January 27, 2009
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Curious Case of Jeff Kent
There's no crying in baseball, which may or may not explain why Jeff Kent's stoic facade crumbled during the press conference in which he announced his retirement last week. A notoriously gruff and prickly personality, Kent had spent the better part of two decades distancing himself from his teammates and the media as much as possible. Thus the sight of him fighting back the tears was surprising, even shocking, given his apparent lack of emotional range. As the legendary sportswriter Frank Graham once wrote of Yankees outfielder Bob Meusel, "He's learning to say hello when it's time to say goodbye."
Less than two months shy of his 41st birthday, there's little doubt that the time to say goodbye had arrived for Kent. He hit .280/.327/.418 for the Dodgers in 2008, with a career-low .264 EqA and just 12 homers, his lowest total since 1996. He missed most of the final month of the season due to a torn medial meniscus that required surgery; though he rehabbed doggedly and made the Dodgers' post-season roster, he was confined to bench duty while Blake DeWitt took over at second base. A future as a part-time player was unthinkable for Kent, who had once declared, upon being sidelined by a more minor injury, "I hate watching baseball."
While Kent hasn't been the object of many fond farewells, the widespread consensus in the mainstream media is that he's bound for the Hall of Fame. From a traditional perspective, it's not difficult to see why. Although he didn't debut in the majors until he was 24 and didn't top 400 plate appearances until the following year, Kent nonetheless racked up 2,461 hits and 377 homers, reached the postseason seven times, made five All-Star teams, and won the 2000 NL MVP award. The 351 home runs he hit as a second baseman are tops for the position, far outdistancing the second-, third-, and fourth-ranked second-sackers-Ryne Sandberg (277), Joe Morgan (266), and Rogers Hornsby (263)-all of whom are enshrined in Cooperstown. He also leads all second basemen in RBI and extra-base hits, while ranking 12th in games played at the position; several articles pertaining to his retirement credited him as ranking fifth in games played, but someone clearly failed to do their homework:
Games Player 2650 Eddie Collins 2526 Joe Morgan 2320 Roberto Alomar 2306 Lou Whitaker 2295 Nellie Fox 2206 Charlie Gehringer 2153 Willie Randolph 2153 Frank White 2126 Bid McPhee 2094 Bill Mazeroski 2035 Nap Lajoie 2034 Jeff Kent 1995 Ryne Sandberg 1989 Craig Biggio 1852 Bobby Doerr 1843 Ray Durham 1834 Red Schoendienst 1813 Billy Herman 1767 Bobby Grich 1763 Bret Boone
If Kent's case for Cooperstown appears on firm footing from a traditional standpoint, it's on shakier ground sabermetrically. On the one hand, his Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor scores are in line with the averages, or at least the averages at the time James created his system some 25 years ago; Kent scores 50.9 on the Standards, where 50 is average, and 122.5 on the Monitor, where 100 is average. Basically, this means that he did the things that typical Hall of Famers do. Furthermore, he fares well on the more subjective Keltner Test, through which Joe Sheehan ran Kent's case back in early 2007.
As noted in that previous link, Kent does not fare nearly so well when it comes to JAWS, and I say that as someone whose first impulse would be to vote for him if the BBWAA granted me a ballot today. I've explored his case before, but with his final two seasons of play, as well as a major adjustment in the WARP system's replacement level-one that's not yet reflected on our player cards, alas-it's appropriate to take another look. Here are the rankings for the position:
Player Career Peak JAWS Eddie Collins 137.9 72.7 105.3* Rogers Hornsby 128.6 76.6 102.6* Joe Morgan 127.5 73.5 100.5* Nap Lajoie 125.7 71.7 98.7* Bobby Grich 92.3 63.6 78.0 Lou Whitaker 103.4 51.6 77.5 Craig Biggio 90.0 55.0 72.5 Rod Carew 86.1 53.0 69.6* Charlie Gehringer 84.8 54.2 69.5* Frankie Frisch 83.3 50.1 66.7* Roberto Alomar 81.0 51.8 66.4 Ryne Sandberg 75.6 56.4 66.0* Billy Herman 77.8 51.2 64.5** Jeff Kent 80.1 47.9 64.0 Jackie Robinson 68.0 57.5 62.8* Joe Gordon 67.5 53.9 60.7** Bobby Doerr 72.8 47.7 60.3** Bid McPhee 77.7 41.7 59.7** Willie Randolph 70.3 42.4 56.4 Davey Lopes 64.5 47.8 56.2 Avg HoF 2B 84.9 54.6 69.8 *BBWAA elected **VC elected
Kent ranks 12th in career WARP, 20th in peak WARP (best seven seasons), and 14th overall among all second basemen. As odd as it sounds for a player who lasted through his age-40 season, he's hampered by a lack of durability. Kent topped 145 games just five times (including in 2002, the season he infamously broke his wrist while "washing his truck") and averaged only 133 games a year over his last six seasons, the Houston and Los Angeles phases of his career. He's got just four seasons above 5.5 WARP via the new system, and just three above 7.0. Overall, his JAWS score tops only one of the nine second basemen elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America, that being Jackie Robinson, whose career was shortened by the color barrier but who nonetheless had a peak that was well above average, to say nothing of his monumentally larger role in history.
It won't get much better for Kent, either. By the time he actually reaches the 2014 ballot in the company of fellow first-year eligibles Greg Maddux and Mike Mussina, both Biggio and Alomar will likely be enshrined. The former is a lock given his 3,060 hits, while the latter's round-number combination of a .300 lifetime batting average and 10 Gold Gloves probably put him into the no-brainer category for many a voter.
