Will Jeff Kent make it in to the Hall of Fame? The case for and against him
The power is impressive, but what about his sub-par fielding?
Leading up to the announcement of the 2017 Baseball Hall of Fame class on Jan. 18, we're examining each of the 34 candidates on this year's BBWAA ballot. By way of reminder, a candidate must be named on at least 75 percent of submitted BBWAA ballots in order to be elected into the Hall of Fame.
We've already looked at the numerous candidates who are certain to fall off the ballot after only one year (candidates receiving less than five percent drop off the ballot). Now we're looking at those hopefuls who figure to have meaningful support and perhaps even earn induction at some point. Up this time around is slugging second baseman Jeff Kent.
Kent spent parts of 17 seasons in the majors with six different teams. He broke into the bigs with the Blue Jays but didn't log his first qualifying season until age 25 with the Mets. Kent's best years came with the Barry Bonds-era Giants. In six seasons with San Francisco, Kent notched four top-10 finishes in the NL MVP balloting and won the award in 2000. After that, he had largely successful stints with the Astros and Dodgers.
The case for Kent
Across those 17 seasons, Kent became known as a frontline power threat, especially by the standards of second basemen. In 9,537 career plate appearances, Kent batted .290/.356/.500, which is good for an OPS+ of 123. He tallied 377 homers and 560 doubles along the way. As well, Kent has 2,461 career hits to his credit. While he was no doubt a defensive liability (more on that below), Kent still racked up 2,034 games at second base, which ranks 12th all-time.
In addition to that particular high finish, Kent also ranks admirably in a number of other key career categories ...
- His 4,246 career total bases rank 68th all-time.
- Those 377 homers rank 74th all-time.
- Those 560 doubles are good for 27th all-time.
- He ranks 54th in RBI with 1,518.
- He's 47th all-time with 984 extra-base hits.
- He's 48th all-time in times hit by pitch.
- He's 97th all-time in offensive WAR.
Along the way, Kent made five All-Star teams, won four Silver Sluggers, and, as noted, won the NL MVP award in 2000.
Where Kent really thrives with the bat is by positional standards. Most notably, he hit 351 of his 377 home runs while in the lineup at second base, and that's an all-time record. His OPS+ of 123 also ranks quite favorably relative to other long-tenured second basemen. That's the thrust of Kent's case: power numbers that really stand out relative to other middle infielders.
The case against Kent
While Kent could thump at the plate, in many other ways he ate away at the value he produced with the bat in his hands. Pick your metric of choice, and Kent grades out poorly as a defensive second baseman. Yes, he stuck at the position for a long time, but that was because his bat was enough to carry him at a premium position. Kent also hit into a lot of double plays -- 224 in his career, which ranks 64th all-time. He also didn't add value on the bases, as he was successful on steal attempts a poor 61 percent of the time and was roughly league-average in terms of taking the extra base. Let's also note that Kent played almost is entire career during one of the best eras for hitting in baseball history. Yes, he spent a lot of time in pitcher-friendly home ballparks, but the prevailing league conditions benefited the hitter -- the power hitter especially -- in the extreme.
Run scoring took off in 1993, not long after Kent made his debut, and ranged from 4.60 runs per game (RPG) to 5.14 RPG over the span of his career. To put this in context, in 2015 MLB teams averaged 4.25 RPG. When it comes to the aforementioned OPS+, which is OPS adjusted to reflect park and league conditions, Kent's career mark of 123 was impressive, but it also ranks far outside the top 200 all-time.
To capture Kent's deficiencies when it comes to total value, WAR is a somewhat illuminating guide. As noted above he's top-100 all-time in offensive WAR. Throw defense into the mix, and he's just 146th in WAR among position players and 231st all-time among all players (i.e., position players and pitchers). There's certainly no shame in such bestowals at the highest level of baseball, but we're talking about the Hall of Fame.
To put Kent's entire body of work into Hall of Fame context, we'll turn to Jay Jaffe's JAWS system available at Baseball-Reference. Using WAR, JAWS compares a player, in terms of both peak value and overall career value, to those Hall of Famers who played the same position. Kent comes up well short in career value and peak value relative to established Hall standards for second basemen. In that light, the case against Kent is simple: His bat, while very good, wasn't enough to overcome his other deficiencies.
It's also worth noting that Kent wasn't regarded as an ideal teammate during his playing career. Examples of his criticizing teammates in the press -- obliquely or by name -- aren't hard to find, and that's something that's never appreciated within clubhouses. There's also the whole "I injured myself while washing my truck" thing. Obviously, personality considerations shouldn't keep anyone out of the Hall of Fame, but voters are sanctioned to take character into account (this is a risible concept, but it's a real thing). Kent's failings on this front may matter for some.
Will he make it?
This is Kent's fourth year on the ballot, and last year he peaked with a ballot percentage of 16.6 percent. To say the least, that's far shy of the 75 percent needed for election. So how's this year going for him? According to Ryan Thibodaux's tracker, Kent's been named on just 13.2 percent of known ballots. Obviously, that's a grim trend insofar as his Cooperstown hopes are concerned.
A stuffed ballot -- the result of obvious Hall of Famers being passed over because of PED suspicions for so many years -- is certainly working against Kent, as is the fact that his overall value simply doesn't pass muster. As well, Hall voters have been famously stingy when it comes to electing second basemen. There's a lot of wear and tear that goes with being the pivot man, and voters perhaps haven't adjusted their standards downward enough to accommodate that fact. That's why obvious worthies like Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker have been roundly ignored by voters, and it's also why a strong candidate like Willie Randolph didn't get a more thorough hearing. Surely, that's also working against Kent. There's just nothing in the early returns to suggest that Kent's going to make up the ground he needs during his 10 years on the BBWAA ballot.
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