photo: Scott Rolen, Jason Isringhausen and Keith Hernandez (Getty Images)
Three former St. Louis Cardinals greats were on the team’s Modern Era Hall of Fame fan ballot in 2017 and are back again this year – Keith Hernandez, Jason Isringhausen and Scott Rolen.
We will look into the qualifications of each.
Keith Hernandez went from a 42nd round draft choice by the Cardinals in 1971 to the National League’s co-MVP in 1979. A terrific defensive first baseman, who maintained an OPS+ of 130 as a Cardinal, he also played the part of a villain to St. Louis’ fans during the mid-1980s as a member of the rival New York Mets.
Career-wise, Keith was first and foremost a Cardinal. He came up through the Redbirds system and played 10 of his 17 seasons in St. Louis. Hernandez is like Mickey Mantle in that his dad was the biggest influence in getting him to the big leagues. Keith’s father, John, would spend hours with him and brother Gary throwing batting practice and hitting balls for fielding practice. John even gave the boys written tests on baseball fundamentals. As a player, Keith would sometimes consult with his dad when he was struggling or felt his swing was not quite right.
His career started slowly, both in the minors and majors. But he learned quickly and after a terrific season with Triple-A Tulsa in 1974, was called up to the big club in August. He made St. Louis’ roster in 1975 out of Spring Training but struggled early and went back to Tulsa. Still only 22, Hernandez joined the club to stay in 1976, gaining confidence with a strong second half.
By 1977, the left-hander was entrenched as St. Louis’ first baseman, batting .291 with 60 extra base hits and an .837 OPS. Starting in 1978, he won the Gold Glove award every year of his remaining tenure with the team. In total, Hernandez won the award 11 consecutive years, 1978 through 1988. He was an All Star in 1979 and 1980 with the Cardinals. In his 1979 co-MVP season, won the league batting title with a .344 average, and lead the league with 48 doubles. The California native also hit 11 triples and 11 home runs, with an OPS of .930. It was his best major league season.
The culmination of the St. Louis phase of his career came in 1982, with the club’s first pennant in 14 years. The Cardinals trailed 3-1 in the sixth inning of Game 7 of the World Series against Milwaukee, when Hernandez came to bat with the bases loaded and one out. He stroked a clutch game-tying two-run single, and the Cardinals went on to win 6-3 to notch the World Championship.
Keith’s reputation was damaged after Whitey Herzog dealt him to the Mets in mid-1983. He was enduring a self-described “bad” cocaine habit at the time, partially due to personal troubles after a divorce. He was able to kick the habit and return to the all-star form he showed in St. Louis, winning a second world championship with the Mets in 1986.
Hernandez’ 34 bWAR as a Cardinal ranks 20th on the club’s all-time list. Among players who primarily played first base, he ranks behind only Albert Pujols and Johnny Mize, and just ahead of Jim Bottomley (Fangraphs rates Bottomley slight ahead of Hernandez, 36.5 to 33.9).
Today, Hernandez is identified mostly as a Met, maintaining his residence in the New York area and serving as an analyst for Mets broadcasts. He also made some memorable appearances on Seinfeld in 1990s. But as a player, the bulk of his accomplishments came as a Cardinal.
Link to career stats: https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/h/hernake01.shtml
Like Hernandez, Jason Isringhausen played the bulk of his career with the Cardinals and Mets. Also, like Hernandez, he was a late-round draft pick, chosen in the 44th round of the 1991 First-Year Player Draft.
Originally a starter, “Izzy” came up with the Mets in 1995 as one-third of a much ballyhooed “Generation K” pitching triumvirate with Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson. They were expected to lead the Mets to glory with their powerful arms and loads of potential. But injuries hampered the careers of all three, with Pulsipher and Isringhausen both enduring Tommy John surgery.
Izzy went on to be the best of the three. The Cardinals signed a healthy Isringhausen as a free agent before the 2002 season, after he had two strong seasons as the Oakland Athletics closer, saving 33 and 34 games in the 2000 and 2001 seasons. No longer a pure power pitcher, the right-hander then used a devastating curve ball to put hitters away.
