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Kenny Lofton Belongs: the Veteran's Committee Will Likely Ignore Him

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports


On December 5th the Early Baseball and Golden Day's Committees (two of the four committees which I will henceforth call the Veteran's or Vets Committee) inducted six players into the Hall of Fame: Bud Fowler, Buck O'Neil, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso and Tony Oliva. For some this represented a long overdue acknowledgment of greatness in the cases of Buck & Minnie, the others own cases with more nuance which delayed their induction (or in the case of Jim Kaat simply got unlucky).

Before we discuss Lofton I need to say: this is a tremendous day for the Hall of Fame. It is a nearly criminal that the Hall of Fame did not induct Buck O'Neil in 2006 when he was last considered by the Hall for induction. Minnie Minoso barely missing in 2015 was also a tragedy. People should enjoy their induction, and in some cases here the Hall acted too slowly (remember: the Veteran's Committee is selected and ran by the Hall) to properly honor three of the six inducted men. I could quibble with the inductions of Gil Hodges, Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat on sabermetric grounds but overall I think all of these selections are quite justifiable historically. As such we should celebrate their induction, while mourning the fact that Richard Allen fell one vote short.

It is exciting that the Hall honored so many candidates at once. Particularly because one ignored candidate is once again eligible for consideration in 2023: Kenny Lofton. I am firmly on record in my opinion that Lofton belongs in the Hall of Fame. As I wrote last year: Kenny Lofton shares many similarities to certain, first ballot Hall of Famer: Ichiro Suzuki.

A Recap of Kenny Lofton's Hall of Fame Case

I have written a lot on Lofton over the years, so I am not entirely sure how much I can add to the record on why I think Lofton belongs. But let's try this year's format and see what we get.

Kenny Lofton, CF 68.4/43.4/55.9 (10th); AVG 71.9/44.8/58.3

Lofton ranks 10th all time in JAWS for center fielders, which is quite impressive when you think about it. Unfortunately, center fielders face similar problems to third basemen: they need to hit like their corner outfielder counterparts in order to earn induction. Now as we have discussed modern defensive statistics can distort the picture a bit; I do not believe Kenny Lofton is actually the 10th best center fielder of all time. That being said Kenny does not need to be the 10th best center fielder of all time to earn induction.

Hall of Fame comparisons can be a strange game, but I firmly believe Kenny Lofton was every bit the player Ichiro Suzuki was (at least while he played in the states). Lofton was the better hitter and the better fielder, Ichiro (when you factor in how well he avoided double plays) was the better baserunner. Few notice this because Ichiro did the obviously great things: he had a cannon of an arm and won 10 Gold Gloves (Lofton only won four). Ichiro hit for an absurdly high batting average and set all kinds of records for hitting singles while Lofton hit for a touch more power and drew more walks. Ichiro will get inducted the second he is eligible. Lofton received less than 5% of the vote in 2013; less than Sandy Alomar Jr.

Here'a deeper dive on the Ichiro v Kenny comparison:

Rough Offensive Outline:

Ichiro & Kenny boast the same 107 OPS+ and Fangraphs, which figures things differently, gives Kenny a wRC+ of 109 and Ichiro a 104. So we know they were both in the same rough neighborhood offensively. Now, if we look at a more granular level:

Kenny got on base at a .372 clip; Ichiro a .355

Kenny hit for a touch more power: 0.124 ISO compared to Ichiro's 0.91; we also see this in the counting stats. Kenny hit more extra base hits (629 v 575) despite accumulating 1,500 fewer plate appearances.

Now, if you'd like to be fair (which I don't, but I will): Ichiro kept playing well into his 40s while Kenny was locked out at 40 after a solid split year between Texas and Cleveland. If we compare Ichiro's career through age 40 and Kenny's they basically converge:

Ichiro through 40: .317/.360/.411 (OPS+ 110), 2,844 H, 336 2B, 85 3B, 112 HR, 1,303 R, 487 SB (82% success rate)

Kenny entire career: .299/.372/.423 (OPS+ 107), 2,428 H, 383 2B, 116 3B, 130 HR, 1,528 R, 622 SB (80% success rate)

Lofton played in a touch more offensive scoring time, but still: quite similar. I would personally take Lofton with the stick over Ichiro, although frankly their values are basically the same. Ichiro hit for more average and with less power; Lofton walked more. Lofton also successfully stole bases better than Ichiro (or his managers granted him more leeway). Lofton did score more runs in his career (in total) despite batting 1,500 fewer times. I have not dug into this personally but...Lofton only ranked in the top 10 three times, while Ichiro ranked in the top 10 seven times.

However, all of this debate leaves out one crucial piece of context: Lofton played center field, and Ichiro played right field. That's huge, by bWAR that means Lofton got nearly 70 wins, while Ichiro got only 60. I do not think there is a good statistical case for Ichiro which excludes Lofton.

A Word on Lofton's Defense

Now, all of this assumes that Kenny Lofton's defense was as good as Baseball-Reference says it was, which is not a given. Jay Jaffe wrote in 2013 when Lofton came up for the first (and only) time in the BBWAA balloting:

The change from Baseball Prospectus' WARP to Baseball-Reference.com's WAR as the underlying valuation metric yields very different answers founded mainly in the discrepancies produced by differing defensive systems. Lofton is 112 runs above average according to Total Zone for his career, including 125 runs above average for 1991-2002, the period for which those numbers are used in WAR. For 2003 onward, via Defensive Runs Saved, he's at −16, pretty much in line with his −13 Total Zone in that span. So call him +109 according to B-Ref. Meanwhile, via BP's Fielding Runs Above Average, he's actually six runs in the red for his career, a 115-run discrepancy.

