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More on WAR

If you love the Hall of Fame you like read at least some of what Chris Bodig writes on a neat website called Cooperstown Cred. On the site Chris breaks down the main Hall of Fame candidates and comes to conclusions on their worthiness. I like much of what Chris writes and incorporate some of his thinking into my own work on the Hall of Fame. One player we emphatically disagree on is Jeff Kent. Chris is a big Jeff Kent guy (he's not alone); needless to say I am not. I recently re-read his article on Kent (found here), and I walked away a touch disappointed. Chris lays out the case for Kent fairly convincingly, a brief synopsis of Chris's argument:

1. Jeff Kent is the best power hitting second baseman of his generation. He is also the best home run hitting second baseman of all time. If you compare Kent to other second baseman during his peak (1997-2006) he leads them all in bWAR, OPS+, HR, RBI, and SLG.

2. Jeff Kent was no worse a fielder than Roberto Alomar, and a better fielder than Craig Biggio

3. The combination of Kent's comparatively good defense, and superior offense, make him a clear choice for the Hall of Fame

When lane in front of you like this: it's difficult to refute. Largely because the individual pieces of his argument are quite true: there is no question that Jeff Kent was a better batsmen with more power than most second baseman, including from his era. Overall Kent has not gained more traction in the BBWAA balloting in his estimation because of:

First, as we’ve discussed, he was such a late-bloomer that people just never considered him to be a Hall of Fame-caliber player. The second is that, for the sabermetrically inclined writers, his career WAR of 55.5 is much lower than many others on the ballot. Third, Kent was quite prickly with the media, myself included. If you’ve got lots of players to choose from and he’s at the bottom of your list of ten (the maximum any writer can vote for), human nature sometimes comes into play.

I am not sure about the first and third points, but I do absolutely agree with Chris that a huge reason why Jeff Kent has made little headway on the BBWAA ballot is his JAWS score. Which to me is the frustrating part of this exercise: instead of contending with the core issue with Kent's case, Chris puts better window dressing on Kent's strengths. I'd like to rectify that here and examine where Kent falls short via WAR.

Jeff Kent, 2B (21st) 55.5/35.8/45.6; AVG: 69.7/44.5/57.1

Jeff Kent's poor JAWS is a crucial reason why he's so far behind in balloting (and arguably perception). Jay Jaffe is not a Jeff Kent guy, for instance, and the fact that he's lagged so far behind other recent second baseman and contemporaries like Scott Rolen is a problem for Kent. I think the key to understanding this is by comparing Jeff Kent's bWAR calculations to his two Hall of Fame contemporaries: Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio.

Jeff Kent: Batting Runs: 297, Baserunning Runs: 1, Double Play Avoidance: -17, Fielding Runs: -42, Positional Adjustment: 50, total Runs Above Average: 290

Craig Biggio: Batting Runs: 257, Baserunning Runs: 54, Double Play Avoidance: 22, Fielding Runs, -100, Positional Adjustment: 82, total Runs Above Average: 312

Roberto Alomar: Batting Runs: 242, Baserunning Runs: 53, Double Play Avoidance: 5, Fielding Runs: -38, Positional Adjustment: 64, total Runs Above Average: 327

I like laying this out because it lets us examine whether or not we agree with the individual pieces of the case. According to bWAR the reason why Jeff Kent's offensive advantage is not as big as you would expect from his OPS+ advantage (123 for Kent, 112 for Biggio and 116 for Alomar). Part of this is because Kent simply did not play as long as Alomar and Biggio who accumulated 900 and 3,000 more PAs than Kent did respectively. Another part of it, in my mind, is because much of Kent's OPS advantage stems from power. Alomar and Biggio were better at getting on base than Kent.

Another minor point in favor of Alomar and Biggio is their fielding, specifically where they played on the field. Alomar basically spent his entire career on second, a total of over 2,000 complete games; he rarely DH'd and the only other position he played was 5 games at short. Biggio famously spent his career all over the place logging 1,691 games at second, 348 at catcher and 220 in centerfield. In contrast Kent spent only 1,633 games at second.

But the biggest issue with Kent, compared to Biggio and Alomar, is his base running. By WAR Alomar and Biggio are six and eight wins to the good in base running and double play avoidance, while Jeff Kent hurt his team by about two wins. That's a swing of 8-10 wins respectively against Kent, which is about what WAR suggests the difference between the three are at the end of the day.

Let's Look at the Offense

One place where I think we need to train our eye is on the comparatively small offensive discrepancy. I think we all understand that Kent hit with more power than Alomar and Biggio. Let's take a look at their Gray Ink (number of times they were in the top 10 in their respective league).

Kent: Batting Average: 2x, On-Base %: 1x, SLG: 2x, R: 3x, 2B: 4x, 3B: 3x

Alomar: Batting Average: 5x, On-Base %: 5x, R: 6x (led once), 2B: 3x, 3B: 5x, SB: 7x

Biggio: Batting Average: 2x, On-Base %: 4x, R: 9x (led twice), 2B: 6x (led three times), 3B: 2x, SB: 5x (led once)

Their respective Gray Ink scores are: Kent 71, Alomar 95, Biggio 104. None (except Biggio) make the average for a Hall of Famer (100), but Alomar is 5% off while Kent is nearly 30% off. More importantly to these eyes is the statistic conspicuously absent from Kent's Gray Ink score: Home Runs. Kent famously hit more homers than any other second baseman: he never once finished in his league's top 10. Not. Once. The only conclusion I can draw from that is Jeff Kent was not a particularly good home run hitter.

Conclusion

Perhaps you disagree with WAR, and I can see that in this case. Kent's OPS+ advantage is quite large at 123 v 116 and 112. As I previously stated: this is partially a mirage as Kent did not play as long as Alomar or Biggio. If you cut off Alomar's last two seasons to roughly match their plate appearances Alomar's OPS+ jumps to 119, if you cut off Biggio's final four seasons (and his first season) to equalize: his rises to 117. Had Kent played for as long as Biggio and Alomar I suspect his career OPS+ would drop down to earth. But suppose you think the offense is right, or perhaps low: there's still the fact that Alomar and Biggio were all time great baserunners while Kent was below average.

To me I think that's all irrelevant and the more relevant point is this: Kent was not a particularly good home run hitter, and his case is entirely built around home runs. If Kent debuted in 1982 and retired in 1998 his homer total would be much lower and I do not think we'd be discussing his case at all.

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