Center field boasts some of the highest standards for induction into the Hall of Fame. Traditionally center field requires the most athletic and defensive ability to play well, and therefore boasts fewer offensive stars than you would find at corner outfield positions. This is seen both with the eyes, and using advanced analysis; the bonus to statistics like WAR for center fielders is quite high. Center fielders currently benefit from a 2.5 run adjustment to their bWAR score, which offers a 9.5 run difference between a replacement center fielder and a replacement corner outfielder. Sadly, nobody told voters for the Hall of Fame.
There are currently 19 center fielders inducted into the Hall of Fame compared to 20 left fielders and a surprising 26 right fielders. Pretty much every corner outfielder inducted into the Hall of Fame was a good hitter. The worst hitting (BBWAA elected) left fielder in the Hall of Fame is Lou Brock (OPS+ 109), who collected 3,000 hits and stole over 900 bases in his career. The worst hitting (BBWAA elected) right fielder is probably Willie Keeler (OPS+ 127) who played over a century ago, and batted well over .300 for his career.
The worst hitting (BBWAA elected) center fielder is either Andre Dawson (119) or Kirby Puckett (124), depending on your perspective. All of which is to say the BBWAA has required center fielders both field like the wind and hit like a corner outfielder. In short, the BBWAA has held center fielders to an absurd standard only the greatest center fielders of all time could reach. The likes of Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Tris Speaker, and Ken Griffey Jr. blind us from the truth: great defensive center fielders are valuable, difficult to find and sadly underrated.
The JAWS Standard for CF
Centerfield boasts the fewest players above the JAWS standard, which makes sense because so few center fielders can last long enough to accumulate the value necessary to reach them. Only eight players eclipse the JAWS standard: Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr, Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider and Mike Trout. Just below the line? Carlos Beltran, Kenny Lofton and Andruw Jones. In short, the standards for centerfielders are absurdly high, despite the difficulty in playing the position.
Carlos Beltran offers a great case in point on how high the standards for a center fielder truly are; Beltran technically falls short of the JAWS standard for center field, despite ranking 9th in JAWS all time. Of the three contemporaries: Beltran was the best hitter (career OPS+ of 119, versus 107 & 111). He also played the longest, being the only one to eclipse 10,000 plate appearances. He also (finally) won a World Series as an old man in Houston. In Beltran's youth he was a good baserunner, at times an excellent fielder, and a consistently great hitter. He won three Gold Gloves (all well deserved), and remained a good hitter into his late '30s. Like Andruw Jones, he hit for power (albeit not quite so much as Jones), and brought some solid postseason performance to his resume late in his career.
Despite a long career (which would eclipse the standard in almost every other position on the diamond), Beltran falls short of the standard for center.
Kenny Lofton: Hall of Famer
Which brings me to Lofton. Lofton ranks one position behind Beltran in the JAWS rankings (10th all time), which is quite high. By JAWS the 10th best player in left field is Manny Ramirez; in right: Larry Walker. First base? Jim Thome. In short, JAWS consistently ranks the player at #10 as an excellent player.* Kenny Lofton lacks the offensive resume most of his peers boast for induction into the Hall of Fame. By OPS+ Lofton would rank as the worst offensive contributor in center field, and arguably the outfield as a whole.
*Although it appears to be a somewhat cursed number. Scott Rolen ranks 10th for third baseman, Bill Dahlen for shortstops and Ted Simmons for catchers. There are powerful sabermetric arguments for all three, but none have been inducted to the Hall of Fame...yet. I expect Simmons to earn induction soon, and Rolen remains on the ballot.
However, Lofton offers significant other contributions to his resume which most other players lack. Lofton was an all-time great baserunner stealing 622 bases in his career, leading the league five times, and succeeding 80% of the time. He leads the league in steals in postseason history. Combining Lofton's ability to avoid the double play, he was worth over 100 runs with his legs for his career. That's more than any comparable center fielder in or outside the Hall of Fame. Lofton was also an excellent defender, winning four Gold Gloves, and outplaying his recognition offering another 100 runs defensively. Unlike Beltran & Andruw Jones: Lofton basically spent his entire career in center: playing 1,984 games in center field, and 50 or less at any other position. Beltran played nearly a thousand games elsewhere on the diamond (including over 300 games as a DH). Jones played 1,700 games in center, but was forced off the position at 31 when he could no longer handle center field.
