Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hall of Fame hopeful: Jeff Kent

MANY GIANTS FANS hate Jeff Kent. Perhaps it was the shoving match between him and Bonds mid-season in 2002. It may have been his proclivity for getting under the media’s (read: everyone’s) skin. Or perhaps it was the fact that he broke his wrist and claimed he’d done it washing his car – I never knew that was such a dangerous chore, but refrain from doing it often anyway – when conflicting media reports indicated he’d done it popping wheelies on his motorcycle. Or maybe it’s because he left San Francisco directly after coming eight outs from winning a World Series, heading instead nearer to his home by way of Houston. There’s a good chance his less than flattering comments about the Bay Area, and the outrageous prices for property therein, were a significant contributing factor. And finally, in what was likely the last straw, Kent signed with the Dodgers in December of 2004, forever cementing him as a former Giant worth detesting. Whatever the reason(s), I don’t.

Once upon a time, I too had acquired certain distaste for the man. There was no player more fun to boo at the park than Jeff Kent as a Dodger, with the possible exception of Milton Bradley. But it has since subsided; he is no longer a Bum.

In his first season as the Giants’ GM, so long ago when his seat wasn’t even yet warm, Brian Sabean traded one of the most beloved Giants in history, Matt Williams, for Julian Tavarez (a setup man), Jose Vizcaino (a utility infielder) and Jeff Kent, otherwise known as a nobody, a failed middle-infield prospect with a frying pan for a glove. Shortly thereafter, Kent exploded as much more. There was reason to believe he would not – he was 29, he had bounced around from the Blue Jays, to the Mets, to the Indians while never taking a full season of at bats, and he’d played first, second and third without the confidence of his skippers – but Dusty Baker, when Kent landed on his plate, played him at second base and hit him behind Barry Bonds, every day.

Why is this relevant? I’m writing this because it’s Hall of Fame voting season, and the Giants don’t have anyone on the ballot worth so much as a look – my condolences to Kirk Reuter. Bonds will get his shot to go in, and when that debate starts raging I’ll argue tooth and nail that he deserves enshrinement, and on the first ballot. His credentials speak for themselves. Statistically, he’s one of the greatest players that ever lived. His peers’ – I’m using this term loosely – statistics and accomplishments during his reign were dwarfed in his shadow. Pitchers cowered at the site of him, issuing intentional walk after intentional walk. The debate is now and always will be: should his obvious steroid use keep him out? It’s an obvious choice for me – he belongs – but for now I’ll place my attention on another Giant whose case is rapidly approaching: the abovementioned Jeff Kent.

Already in the Hall of Fame at the position are: Rod Carew, Eddie Collins, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Evers, Nellie Fox, Frankie Frisch, Charlie Gehringer, Joe Gordon, Frank Grant, Billy Herman, Roger Hornsby, Nap Lajoie, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Mazeroski, Bid McPhee, Joe Morgan, Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, and Red Schoendienst

We also have Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio who will enter shortly, we assume, and justifiably so.

So how does Kent stack up? If we are to put a list of players together, including all of the Hall of Fame second basemen, Alomar and Biggio, and Kent, we have twenty-one players. Ranking them: Kent would be 11th in hits (2,461), 4th in doubles (560), first in home runs (377*), third in RBI (1,518), 11th in batting average (.290), 15th in on base percentage (.356), 2nd in slugging (.500), 4th in OPS or on base plus slugging percentage (.855), 8th in adjusted OPS or OPS+ (123) -- this stat tells us how much better he was than the average hitter during his time, 100 being average, so 23% better – and 12th in career wins above replacement or WAR (59.4).

*No. 2 at second base in home runs is Ryne Sandberg. But here’s the thing: Kent’s home runs might be a bit more impressive. While Sandberg played his career in Chicago, a great place to hit home runs, Kent played the majority of his in Candlestick, Pacific Bell Park (later SBC Park and now AT&T Park) and Dodgers Stadium, parks much more difficult to hit home runs in.