The introduction of a play-by-play based system for the defensive component of WARP and thus JAWS-something that's in the works, which is why the above numbers haven't made it to our player cards-likely won't help Kent either. Right now he's actually got a higher FRAA (+9) than either Biggio (-56) or Alomar (-63); suffice to say that none of these guys aged very well at the keystone. It would be surprising if that order held up given both the stronger reputations of the other two players (Biggio won four Gold Gloves, while it's tough to imagine Kent ever coming up in a Gold Glove conversation) and the late-career Ultimate Zone Rating figures from Fangraphs, which show Kent even less charity than the FRAA numbers do.
In chewing on Kent's candidacy, it's worth noting that second base has long been something of an odd duck in the JAWS pond. In my annual analyses of the 2006, 2007, and 2008 ballots-dating back to the point where I redefined the peak component from a player's best five consecutive years (a definition used for the 2004 and 2005 ballots) to his best seven years at large-the second basemen had the highest JAWS score of any position. That changed with this year's ballot, which uses a long-awaited higher replacement level for hitters. The third basemen actually overtook the second basemen, as did the right fielders:
Pos Career Peak JAWS C 78.3 50.9 64.6 1B 75.8 48.4 62.1 2B 84.9 54.6 69.8 3B 89.4 56.1 72.8 SS 79.5 52.2 65.9 LF 79.8 49.1 64.5 CF 84.2 52.5 68.4 RF 87.9 52.2 70.1
This isn't simply a built-in advantage for second basemen, it's more likely a product of small sample sizes, as the Hall's ranks include just 11 third basemen. The top 40 second basemen (a group chosen because it incorporates all of the Hall of Famers down to bottom-ranked Johnny Evers) have an average JAWS score (60.2) which ranks fourth among the eight positions, 0.3 higher than the third basemen. Looking back at the individual rankings, the list is unmistakably top-heavy, as there's a gulf between Lajoie at number four and Grich at number five which is founded in that top quartet's career-long excellence as hitters. Collins, Hornsby, Morgan, and Lajoie average 1,045 Batting Runs Above Replacement and 740 Batting Runs Above Average apiece; only Carew comes within 250 runs on either count, while Gehringer comes up more than 400 short in both categories, and the rest all fall behind him. Furthermore, only the top four players on the list are actually above the JAWS standard at the position and in the Hall of Fame, though two more are pretty much dead even, and Biggio is virtually guaranteed entry unless somebody shows up with a sordid performance-enhancing drug scandal to lay at his feet.
That such a small number of second basemen outdo the standards at the position is not terribly unique to the JAWS universe, as only about one-third of the left fielders and center fielders in the Hall do so:
Pos AVG+ # Pct C 7 13 53.8 SS 10 21 47.6 3B 5 11 45.5 1B 8 18 44.4 P 24 61 39.3 RF 9 23 39.1 LF 7 20 35.0 CF 5 17 29.4 2B 4 18 22.2 Total 79 202 39.1
In the table above, AVG+ is the number of players with JAWS scores exceeding the positional standard, and # represents the total number of enshrined players at that position who have full enough careers to make a JAWS analysis worthwhile (i.e., not including the Negro Leaguers or late-career crossovers like Satchel Paige or Monte Irvin). As noted before, Carew and Gehringer are so close-less than 10 runs between them-that we could conceivably bump the second basemen ahead of the center fielders with 33.3 percent; no other position has anyone who misses by what may as well be a rounding error.
This top-heaviness will be taken by some as grounds for suggesting the use of median scores at each position, rather than the adjusted means (the means once the lowest score at each position-invariably a laughably awful VC selection-is thrown out), a subject I've tackled before. Though it wasn't the case this year, in the past I've found that comparing a typical BBWAA ballot's worth of players against the medians results in a system that flags more players as worthy of votes than there are spots on a Hall of Fame ballot. Within the broad range of opinions held by actual voters and interested observers, I doubt one could find a single credible analysis that reached such a conclusion. Going lower than the median-one commenter even suggested down to the 20th percentile, which among second basemen would mean touting Chuck Knoblauch and Julio Franco for the Hall-is an even worse idea.
Kent does inch over the second base median (63.7), but he remains squarely below the JAWS standard for second baseman. Unless one attaches special importance to his leading the position in homers, which has much to do with his era, it's difficult to draw the conclusion that the credentials which WARP can't capture are enough to close the gap. His HOFS and HOFM scores, which tally things like his All-Star appearances, awards, and league leads in important categories, may be solid, but they're still well below those of contemporaries Alomar (55.9, 193.5) and Biggio (55.9, 169.0), and not necessarily superior to the stylistically similar Sandberg (41.9, 157.5). He never won a World Series ring (though he received one from the 1992 Blue Jays, who traded him to the Mets for David Cone midway through his rookie season), and his .276/.340/.500 performance in the postseason is respectable, but hardly spectacular enough to merit extra credit. His MVP award came in the rare year that he outperformed teammate Barry Bonds, but his 8.7 WARP was still just fifth in the NL; he finished third in the NL in 2002 with 9.6 for the pennant-winning Giants, but Bonds' 13.7 WARP trumps that considerably. No extra credit to be had there either.
Kent was a very good player for a long time, and an often misunderstood one. His lack of charisma and his businesslike approach made him an easy target, though his humorlessness should never have been confused with a lack of passion for the game. From this vantage point, he looks to be a borderline Hall of Famer at best. Even with no particular love lost for him as a fan-one who spent years rooting against him as a Giant before settling down and appreciating his uneven virtues with the Dodgers-I'll admit that this still contradicts my gut instinct, but then that's one of the reasons for the five-year waiting period before a player reaches the ballot. Nonetheless, I strongly suspect he'll find his way into Cooperstown in due time, and if that's the case, it will hardly be the crime of the century.