Isringhausen was immediately installed as manager Tony La Russa’s closer in 2002, and had a remarkable year, recording 32 saves, with an ERA of 2.48. Fans of advanced stats will note that Izzy was even better than these numbers indicate, sporting an FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) mark of 1.75. The Illinois native followed that season with save numbers of 22, 47, 39, 33 and 32, before finishing his Cardinals career with 12 saves in an injury plagued 2008 campaign. He had two more Tommy John surgeries before finishing his career in 2012 with the Angels.
Isringhausen’s 217 saves are the Cardinals’ all-time record. He is also the franchise leader in “games finished” by wide margin, 100 more than runner-up Todd Worrell. Izzy is sixth all-time in pitching appearances, and first among pitchers who were primarily relievers. A member of two all-star teams including 2005 as a Cardinal, he finished his career with exactly 300 saves. Ironically this is the same number Bruce Sutter recorded in his Hall of Fame career.
Link to career stats: https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/i/isrinja01.shtml
Unlike Hernandez and Isringhausen, Scott Rolen was highly touted as an amateur and was the second-round choice of the Phillies in the 1993 draft. After seven seasons in Philadelphia, the latter of which Rolen clashed with manager Larry Bowa and was publicly berated by General Manager Dallas Green, the Cardinals acquired him in a deal that looked to cement the club as a favorite to reach the post-season. Rolen hit 14 homers in 55 games with St. Louis in that 2002 season, and the club did indeed claim the division title in what was an emotion-filled season.
In his first full season as a Cardinal in 2003, the right-handed hitter posted some impressive numbers including 49 doubles, 28 home runs, 104 RBI, and a .910 OPS. Both Rolen and the Cardinals put it all together the following season. The team won 105 regular season games in 2004, one shy of the franchise record set in 1942. All Rolen did was hit 34 home runs, drive in 124, score 109 runs, and record a 1.007 OPS (158 OPS+). He finished fourth in the MVP balloting, behind teammate Albert Pujols and just ahead of another teammate, Jim Edmonds (Barry Bonds won the award). After 2 ½ seasons with the Cardinals, Rolen appeared to be on his way to unseating Ken Boyer as the franchise’s greatest all-time third baseman. Like Boyer, Rolen was a big, solidly -built player who was never-the-less agile and quick. The result was a marvelous defensive third baseman with a powerhouse bat.
Unfortunately, shoulder injuries slowed the Indiana native down and he never approached those 2004 numbers again. Rolen managed only five home runs in 56 games in an injury-riddled 2005 season. He came back in 2006 to play in 142 games, hitting 22 home runs and diving in 95 while putting up an .887 OPS. A late season disagreement with manager Tony La Russa marred what was otherwise an improbable magical finish, as the club limped to the post season with a mere 83 wins. But they caught fire in the post season and went on to defeat the heavily favored Detroit Tigers in five games in the World Series to win their 10th World Championship of the modern era.
The discord between Rolen and La Russa escalated in 2007 and was often played out in the press. Scott again was hampered with injuries and played only 112 games, hitting just eight homers with an OPS of .729. His Cardinal career ended largely due to his irreconcilable differences with La Russa, and he was traded to Toronto before the 2008 season.
A truly great player when healthy, his career has somewhat of an “if only” stigma attached to it due to the shoulder problems that plagued him after 2004. Still in six seasons as a Cardinal, the team won four division titles, two pennants, and a world championship. Rolen finished in the league’ top 10 in WAR three times with St. Louis, 2002, 2004 and 2006. His career fWAR as a Cardinal of 27.1 ranks him 21st all-time among position players. Rolen made the National League All-Star team four consecutive seasons, 2003-2006, and won the NL Gold Glove Award at third base in three of those seasons.
Link to career stats: https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/r/rolensc01.shtml
What is next
Next time, we will review the careers of the four new additions to the Cardinals Modern Era ballot for 2018 before closing with recommendations on those we believe are the best of the best.
Cardinals Hall of Fame voting begins March 1 here.
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