A Good Lofton Comparison
One player recently retired from baseball who compares well to Kenny Lofton. The player? Ichiro Suzuki.
Ichiro is world famous for his fascinating and unique style of player. Ichiro was a breathtaking right fielder, superb baserunner, who hit for absurdly high batting averages in an era dominated by power. Despite playing into his mid-fifties Ichiro maitained a .311 career batting average, which is incredibly high. He also accumulated over 120 baserunning runs, and over 100 fielding runs (along with 10 Gold Gloves). What adds to Ichiro's reputation is the fact he eclipsed 3,000 hits, despite debuting at 27. Ichiro Suzuki will go into the Hall of Fame, and I believe Kenny Lofton was the superior player.
Let's look at their components into their bWAR:
rBaser: 61 runs, rDP: 56 runs, rField: 117 runs
rBaser: 78 runs, rDP: 23 runs, rField: 108 runs
OK. Suzuki clearly has an edge here, about 10 runs in fielding and 20 runs in baserunning. Lofton makes this up with his bat however:
Lofton: 140 rBAT, Suzuki: 83 rBAT
That's right: Kenny Lofton was a better offensive player than Ichiro Suzuki, despite that shiny batting average. Ichiro constantly hit for high averages, and since he batted leadoff he led the league in plate appearances and at bats numerous times. However, when we consider their full slash line things tip in Lofton's favor:
.299/.372/.423 (OPS+ 107)
.311/.355/.402 (OPS+ 107)
Now, that batting average looks really good to start out, but Kenny Lofton walked 300 more times than Ichiro, despite taking fewer plate appearances over his career. Lofton also hit more doubles (383 v 362), home runs (130 v 117) and triples (116 v 96) than Ichiro. To add the cherry to the cake: Kenny Lofton did all of this playing his entire career in center, as opposed to a corner outfield spot. Centerfield is the more valuable position than the corner outfield spot, and as a result: Kenny Lofton boasts over 10 bWAR more than Ichiro Suzuki, and that's not all positional adjustment as I have shown.
Kenny Lofton has a case for the best fielding and baserunning centerfielder of all time. Despite only winning four Gold Gloves: Lofton was a superb fielder, who managed to remain in center until he was 40. The biggest knocks on Kenny Lofton is he failed to remain with one team once he turned 32, and the second knock is many other centerfielders (undeservedly) stole his defensive thunder. Take Bernie Williams: Bernie Williams also won 4 Gold Gloves, but posted -139 fielding runs for his career. Kirby Puckett won six, but posted -14 fielding runs. The great Ken Griffey Jr won 10 Gold Gloves...and I do not believe he was the fielder Lofton was: Griffey posted 3 fielding runs for his career (although he was certainly a great fielder occasionally as a young player in Seattle). Lofton's baserunning was elite, but only one player has ever earned induction into the Hall of Fame using his legs: Lou Brock, and Brock stuck around for 3,000 hits.
The distilled case for Lofton is: Kenny was a superior defender and baserunner, who set the table better than anyone outside of Rickey Henderson. Superficially (i.e. only looking at his offensive stats) Lofton falls short, but when you consider his whole game, and especially his calling card on baserunning: Lofton proves the elite player many Clevelanders remember him to be.
An Addendum: Kirby Puckett
Puckett was inducted first ballot into the Hall of Fame despite only playing 12 seasons for Minnesota. Overall, looking at Kirby Puckett's career I can see why he was loved. Puckett (like Ichiro) hit for those lovely, shiny, .300 batting averages. As a young man he combined hitting prowess with strong fielding. Unfortunately Puckett did not last, which is often the case for center fielders. Puckett stopped being an elite defender young (in his late 20s, probably), but the Gold Glove voters ignored his decline, as often happens. Puckett was an excellent hitter, but hardly elite. His career OPS+ of 124 is good, but hardly the stuff of legend, nor good enough to honor a player who accumulated fewer than 8,000 plate appearances.
In short: Puckett was a really good player, and borderline for the Hall of Fame. His JAWS ranking of 23rd places him in the conversation. However, I don't think he is a slam dunk candidate, nor does is he a good comparison for other players. Puckett died young (which undoubtedly helped his candidacy), and also won two rings for Minnesota, including a superb 1987 World Series performance.