Thus far this year I largely held myself to discussing the stories of what made each player on this ballot great. Today I take a break and discuss the statistical case for Jeff Kent. In the past I typically briefly discuss how boring I find Jeff Kent’s case, and frankly: his affirmative case bores me. However, there are a couple of tools and insights I’d like to share for Jeff Kent in detail.
The Case for Jeff Kent
The opening for Kent’s case typically begins with how Kent leads all second baseman in home runs, and Kent does: Jeff is one of the eight players who leads their position in homers (well, 10 if you would like to include pitcher and designated hitter). The implication is: Kent is among the best, if not the best, hitter as a second baseman in history. Chris Bodig of Cooperstown Cred does an excellent job describing Kent’s offensive case here. To take a couple of excerpts from his article:
the bottom line is that, if you take a 10-year stretch of time (that breakthrough 1997 season through 2006), for all 2nd basemen with at least 3,000 plate appearances, Jeff Kent is #1 in home runs, RBI, slugging, OPS+, and WAR (and way ahead in most of those categories).
Kent led all second baseman in those years in bWAR (42.8), OPS+ (131), and home runs (267). This is certainly impressive, I would concur with Chris that Kent was, likely, the best second baseman in baseball, particularly offensively, over that 10 year period.
Chris also compares Kent favorably to Craig Biggio & Roberto Alomar; two already enshrined second baseman, and both fairly quickly from the BBWAA. First, Kent compares reasonably well to Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio defensively by Baseball Reference’s fielding runs above average. Alomar actually rates as being -38 runs below average defensively for his career, Biggio -100. Kent comes in as a mediocre, but comparable, -42 runs below average. Obviously, given Alomar’s Gold Gloves: this is surprising.
Additionally, Kent clearly compares well offensively to both Alomar and Biggio. Kent leads both in home runs, RBIs and SLG. OPS+ marks Kent as being 23% better than average, and only 16% & 12% for Alomar and Biggio respectively. Kent’s slight offensive advantage, combined with Kent’s historical leads among second baseman in a bevy of home run related statistics (HR & RBI primarily) all suggest Kent’s worthiness.
Why this Case is Misleading
Lets start with the place people typically forget about (with rare exceptions): baserunning. The biggest difference between Biggio, Alomar and Kent is their skills on the base paths. Alomar was an efficient and robust base stealer, swiping 474 bases for his career at over an 80% success rate. Biggio was a less efficient, but still strong, thief stealing 414 bases at a 78% rate. Both Biggio and Alomar were both above average at avoiding double plays. Overall, this advantage accounts for about a 50 run difference between Kent and Alomar/Biggio.
Second, there is obviously a debate over the defensive difference between Alomar and Kent, in particular. Fangraphs rates Alomar as being 15 wins above average as opposed to Kent being only one win above replacement. Looking at some of the raw statistics: Alomar led all second baseman in assists twice (in the top 10 13 times), while Kent only led once (top 10 nine times); Total Zone once (top 10 four times) while Kent never led, and putouts once (top 10 seven times) and Kent never led (top 10 nine times). Overall, I would give Alomar an edge on fielding.
Biggio was probably a worse fielder than Kent, but has another advantage over him: Biggio played several positions for his career. Biggio is the rare player who spent significant time at second (over 1,900 games), catcher (over 400 games) and center field (over 250 games). Overall, like Kent, most of Biggio’s poor defense came late in his career.
Overall, while I agree defense is less of an advantage for Alomar and Biggio as perceived: it’s still an advantage.
Finally, I do not believe Kent was much better of a hitter than either Alomar or Biggio. It’s frequently pointed out that Kent leads all second basemen in home runs, while this is true a question must be asked: was Kent a good home run hitter? Answer: not really. In Kent’s career how many times did he lead the league in home runs? Never. Did he ever come close? Nope. How many times did Kent even rank in the top 10? Once: he finished 7th in 2002. Next, was Kent ever a leading offensive force in the game? Answer: not really. Kent only finished in the top 10 in the league in offensive bWAR twice: 2000 & 2002 (he finished 3rd both times). In comparison, Biggio led once (1995) and finished in the top 10 four other times, Alomar never led but finished in the top 10 six times (peaking at third in 2001).
Looking elsewhere: Kent never led the league in any statistical category. Looking at Bill James’ "Grey Ink" tool (how many times a player finished in the top 10): Kent scores a 71 while Alomar scores a 95 and Biggio a 101. Kent’s career is also the shortest of the three, with Biggio compiling over 2,000 more PAs, and Alomar about 500.
Which, to me, leads us to a question: Kent leads second baseman in home runs, but does that say more about Kent, or more about the time he played? As previously stated: Kent never led the league in home runs. Kent rarely even finished in the top 10 as an offensive player. Overall, I think the evidence points towards Kent being a compiler, and a product of his time, not a truly great player in his own right.
What about the MVP?
Unlike Biggio and Alomar (and Sandberg): Jeff Kent actually won an MVP, in 2000. He didn’t deserve it. On his own team: Barry Bonds easily outpaced Kent in basically every statistical category, except for batting average and RBIs. The aware probably should have gone to Todd Helton, who batted an insane .372, but played for a terrible Rockies team and played in Coors Field.
Additionally: Jeff Kent never deserved an MVP. As stated, he never was the best offensive player in his league, and his WAR advantage for playing second base never led him to finishing as the top player in bWAR either. Alomar probably could have won an MVP in 1999 (when he ranked second in WAR among position players), and 1992 (where Dennis Eckersley, for reasons which still confound me) won the award. Biggio also could have won the award as well in ‘97 and ‘95.
Kent may have won the MVP award: but Biggio and Alomar posted more MVP type seasons.
I understand why some people like Kent’s case, and to be clear: Jeff Kent’s Hall of Fame case is sound. However, I don’t think Jeff’s case is quite as strong as people think. His second base home run record is interesting, but not profound. If we compare him to the other players who lead their positions in home runs:
Mike Piazza: 427 HR, top 10 seven times
Albert Pujols: 662 HR, led twice
Mike Schmidt: 548 HR, led eight times
Ernie Banks: 512 HR, led twice
Barry Bonds: 762 HR, led twice
Willie Mays: 660 HR, led three times
Hank Aaron: 755 HR, led four times
As previously stated: Kent never led the league in homers, and only finished in the top 10 twice. Additionally, every player on that list has an argument for being the best offensive player at their position ever. Kent does not. Kent is clearly inferior to several second baseman historically, including: Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie and Joe Morgan.
Finally, when I evaluate a player I always ask myself a question: is this player the best player outside the Hall of Fame? In this case I ranked all the second baseman, and the answer for me is clearly no. Jeff Kent does rank well among eligible players outside the Hall of Fame at the second base position, I ranked him 3rd. However, I would put Robinson Cano and Chase Utley (neither of whom is eligible for the Hall) above Kent, and everyone behind Kent I would not place in the Hall. Which means, Kent is basically the Hall of Fame line.
At the moment, I place Kent below it. He’s close, but I don’t see a huge argument in his favor.