Enzo Hernandez: serial rally killer

If you were editing the Ripley’s Believe It or Not comic strip, and could include only one snippet on RBI totals, and you had to choose between Hack Wilson’s 1930 season and Enzo Hernandez’s 1971 season, which one would you choose?

You’re probably familiar with Hack Wilson and his record-setting season of 1930, but who is Enzo Hernandez, and why does he deserve to be singled out? Here’s why:

There are 12 inches in a single foot;
There are 12 months in a single year; and
The word “twelve” is the largest number that can be expressed with a single syllable; and
Enzo Hernandez knocked in a mere twelve runs in a single season, even though he was an everyday position player!

Yes, it was a truly singular achievement and, to my way of thinking, it taxes credibility more than Hack Wilson’s total of 191. One wonders if Hernandez’s teammates erupted with congratulations when he knocked in a run… or did they give him the silent treatment? One also wonders if manager Preston Gomez ever toyed with the idea of batting him ninth and bumping the pitcher up to eighth.

Hernzo (let us now bestow this nickname on him in the interest of saving space) served his apprenticeship in the Houston and Baltimore minor league systems before he was acquired by San Diego. He made his big league debut as the Padres’ regular shortstop in 1971. Four decades have not dimmed the distinction of his appallingly unproductive season. 12 RBIs breaks down to two RBIs per month, slightly less than one every two weeks. Not bad for a pinch-hitter… but for an everyday player who had 549 at bats?

The only player with more at bats (and only by 16) on the ‘71 Padres was Nate Colbert, the team’s only All-Star representative and the anchor of the offense. When Hernzo stepped into the batter’s box, that could have been one instance when the disgruntled fan who mutters to himself in frustration, “Hell, I could do better than that!” may have been right! Surely, such thoughts must have occurred to more than a few of the 557,513 fans at San Diego Stadium who attempted to cheer on a team that lost 100 games in 1971.

At the outset of this article, we mentioned Hack Wilson’s 1930 season. In order to cast Hernzo’s achievement in the boldest relief possible, let’s pause to consider what Hack Wilson achieved in that 1930 season with the Cubs. It’s the least we can do for Hack, seeing as we have chosen not to glorify his feat in the funny papers.

Now the obvious explanation for the differential is that Wilson was a better hitter on a better team. Wilson had numerous opportunities and made the most of them; Hernzo had limited opportunities and rarely came through.

No question that the barrel-chested Wilson (a mere 5’6″ but 190 pounds), even with his drinking problems, was more likely to drive the ball than the diminutive (5’8″, 155 pounds) Hernzo. Also, 1930 was one of those high-water mark years for offense, supposedly due to a livelier ball, while 1971 was just three years after the famed “Year of the Pitcher.” Robust offenses were still in short supply, inspiring the American League to institute the designated hitter rule in 1973.

Wilson’s record has never been seriously challenged. In fact, batters who average better than one RBI per game for a full season are rare. Some are the usual suspects. Babe Ruth did it six times, Lou Gehrig five. Hank Greenberg did it three times and likely would have improved on that if he hadn’t missed almost four seasons during World War II when he was in his prime. In fact, Hack Wilson’s stellar 1930 season overshadows his previous season, which was almost as good (159 RBI in 150 games). Juan Gonzalez also bettered the one-RBI-per-game standard twice.

And some are not the usual suspects. Walt Dropo did it in 1950, his rookie year (144 RBI in 136 games) but was injured the following season and never again approached that level. Surprisingly, Albert Pujols, whose slugging services were much in demand during this off-season, has never done it. There’s no shame in that, however; Henry Aaron, the all-time RBI king, never did it either. I’m sure further research on RBI specialists would turn up more surprises, but that is a topic for another day.

To be sure, Hack Wilson not only had a career year in 1930 (he hit .356 with 56 home runs and had a slugging percentage of .723), he had one of the best offensive years anyone has ever had in major league baseball. But that year was not as incredible as the one Hernzo had.

