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April 26, 2007

Prospectus Today

Punching Jeff Kent's Ticket

by Joe Sheehan

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Watching the Dodgers Sunday afternoon gave me another look at Jeff Kent, who's off to a .324/.387/.451 start this season. Now 39, Kent has had a very gradual decline phase from his MVP peak in 2000, and the longer he stays productive, the more seriously you have to take his case for the Hall of Fame. While he's never been looked at as an all-time great, and has turned many people off over the years with his attitude-Kent, by his own admission, doesn't really like baseball-his body of work speaks volumes.

Let's start with putting that body of work into context. Jay Jaffe's JAWS system is a terrific way to get a sense of how a player compares to the established Hall of Fame standards. Jay ran the numbers on Kent for me:

Based on the numbers from December, Kent is at 103.9 career, 65.0 peak, 84.5 JAWS. That ranks him 16th among second basemen all-time, and it's below the positional average of 122.8/71.5/97.1. Second base has the highest JAWS standard of any position.

I'm actually surprised he doesn't score better, especially given the general consensus that he's Hall-bound. Much of his shortfall is fielding; the average Hall of Fame second baseman has 92 FRAA, Kent has -17 (he was -44 in his first five years). That's about 12 wins (six JAWS points) difference on the career level, some of which probably costs his peak, too. That, and the fact that his .356 OBP is kinda low for a slugger, even a slugging middle infielder, kind of dings his case from the JAWS standpoint.

The point about Kent's defense is interesting, because my recollection is that Kent is a player who was once used to illustrate the value of defensive metrics versus observation. Kent's defense at second base, in Clay's system, cost the Mets 10 runs in 1994. By Defensive Average, an early zone-based system developed by Sherri Nichols, Kent was actually the third-best second baseman in the NL that year. A similar gap between Clay's figures and DA exists for 1995 as well.

Given how bad Kent's FRAA scores were early in his career, when he was being moved around the infield by the Mets and Indians, it's worth asking whether this should overly damage his Hall case. Since 1997, when the Giants traded for him and left him alone at the keystone, he's been an above-average second baseman in Clay's system. For the years we have Ultimate Zone rating, 2000-2003, he shows up as a slightly above-average second baseman as well.

This is a minor point, of course, since only Bill Mazeroski, Ozzie Smith, and perhaps Brooks Robinson are in the Hall of Fame for their glovework, and defense is defined for Hall voters by Gold Gloves and memories. Kent's career features neither, so he'll have to get there based on his bat. The strongest points on his C.V. will be his raw offensive totals. Kent has 346 home runs and 1394 RBI, and at 39, is basically as good a player as he was at 35. He'll likely end his career above 370 home runs, 1500 RBI, and perhaps 2500 hits. He's already holds the record for home runs as a second baseman, and has a chance to notch the mark for RBI as well. I prefer JAWS, or most other rate-based methods that cover the player's full complement of skills, but when it comes to making the Hall, being atop counting lists is a valuable thing.

For another angle, let's run Jeff Kent through Bill James' Ken Keltner list:

  1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball? Never. He did win an MVP award in 2000, and legitimately so, but even then, he wasn't in the overall-best-player discussion.
  2. Was he the best player on his team? Same answer. He had big years, but he spent his peak as Barry Bonds' teammate. He has probably been the Dodgers' best player in the last two years.
  3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position? Being a peer of two Hall of Famers in Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio made it hard to be the best earlier in his career, but Kent has staved off the declines that plagued those two, and has probably been the best second baseman in baseball since 2002. Chase Utley likely ends that going forward, but Kent was definitely the best from 2002 through 2005.
  4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races? There's little chance that the Dusty Baker/Barry Bonds Giants would have reached three postseasons and one World Series without Kent. Kent was also critical to the 2004 Astros, who reached the postseason by one game, and he hit a dramatic game-winning home run during the NLCS that year.
  5. Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime? Clearly.
  6. Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame? No, not at all. The omissions of Ron Santo and Bert Blyleven have rendered this question moot for most borderline players.
  7. Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame? Baseball-Reference.com's top ten comps for Kent include six catchers, which speaks to the unique nature of his career statistics for a middle infielder. Five of the top ten are in the Hall, Ivan Rodriguez is going, Ron Santo should be in, and Ted Simmons has his backers.
  8. Do the player's numbers meet Hall of Fame standards? JAWS says "not yet," and I take that seriously. On the other hand, the pool of second basemen with 350 homers and 1400 RBI is awfully small.

  9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics? I mentioned the conflicting information about his defense. Kent has spent the majority of his career playing in lousy parks for hitters.
  10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in? He's not yet eligible.
  11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close? He was the NL MVP in 2000, and a top-ten finisher in three other years. It is fair to say that he was an MVP-caliber player throughout his peak.
  12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go to the Hall of Fame? Kent has had a dozen All-Star caliber seasons, and played on five All-Star teams. The presence of Alomar and Biggio may have kept this number down. There are many players with five All-Star appearances who have not reached the Hall.
  13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant? Yes. Kent's best seasons were in the nine- to 11-win range, and he sustained that for a period of years. A team with that kind of player can win the pennant.
  14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way? The incident in which Kent injured himself on a motorcycle yet claimed to have done so while washing his truck may have been the tipping point for scrutiny of excuses for injuries. It's a small thing.
  15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider? By any reasonable standard, yes. Kent has found himself in a number of minor controversies over the years, from the "truck washing" caper to flare-ups with teammates, notably Barry Bonds. However, nothing in his record stands out as significant enough to affect his case for the Hall of Fame.

The list shakes out well for Kent, who was clearly one of the best players in the game for a period of time, has a unique performance record and has outlasted his peers at a difficult position.

So is he a Hall of Famer? The poor JAWS scores stick out in my mind. Going back to Jay Jaffe for a second:

I could come up with a hell of a team with the guys who are as close to the averages at their respective positions as Kent is, starting with your homeboy Mattingly at first base and including Jim Rice and Andre Dawson as well (to limit myself to MVP winners)--three very good players with cases which pretty conclusively fall shy. While Kent has more postseason juice than those three, he's below the position's 40th percentile in career, peak and JAWS scores. Mattingly is in the 60th percentile for peak, Dawson in the 70th percentile for career. Rice is in even worse shape than Kent. That's just not a candidacy I can get overly excited about.

My gut feeling is that Kent is a Hall of Famer, that his peak and career performance warrants a place in a Hall that may be holding second basemen-such as Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich-to too high a standard. I would be more comfortable if Kent played well enough over the next two years to make him a cleaner candidate in the JAWS system, but even if he stumbled down the stretch, I don't think that would be enough to knock him from getting my vote.

Jeff Kent, Hall of Famer.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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