In most of the major categories that Hall of Fame voters, i.e. members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), are going to pay attention to – this is hits, RBI, home runs, and batting average – Kent does extremely well. He is one of the greatest power hitting power hitting second sackers that ever played. When we throw in the fact that he won an MVP, which always plays a factor in HoF voting, I don’t see any possibility of Kent not getting in. And he performed well in the postseason to boot. He hit three home runs in the 2002 World Series, as well as hitting a bottom of the ninth home run in Game 5 of the 2004 NLCS for Houston. And though he played during the steroid era, Kent is a player that avoided suspicion completely despite playing with Bonds and a handful of other Giants at least suspect of use. In fact, he was one of the few players that advocated for HGH testing in the game.

He also had an excellent peak. Between 1998-2002, a duration of five seasons, he averaged 29 home runs and 114 RBI, averaging a line of .307 batting, .378 OBP and .548 SLG, good for a 142 adjusted OPS (OPS+). And during that time, his defense was almost perfectly average, or 0.1 wins above replacement on defense according to Baseball-reference, which is to say he wasn’t giving any of his value back with his glove. Prior to that, he was a slightly above average hitter. And after that, he still managed to average a 120 OPS+ for the remainder of his career.

There are other factors, of course. If you take a more advanced approach at evaluating Kent, his case becomes far more borderline. There’s his defense, for example. He never won a gold glove, and his defensive metrics support the notion he wasn’t great. During his prime, though, he was actually a perfectly average second basemen. But, the majority of his value clearly derived from his bat. Whereas the position historically had fielded athletic players that played great defense and stole bases, Kent’s game was to hit for power.

You can also make a strong case that the position is over-represented in the Hall of Fame, and that at least a few players got in when perhaps they should not have. Bill Mazeroski, for example, hit the all-time most famous home run in the Fall Classic. That, in itself, was enough to get him in, as his statistics clearly don’t support a Hall of Fame career. There are others: Gordon, Evers, Lazzeri, Doerr, Fox, and Schoendienst. All of which whose numbers aren’t spectacular.

And then there are those who pretty clearly should be in (but who are not): Bobby Grich, Willie Randolph, and Lou Whitaker. If you were to replace these worthy men in the place of the previously mentioned: Maz and company. Kent’s now on the fringe.

Bill James created a statistic that is particularly useful in determining the worth of a position player called Win Shares, described in detail within his 2002 book of the same title. In short, it assigns a number for a player’s specific contribution to his teams number of wins each season. Each win share is worth one-third of a win, so a 100 win team has 300 win shares to go around. A player with 400 career win shares is a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame. A player with around 350 has a solid case for the Hall, and often gets in. Kent, for his career, finished with 339 win shares, which again supports a borderline case for Cooperstown.

Here’s the thing though: most Hall of Fame voters don’t give a hoot about WAR, Win Shares, or especially about Jay Jaffe’s JAWS. They care about home runs. They care about RBI. They care about batting average. They care about MVP awards. They care about All-star appearances. And they care about postseason performance pedigree. In terms of Kent: check, check, check, check, check and check. And that’s exactly what they’ll be doing with the box next to Kent’s name on their ballot.

So, it’s time to let bygones be bygones. You can choose to revel in his legend now, or smolder on your high-horse for a while longer before succumbing to the inevitable. Perhaps his call to the Hall will be the catalyst. But why wait? You can choose to hang on to your petty dislike (if not hatred) for the man, an ill advised activity, or not. Because eventually, if you are indeed a Giants fan, you’re going to jump on the bandwagon. For it’s exceedingly difficult and frowned upon to denigrate a Hall of Famer of your favorite franchise, and a Hall of Famer Kent likely will be. He may be a borderline case for some, specifically because of the challenges he had at second in the latter part of his career, but I simply don’t see the BBWAA seeing it that way.

All stats compliments of Baseball-reference

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