Believe it or not…
Hernzo had 0 home runs to go with his offensive stats of .222/.295/.250. The latter two percentages would have been bad enough even if they had been reversed, which is the preferred offensive sequence. But what really boggles the mind are the at-bats when Wilson and Hernzo made contact. Wilson struck out 84 times while Hernzo struck out 34 times. So given Hernzo’s 549 at bats, he made contact 515 times (not including his 12 sacrifice hits); Wilson, with 585 at bats, made contact 501 times. In other words, he drove in 1 run every 2.6 times he put the ball in play.

Believe it or not…
Hernzo averaged one RBI for every 42.91666666… times he deposited a ball in fair territory. I guess I could have rounded that off to 43, but I really didn’t want to make it sound any worse than it already is.

Believe it or not…
Each of Hernzo’s 12 RBIs came by virtue of a single. With runners on base, you could all but bet your life that he would not get an extra base hit. As bad as he was with the bases empty, he was worse with runners on! With no one on base, he hit .231 with a .268 slugging percentage. With runners on, he hit .213 with a .219 slugging percentage. Hernzo’s batting average with runners in scoring position was .182… and his slugging percentage was identical!

In a sense, scoring position meant something else when Hernzo was at bat. He hit eight singles with a runner only on second and got just three RBIs. How to account for that? Slow runners? Diving infielders keeping ground balls from squeaking through to the outfield? Swinging bunts? Was it a tacit assumption among Padres base runners that RBIs were like kryptonite to Hernzo, and they didn’t want to sap his strength any further?

However you slice it, it’s an astounding failure rate! Sure, Wilson came to bat with more men on base (his 1930 teammates included Riggs Stephenson, who hit .367, and three Hall-of-Famers: Rogers Hornsby, Gabby Hartnett, and Kiki Cuyler) than Hernzo did. The 1971 Padres had an on-base percentage of .293; the 1930 Cubs weighed in at .378. A significant difference, to be sure, but not enough to account for a discrepancy of 179 RBI’s.

In fairness to Hernzo, we must note that his teammates weren’t exactly lighting up the RBI leaderboard either. The Padres scored only 486 runs (they played 161 games that year, so that’s just a smidgen better than three runs per game) and were shut out 18 times. After team leader Nate Colbert, who had 84 RBIs (good for 15th in the National League), the next best was Clarence (now better known as Cito) Gaston with 61 and Ollie Brown with 55. Beyond that were Ed Spiezio and Larry Stahl with 36 each.

Believe it or not…
Hernzo won the triple crown in 1971! But it wasn’t the sort that wins you a long-term contract and lucrative endorsement deals. It was the negative triple crown: lowest batting average, fewest RBIs and home runs.

Hernzo had more stolen bases (21) than RBIs in 1971. Unless your primary function is pinch-runner, that is a red flag. Granted, it might be acceptable for Lou Brock, Maury Wills, Vince Coleman, Rickey Henderson, Ty Cobb, or other speedsters in their best years.

Believe it or not…
Hernzo actually had a career success rate of 79.6 percent in attempted steals—placing him among the all-time leaders among base runners with more than 100 lifetime thefts. In fact, he outperformed Luis Aparicio, who retired with a rate of 78.8 percent. That would certainly be a gaudy companion statistic to go with a solid on-base percentage. Hernzo, however, was deficient in that area. His best year in that regard was 1986 when his OBP was .319. His career mark was .283.

Believe it or not…
This telltale stolen base/RBI pattern held true for Hernzo through 1975. In 1976, however, his RBI count (24) was double his stolen base count! Since he hit a career-high .256, one might conclude that his bat was speeding up, his legs were slowing down, or both.

Believe it or not…
In 1971, 10 Padres batters knocked in more runs than Hernzo. That obviously includes some part-timers. Given his OBP of .295, it’s perplexing to surf through box scores of Padres games in 1971 and note that Hernzo was frequently a lead-off hitter. True, he led the team in singles with 110—another singular achievement!—but that was about all he had to offer, as his .250 slugging percentage, buoyed by nine doubles and three triples, is only 28 points higher than his batting average. Now no one expects a lead-off hitter to be a big RBI guy, but when any batter has 619 total plate appearances—a career best for Hernzo—it is not unreasonable to expect more than 12 RBI’s!

