The 2021 Hall of Fame ballot, as is customary, has some divisive names on it for various reasons.
There’s the “outside the lines issues” group that includes Schilling, Clemens, Bonds, Manny, Sheffield, and Sosa.
Then there’s the “I saw him play and he is/is not a hall of famer” vs. the “we know more now than we used to and we know he is/is not a hall of famer” debaters that will discuss Rolen, Helton, Abreu, Vizquel and Andruw Jones.
Jeff Kent to me, falls between the cracks somewhere in these discussions. Although he clearly was never anyone’s favorite person, he doesn’t fall into the quagmire of problems that the first group above has, so I’d put him closer to the second group for the purposes of today’s chat.
And as someone who saw Kent’s entire career, if you asked me in 2005 if we were watching a hall of famer, my answer probably would have been “yes”. But again, we know far more about baseball now than we did two decades ago and we all know perceptions can be off – especially ones that are no longer perceptions but are not too well aged recollections.
So let’s take a closer look at Kent’s Hall of Fame candidacy – because it’s November and that’s what baseball fans do.
If you’re making a case for Kent being inducted, you focus on the power hitting. A formidable power hitter who plays a middle infield position is, as we all know, an extremely valuable player. Kent was arguably the best power hitting second baseman of all time, and definitely the best of his generation. Of the top SLG% among National Leaguers between 1998 and 2005, Kent had the 15th best and you have to go all the way to number 35 before finding another middle infielder. He was essentially a 1st base or corner outfield bat who played 2nd base. And if you like counting stats – many fans do and all Hall voters do – you’ll take note of the fact among all second basemen since integration, Kent is first in both home runs (377) and RBI (1,518).
Pretty impressive. Add an MVP award and five All-Star selections and you’re building a pretty good Cooperstown case.
However, context is always required and as I mentioned, we know much more about baseball than we did a few decades ago.
The first issue with Kent’s resume is that he was one trick pony. He was a below average fielder and baserunner, which isn’t really an issue if you’re a 1st baseman or left fielder but is a big factor if you’re a second baseman. Among 37 second basemen with at least 6,000 PA since integration, Kent is 31st in both defensive WAR and base-running WAR. And even his “in the box” performance was one dimensional – his career .356 OBP looks good on the surface, but it was only a tick above league average for the era in which he played.
Let’s look at his WAR numbers and compare them to other great second basemen. (This is where I add the caveat that I should not have to but will anyway – yes, I understand WAR is not the be all end all. But for the purposes of this discussion it’s a very good start.)
Kent had a stretch from the late 90s through the mid aughts in which he was a monster. Yet interestingly, among post integration 2nd basemen, his peak WAR (his best seven seasons) is lower than that of the peak WAR that Cano, Utley, Grich, Pedroia, Zobrist, Knoblauch, Kinsler, Whitaker and Randolph posted. And if you want to go by total career WAR to reward longevity, he still trails Whitaker, Grich, Cano, Randolph and Utley – the first four by pretty big margins.
Either way, neither his peak nor his productive longevity were as good as several other second basemen who haven’t been inducted to the Hall or will be eligible soon. This makes it much harder to make a case for Kent.
And one more thing about Kent’s peak and context: Let’s not forget that the season in which he won the MVP, he finished behind a teammate in WAR, but won the award anyway in part due to a high RBI total (125 RBI in ’00). But he played 138 games that season in which batted 4th in the order – the guy who batted 3rd in those games had a .440 OBP and was a plus baserunner. (In case you were wondering why I’m not a fan of the RBI stat – very misleading.)
If Jeff Kent is elected to the Hall of Fame, I’m not going to roll my eyes, write snarky social media posts, or fire off a blog about how the BBWAA is comprised of crotchety coots (again) – it certainly wouldn’t be an egregious admission. But to me, it’s really, really hard to justify his induction. Grich, Whitaker and Randolph were clearly better, as was Utley who’ll be eligible soon. Add Cano, Pedroia, Zobrist, and Kinsler to the coming soon list and Kent is even further on the fringe of the discussion. And to be clear, I understand Cano’s issues and I’m not claiming the others are Hall of Famers – I’m simply saying Kent becomes one of many with comprable credentials.
If you’re looking for a cause, take up Abreu’s and Rolen’s cases this year, and start pestering the dinosaurs of the sport to get Whitaker and Grich their due.
Did I miss something? Let me know.
PS – Jay Jaffe’s “The Cooperstown Casebook” is the best book on the Hall that I’ve read – link is on the upper right side of this page. Just an FYI if you’re looking for something to ask Santa for.
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