Now, I think we must also add here that Jaffe did not close the door on Lofton, and largely dismissed his case due to the overwhelming backlog of candidates on the 2013 ballot. That being said we should take a brief look at some other methodologies on Lofton.

Fangraphs gives Lofton 114 runs for his career value, largely matching the 109 runs Baseball-Reference gives him (which is a good sign) although unfortunately the advanced fielding section of Fangraphs' description is not encouraging. Lofton's DRS for the years we have data is an abysmal -15 runs, although these years are his age 35-50 campaigns (not exactly a players' best defensive years). His UZR over those years is -0.9. Overall the statistics are not asking us to believe anything particularly egregious: they suggest Lofton was the 9th best center fielder of all time. That might not be exactly right, but it's certainly not an outlier.

I am not the best judge, but the statistics have not disqualified him in the eyes of Jay Jaffe or Joe Posnanski (who ranked him the 16th best player outside the Hall last year). Unless we get better data to contradict what we have: I will believe Kenny's stats.

Sadly, Lofton's Case is Hardly a Lock

To put my cards on the table: I think the odds Lofton gets inducted are low. The Veteran's Committee does not have a good history of inducting nuanced, statistically oriented, candidates into the Hall of Fame. This new version of the Vets Committee is not a decade old, but we can already find some trends the most important being that statistical analysis does not impact the vote heavily (I would argue candidates with good WAR are actually hurt). Here are the candidates who've been inducted (and any notable votes for players who fell short):

2020: Ted Simmons & Marvin Miller Inducted

Lou Whitaker received 6 votes, half the amount needed to earn induction. This is notable because, like Lofton, Whitaker was a one and done candidate on the BBWAA ballot and while his case is shouted from the rooftops by statistically oriented writers: he lacks the traditional oomph of many candidates. I think Lou was helped by the induction of Alan Trammell. One concerning thing: the case for Whitaker and the case for Lofton are similar. Both are nuanced players who provided value in a variety of different ways including underrated defense (only 3 Gold Gloves for Lou) and lots of walks. On the bright side: Ted Simmons only spent one year on the BBWAA ballot, but his induction came as a surprise.

2019: Lee Smith & Harold Baines

This year is the key one, I think. Lee Smith earned induction resoundingly, which is not surprising given that (with the induction of Hodges this year): every player not on the ballot who received at least 50% of the vote has now been inducted into Cooperstown. Smith got 50% one year, and has a lot of saves. Harold Baines is a confounding choice, but we have a nice lengthy explainer from Tony La Russa as to why he was inducted. It is not good news for Lofton. In short La Russa considered a bunch of counting stats measuring how many hits, doubles and RBIs Harold Baines collected over a 20 year period (excluding his last two, bad, years). He did not look at walks, nor defense, nor base running, nor WAR.

This matters because by traditional metrics Lofton falls short. Lofton does not have many Gold Gloves. Lofton's hit total, while impressive, is in a grey zone: Lofton ranks 121st in hits between Mark Grace and Pie Traynor. There are over 30 non-Hall of Famers ahead of him on the list, to just use one example. If traditional counting stats are the bar for induction: Lofton will not exceed them.

2018: Jack Morris & Alan Trammell

Jack Morris is, of course, the non-static darling Hall of Fame candidate. He received over 50% of the BBWAA vote multiple times. He was a clear choice. Alan Trammell received nearly 50% of the vote on his last go around. In this vote Ted Simmons received 11 votes which teed up his eventual induction.

2017: Bud Selig & John Schuerholz

No player received enough votes to be considered including notably strong candidates: Orel Hershiser and Will Clark.

2016: Shutout

2015: Shutout

This election is interesting because Richard Allen fell one vote short, and Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso, and Tony Oliva all fell one or two votes short. A few players who did not come close? WAR heroes Luis Tiant & Ken Boyer did not receive enough votes for listing.

2014: Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox & Joe Torre

No players received a number of votes to be listed. Notably Dan Quissenberry (who is quite similar to Dave Sutter) was not listed.

2013: Deacon White, Hank O'Day and Jacob Ruppert

Again, besides Deacon White (who played when catchers literally used their hands): no players were inducted. Wes Ferrell, who has a really high WAR, barely merited mention.

2012: Ron Santo

Jim Kaat, Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso and Tony Oliva all came close. WAR heroes Luis Tiant & Ken Boyer were ignored. One thing I will note: it took Ron Santo years to earn induction and was only inducted after he died and he spent years on the BBWAA ballot topping out at 43%.

To summarize: this version of the Veterans Committee has not looked particularly kindly on one and done Hall of Fame candidates, inducting one (Ted Simmons) but basically ignoring all the rest. On the flip side the Vets Committee has inducted several players who received significant BBWAA support (Jack Morris, Alan Trammell, Lee Smith and Ron Santo), several long time candidates with strong traditional candidacies (Tony Oliva who hit over .300, Jim Kaat who won 16 Gold Gloves and won 283 games, and Harold Baines who would have reached 3,000 hits without strikes).

Conclusion

You will not find a bigger fan of Kenny Lofton, and a stronger supporter of his Hall candidacy, than I. I have been beating the drum for Kenny for years and will continue to do so until I die or he's in the Hall. That being said: we need to temper our enthusiasm with a dose of realism. I am not convinced they will even add Lofton to the ballot let alone induct him into the Hall. Similar candidates: Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell, & Bobby Grich have not even been teed up to get a hearing so it would not surprise me to see the Veterans Committee shun Lofton as well.

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