But we don’t want to be too hard on Hernzo. After all, 1971 was his rookie year. He had an eight-year career in the majors (seven years with the Padres and one with the Dodgers), and that’s not a bad run. On the other hand, his rookie year was an all-too-faithful preview of coming attractions. A sophomore slump was the last thing he needed—yet arguably that’s what he had in 1972.

True, his RBI count skyrocketed to 15 in a mere 329 at bats, but his batting average was down to .195. In 1973 he came to bat only 247 times and saw his RBI count plummet to single digits (9). Incredibly, he was handed the regular shortstop role again in 1974. He responded with a .232 average and a career-best RBI total of 34. Subtracting his 36 strikeouts, that works out to one RBI for every 14 times he made contact. That’s nothing to write home about, but it’s more than three times the rate of his rookie year! He was not able to add to his career home run total of 1, however.

Believe it or not…
In 1971, Hernzo had 12 sacrifice hits—a match for his RBI total. He did the same in 1972 with 15 of each. In 1975, he had more sacrifices (24) than RBIs (19). From 1973 through 1975, his home runs zeroed out every year.

Believe it or not…
Hernzo doubled his career home run total in 1976 with one swing of the bat! But that was the last time he went yard. When he retired after the 1978 season, he had two home runs and 113 RBI’s in 2,327 at bats. Returning to Hack Wilson for contrast, it is interesting to note that Hernzo had 78 fewer RBI’s during his eight-year career than Hack Wilson had during the 1930 season. That gap is more than double the number of RBI’s Hernzo had in his best year.

If there is anything to be gained by such a lack of production, it is notoriety. Thanks to his 1971 season, Hernzo distinguished himself from all the other light-hitting shortstops in baseball history. Even Ray Oyler, who had 12 RBIs in 1968—there’s that “Year of the Pitcher” again—was able to reach this benchmark figure with just 29 hits in 215 at bats (good for a .135 average).

Strangely, there are authorities who would seek to deny Hernzo his rightful place in the sun… or is it the shade? The Baseball-Almanac web site, for example, notes that Richie Ashburn holds the record for fewest RBIs in a season with 20 in 1959. The qualifying total for them was 150 games. Hernzo fell seven games short of that mark, though given his track record, one suspects he would have been severely challenged to snare another 8 RBIs in an additional seven games.

Ashburn, of course, was also a singles hitter, but he was a Hall-of-Famer, so he could at least plead that he was just having an off year—indeed, it was a precipitous decline, as his 1959 batting average of .266 came one year after he won his second National League batting title with a .350 average. The Phillies likely stuck with him in 1959 because of his track record (he was also a four-time All-Star). They probably felt he could snap out his slump at any time, and if not… well, they were mired in last place anyway. Ashburn’s career demonstrates that if you want to make a name for yourself by hitting singles, you’d better get them in bunches.

Hernzo was indeed a singles hitter—when he got hits, which wasn’t all that often. So it is a bit of a mystery as to how he garnered so many at bats in 1971. One answer is that there simply wasn’t an abundance of shortstop talent in the Padres’ system. One also has to keep in mind the fact that Hernzo came from Venezuela. In those days, Venezuela was renowned for outstanding shortstops. So management’s reasoning might have been thus:

(1) Venezuela produces outstanding shortstops;
(2) Hernzo is from Venezuela;
(3) Hernzo is a shortstop;
(4) Hernzo must be an outstanding shortstop!

Or perhaps they thought he had the potential to be an outstanding shortstop. Well, Hernzo was capable enough afield, but if you look at his two busiest seasons (1971, 1974) you discover that he had 445 and 449 assists, respectively. His fielding percentages were .955 and .966 during those two seasons. Not bad, as shortstops go, but hardly Aparacio-esque. Maybe he had those intangibles that don’t show up in the statistics, but one suspects that Hernzo was simply holding down the job until the Padres young farm system (the franchise’s rookie year was only two years before Hernzo’s rookie year) started to produce more capable infielders.

Bill Almon, who had seen limited duty during three seasons with the Padres, took over as the regular shortstop in 1977 and turned in a workmanlike season. The following year the Padres moved Almon to third base and made an even bigger upgrade when they brought in Ozzie Smith to play short. That was a real quantum leap… or should I say backflip? But in fairness to Hernzo, we are duty bound to reveal that Ozzie Smith—also a singles hitter—won the negative triple crown in his sophomore year! His totals for 1979 were 0 home runs, a .211 batting average, and 27 RBIs. Of course, for Smith that represented the bottom floor of his offensive career; for Hernzo, that would have been a typical season.

In 1971, however, the Padres weren’t going anywhere any time soon, and Hernzo was only 22, so there was plenty of time, as well as room, for improvement. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way—for Hernzo or the Padres. In the following five seasons, Hernzo got anywhere from 247 to 512 at bats but never blossomed into the Venezuelan dandy the Padres had hoped he would become.

Believe it or not…
During Hernzo’s first four seasons with the Padres, the team was remarkably consistent, finishing last each year, while posting winning percentages of .379, .379 (the only year of the four when they didn’t lose 100 games, thanks to a strike at the beginning of the season), .370, and .370. They made it to fourth place in 1975, but did not finish above .500 till 1978.

As for Hernzo, after a 1976 season with a .256 average and a .321 slugging percentage in 340 at bats, arguably his best offensive year, he was all but finished. His 1977 season is something of a mystery. Other than three at bats for the Padres, there is no record of him playing anywhere else. I don’t know if he was injured, playing abroad, or enjoying a sabbatical. Nevertheless, in 1978, after playing most of the year with the Albuquerque Dukes, the Dodgers’ AAA farm team (and two games with the big club), he was out of baseball at age 29.

Looking back, it is also a mystery as to how Hernzo was enabled to make baseball history in 1971. How could he hold down a starting job when he was such an extreme liability on the offense? I guess we could say he was swamped by a perfect storm:

1. He was not a good hitter
2. He was not a power hitter
3. He did not bat in key RBI slots in the lineup.
4. The Padres were not blessed with an abundance of base runners.
5. Somebody had to play shortstop and the Padres had no better options.
6. The Padres were not expected to contend anyway.
7. 1971 was not one of baseball’s more explosive offensive years.
8. Shortstops were more valued for defense than offense in 1971.
9. He was a Venezuelan shortstop so “Leave him in! He can only get better!”
10. John DeMott, the San Diego public address announcer, always stretched out his name so it came out something like “Enzooooooooooooooooo Hernandezzzzzzzzzz!” On a team like the 1971 Padres, name recognition was not something to be taken lightly!

Put them all together, they spell H-E-R-N-Z-O!

For whatever reasons, a player who might have been a capable backup shortstop/pinch-runner on a good team was in over his head and there was no recourse except to grind it out. So he took one for the team—for the entire 1971 season! Arguably, for his entire career! Believe It or Not!

Robert Ripley died in 1949, so we can’t plead our case to him. But the Believe It or Not comic strip is still out there, so it’s not too late to do justice to Hernzo and his 1971 season. And if the comic strip doesn’t come across, how about the Ripley museums?

Whenever I’m traveling and come across one of those Believe It or Not odditoriums, I always stop in. I’ve yet to see any exhibits pertaining to Hernzo and his 1971 season at any of those locations. Frankly, I think it’s high time one or more of those museum curators modified the institutional mission to include shrunken RBI totals as well as shrunken heads.

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Comments

  1. Steve Treder said...

    I loved the way the San Diego stadium announcer introduced Hernandez coming to the plate:  “Now batting for the Padres … numberthirtysevenEnzo … HERNANDEZ!”  You’d think he was Ty Cobb or something.

  2. Pep said...

    Not only inept with the bat but also led the league in errors at SS with 33 while not being in the top 5 players of games played at SS. What a year!

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