terms of both his intellectual understanding of the game and his physical execution as a fielder, Hernandez is undoubtedly the best defensive first baseman the game has ever seen. He controlled where the other infielders would play because of how well he knew every hitter who stepped into the batter’s box, something he did long before every ball put in play was charted.

The range Hernandez had also allowed the infielders playing with him to cover more ground as well, making the entire infield better defensively. It’d be almost impossible to go back and calculate the defensive runs he saved over the course of his career. But the number would likely surpass what any other first baseman in baseball history has ever accomplished.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is filled with players who are there in large part because of their defensive prowess. But that is not the case with first base. Traditionally, it’s not a position that has seen a large volume of brilliant defensive players. But that doesn’t mean a player as impactful as Hernandez was for his defense should be left out of the Hall of Fame.

“Therapy doesn’t really solve any problems, but it shows you how you’re thinking. If I had been able to do this when I was player, I don’t know if it would have made me a better player, but it certainly would have tamed me. It would have been a positive thing.”

Keith Hernandez.

Even beyond his defense, Hernandez was an accomplished hitter despite his lack of power and an asset in the clubhouse. He was an essential veteran leader when the New York Mets won the World Series in 1986. A season later, he became the first captain in Mets history. The fact that several of his teammates wore his no. 17 to honor him after moving on to different teams says everything you need to know about the respect his teammates had for Hernandez.

Sadly, the only chance Hernandez has of getting into the Hall of Fame is through the Veterans Committee. The time is past due for the Committee to step up and find a way to put Hernandez in the Hall of Fame. If the Hall is truly about honoring and remembering excellence throughout the history of baseball, there’s no reason for Hernandez not to be included. As a first baseman, he was special and the best in baseball history, and that’s just the crux of why he belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame.