Don Mattingly vs. Keith Hernandez: Who was New York City's Best First Baseman?
I was about to start on a post about the finest first basemen in the history of baseball.
I had come up with a big list of the potential top ten candidates of the top of my head.
This list had included Don Mattingly, who isn’t really a candidate, but it felt weird not to have him on the first list.
Looking at the numbers, I got to thinking about something. Now Don Mattingly is not often seriously considered as a candidate for the Hall of Fame. It often seems that, even among those who support his candidacy, more wish he was viable than actually think he should be enshrined.
Certainly, at his best, Mattingly was a fantastic baseball player. Unfortunately, his best did not last past the age of 30, and with a peak that short, you have to be Sandy Koufax-good to be considered one of the best ever.
This is not what I was thinking about though. What I was thinking about was Keith Hernandez.
It is hard to understand, given the similarities in their profiles, how Mattingly is near-universally considered the more valuable of the two star New York first basemen of the 1980s.
Both Mattingly and Hernandez were fantastic defensive first basemen. However, while Mattingly was the best, in his prime, in his league—saving a career 31 runs more than the average first baseman—Hernandez was quite probably the best of all time, saving an astounding 211 runs above average.
Both won an MVP award. While Mattingly had the big, 35-home run season, neither was a big power guy for a first sacker, and both players hit a lot of doubles.
Mattingly had a career OPS of .859, Hernandez’s was .820. This difference is much smaller than it seems however, given that OPS does not give fair weight to On Base Percentage. While Mattingly, had more power than Hernandez (SLG of .471 and .436), Keith got on base much more, (.384 to .358).
There is not a question in my mind that, of the two, Keith Hernandez had the more valuable career. This may seem shocking, but look below at their total numbers.
AB-7003, H-2153, D-443, T-20, HR-222, R-1007, RBI-1099, SB-14, .307/.358/.471/.859
AB-7370, H-2182, D-426, T-60, HR-162, R-1124, RBI-1071, SB-98, .296/.384/.436/.820
These lines are pretty similar, with perhaps a slight edge to Mattingly, although this advantage disappears when considering Keith’s vastly superior defensive work. However, there is one statistic I have not mentioned: walks.
Don Mattingly drew 588 walks in his career. Hernandez drew 1070. This is an enormous difference. Keith Hernandez (if we include HBP—a fairly insignificant 32 for Keith vs 21 for Don), reached base 522 more times than Mattingly, in only 860 more plate appearances. This creates a massive difference in career value.
In large part due to these 522 extra times on base, and in large part due to the aforementioned difference in defensive performance, Keith Hernandez was—according to Baseball Prospectus—worth 113 wins above replacement player (WARP) in his career, far surpassing Mattingly’s 70.
Obviously, first basemen are not generally judged primarily on their defensive ability. Because first is a traditional source of offense, the importance of a brilliant defensive first-sacker is often ignored. Keith Hernandez was the Ozzie Smith of first baseman, and is quite possibly—judging by the statistical record—deserving of a place in the Hall of Fame.
As a postscript: I am not forgetting the cocaine, the sexism, the fact that Hernandez was known as a clubhouse cancer, that he was run out of town, and so forth. I am not actually promoting his real life place in the HOF (although I am not necessarily opposed to it).
I merely wish to compare the career records of the two men, and show that Hernandez has not received the credit he is due.
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