Hartnett: Slick-Fielding First Basemen Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez Are Glaring Hall Of Fame Omissions

‘Hart of the Order’
By Sean Hartnett
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This weekend, baseball fans will flock to Cooperstown, NY to celebrate the careers of Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven as the duo will inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  In Alomar’s case, he narrowly missed out on being a first ballot inductee a year earlier. Blyleven had to wait an excruciating fourteen years.

Time will tell if the first basemen who illuminated the Big Apple during the 1980’s will face a similar wait or possibly never be given the distinction of being honored inside baseball’s hallowed halls.  Keith Hernandez did so poorly that after nine years of eligibility, he received less than the 6% requirement to remain on the ballot and can only now be selected by the Veterans’ Committee.  Don Mattingly garnered only a 13.6% approval from voters in 2011 and is in similar danger of falling below the 6% minimum in future ballots.

Ask any baseball historian and they’ll tell you that Mattingly and Hernandez were two of the most exciting players of the 80’s not only at their position but in all of baseball during the decade.  Outside of Eddie Murray, most consider the two star mustachioed New York first sackers as the best first basemen of their era.

The value of skillful fielding at first base has gone down in recent years as ‘The Juiced Era of Baseball’ (either the baseballs and/or the players themselves) has changed the perception of the position.  The prototype for the modern first basemen is in the mold of a low average hitter who compensates for his poor glove with tremendous power and a high on-base percentage.  A term was introduced to describe players of this ilk as they were deemed ‘jack and jog’ ballplayers.

Not only were Hernandez and Mattingly two of the more deft-fielding first basemen in recent memory but were also high average hitters with a good amount of pop.  Power isn’t entirely defined by home runs and each of these men regularly hit over 35 doubles throughout their careers.  Fences were moved back during 1980’s and cut short the power strokes of batters who played before the introduction of the juiced ball and clamoring for long balls after 1994 strike.

The Case For Hernandez

As mentioned earlier, there is a discrimination against fielding-first players at ‘power positions.’  Infielders like Luis Aparicio, Ozzie Smith, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Bill Mazeroski were all .270 or below hitters with little power and were inducted based upon their legendary reputations as superior fielders.  Hernandez won an all-time record 11 Gold Gloves at first base and it’s shocking that HOF voters overlooked this when casting him aside.  Commentators who saw Hernandez play described him as someone who revolutionized the fielding of his position and had an aptitude for reading the game like few others in history.

He wasn’t bad at the dish either as his career average is .296 and lifetime OBP is .384.  For the majority of his career, Hernandez was a plus .400 on-base man and won two Silver Sluggers.  He would have won the award more often as he began his career in 1974, six seasons before the introduction of the Silver Slugger Award.  Most notably, he captured the 1979 NL MVP as he batted .344 with 48 doubles and finished second in the 1984 voting to Hall-of-Famer Ryne Sandberg.  Hernandez was a 5-time All-Star and a key part of two World Series winning franchises in the St. Louis Cardinals in 1982 and the New York Mets in 1986.

The Case For Mattingly

‘Donnie Baseball’ was also a prodigious fielder as he claimed 9 first base Gold Gloves which is only second in history to Hernandez himself.  Mattingly was more of a hybrid player than Hernandez as he excelled at the plate and is considered one of the more dominant hitters of the 1980’s.  In fact, he held the highest batting average (.323) and slugging percentage (.521) of all first basemen during the 80’s and the most RBIs in a single season (145) during the decade.

The fact that Mattingly was hampered by back injuries throughout the 1990’s only enhances his reputation.  He won each of his 3 Silver Sluggers and was named to the AL All-Star team 6 times before the 90’s even began.  Mattingly almost completed back-to-back MVP-winning seasons in 1985 and 1986.  He took home the 1985 award but lost out to Roger Clemens in the latter year despite batting .352 and leading the AL in hits, doubles, total bases and slugging percentage.

He stands as a .307 lifetime hitter even while dealing with the said back issues and had an unbelievable hitter’s eye.  Mattingly finished with 588 walks and only struck out 444 times in 7,721 plate appearances during his career.  He may have never won that elusive World Series ring but anyone who saw ‘Donnie Baseball’ play understood that he was as vital to the New York Yankees as Derek Jeter was during the championship years following Mattingly’s retirement in 1995.

Given the evidence presented, are Mattingly and Hernandez worthy Hall of Fame candidates?  Sound off below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.

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  • JE

    Player         WAR
    Hernandez     61.0  
    Olerud        56.8
    Grace         47.1
    Mattingly     39.8
    Joyner        34.2 

    Having a very good five-year peak is admirable, but Mattingly was not all that impressive in the other seasons. Longevity matters.

  • GLK913

    I think both players fall just short. However, Mattingly has been honored as a Yankee great and has had his number retired and that may be better than being a Hall of Famer. Any player can be a Hall of Famer, but not any player can be honored in Monument Park in Yankee Stadium.

  • NJYanks

    Mattingly has near identical career stats as Kirby Puckett. Puckett is in, and Mattingly should be too.

    • Charles Nichols

      Centerfield is considered a more important defensive position than first base and Puckett was considered the heart and soul of the 1987 and 1991 Twins championship teams.

      • NJYanks

        Yes centerfield is a more demanding position, but Puckett was never considered the best centerfielder in the game at anypoint of his caqreer, Mattingly was widely accepted as the best firstbaseman in baseball for at least 6 or 7 years of his career.

      • JE

        If you put in Mattingly, then Grace and Olerud have to go in. Seriously.

      • Yankees76

        JE, both Grace and Olerud never had the power Mattingly did, also, Mattingly won league MVP, should have won it the year Clemens did as well.

        Both were great with the glove, but JE, both were never better then Mattingly, just look at the career numbers. I

        In a 5 years stretch, no player in baseball was better than The Hitman.

      • LinuxLinus

        John Olerud was a much better player than Don Mattingly.

  • John

    I think they should both be in for sure.

  • Dan Howard

    Speaking of fielding-first players at power positions, compare the 162-game average stats of Brooks Robinson (a no-brainer Hall of Famer) with either Hernandez or Mattingly and you’ll see that both first baseman exceed Robinson’s numbers (and he played for much longer than either of them did).

    • hartylfc

      Brooks Robinson also played a very difficult pitching era where most good hitter batted around .270. In the 80’s power was cut down by large outfield dimensions but allowed higher averages. – Sean Hartnett

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