The following is a rewrite of an article I originally posted in 2019
Kenny Lofton retired after the 2007 season, finishing up playing for the Cleveland Indians. While Lofton attempted to find work for the 2008 season, in what would be his age 41 season. Despite posting respectable offensive numbers, rating as an above average baserunner, and still being able to handle center: Lofton was unable to find regular playing time. His early retirement (compared to some) forced him to appear on the 2013 BBWAA where he promptly fell off after a single appearance.
This was unfortunate because Lofton shared a ballot with numerous big names including fourteen future Hall of Famers and a bunch of other players who, while not Hall of Famers, took up a ton of ballots space including: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Curt Schilling & Sammy Sosa. A few others remained on the ballot for an extended period like Don Mattingly & Dale Murphy. Lofton never had a chance; few noticed his presence on the ballot and he fell off.
Interestingly a player whom I find quite similar to Kenny Lofton will debut on the BBWAA ballot in 2025: Suzuki Ichiro*. Ichiro is widely considered to be a slam dunk, first ballot, Hall of Fame right fielder. He was included recently in Joe Posnanski’s Baseball 100, and also collected 3,000 hits. Every eligible player with 3,000 hits has been elected to the Hall of Fame except those connected to performance enhancing drugs. In this article I intend to prove that Kenny Lofton was every bit the player Suzuki Ichiro was and thus is also deserving of induction into the Hall of Fame.
*For anyone wondering why I am writing Ichiro’s name like this: in Japan the family name comes before your given name. This has sparked debate in Japan as to how to write Western versions of Japanese names. I have chosen to write English versions of Japanese names in Japanese fashion.
Ichiro was Amazing
Let's start here: Suzuki Ichiro was an amazing right fielder, who came over from Japan and basically proved to the US that importing Japanese talents could pay off. Ichiro debuted in 2001 and instantly became a sensation: he won the Rookie of the Year and the MVP that season while leading the AL in hits, stolen bases and batting average. Ichiro proceeded to win ten consecutive Gold Gloves, he set the Major League Record for hits with 262 in 2004 (which was also his best season). Ichiro defined the Mariners until he departed later in his career, hung around until he was 45 (long enough to reach 3,000 hits), and basically ensured himself of a first ballot ticket into the Hall of Fame. What's more: Ichiro invented an entirely new way to play Major League Baseball. Nobody, and I mean nobody, in MLB history could hit singles quite like Ichiro.
Ichiro basically played every game from 2001 to 2013; his age 39 season; a remarkably durable stretch. From 2001 to 2010 Ichiro led the league in singles every single season. Ichiro proceeded to finish 3rd in 2011 and 2012, and then at age 39 he stopped being good enough to play every day. Ichiro truly was a magician and an expert at hitting 'em where they ain't; an baseball art few mastered since the Deadball Era. This translated into Ichiro leading the league in hits an insane seven times (and finished in the top 10 another four times). He posted shiny batting averages every single season, nine times finishing in the top 10 and leading the AL twice (once with an absurd .370 average, one of the highest in the modern era).
To make things better: Ichiro was a majestic fielder: he won Gold Gloves every year he was a regular. Ichiro had such a unique stance, basically stepping towards first base as he swung which led him to being 56 runs above average in double play avoidance. I don't know if it's a record: but it sure as heck feels like one. He also stole bases: he averaged nearly 40 swipes a season from 2001 to 2012 (his time as a regular). There, it seemed, was nothing Ichiro couldn't do. Ichriro retired with a .311 batting average, over 3,000 hits, and the love of his country. Ichiro is a legend in Japan.
Ichiro is 6th in MLB history with 2,514 singles, which sounds less impressive than it is: Ichiro also only batted 10,734 times in his career which is 400 plate appearances less than Cap Anson (5th on the list) and 4,000 less than Pete Rose, who holds the record. In short: there are few players in history more effective at hitting singles, and posting high batting averages than Suzuki Ichiro.
Unfortunately, while batting averages and hits impress BBWAA voters and fans: Ichiro failed to mix many extra base hits. While Ichiro’s .311 batting average is superb (especially in the Modern Game) his .402 slugging percentage is quite low. As a result, while Ichiro posted excellent batting averages, his lack of power limited his offensive impact. A .311 batting average helps a player get on base and stand out but a .402 slugging percentage will set no records.
Which brings us to the second thing Ichrio couldn't do: walk. Ichiro rarely ever walked, never finished in the top 10 in walks, and more importantly: only ever finished in the top 10 in the league in OBP three times, despite that shiny batting average. Astoundingly, Ichiro's on-base percentage is only .355, which is hardly historic, because he rarely ever walked.
Overall, Ichiro's OPS+ of 107 is mediocre, especially for a right fielder. In fact, Ichiro's OPS+ of 107 would be the lowest for any right fielder in the Hall of Fame (besides Tommy McCarthy, who is a different story: he supposedly invented the hit and run tactic).
This does not mean Ichiro is not a Hall of Fame player: he 100% belongs in the Hall of Fame. Ichiro’s combination of hitting wizardry, superb defense and mastery of the basepaths made him one of the game’s best players for over a decade. Ichiro was a good hitter, just not as good a hitter as his batting average suggests. On the flip side Ichiro was an incredibly noticeable hitter who set a few MLB records and led the league in hits and batting average several times.
The Kenny Lofton Comparison
Which brings us to Kenny Lofton. Lofton was also a good hitter; while he only led the league in hits once (and never led the league in batting average): he still batted .299 for his career. If we look at their career batting lines they actually look quite similar:
.311/.355/.402 (OPS+ 107), 3,089 H, 1,420 R, 362 2B, 509 SB (81.3%), 10 Gold Gloves in 10,734 PA
.299/.372/.423 (OPS+ 107), 2,428 H, 1,528 R, 383 2B, 622 SB (79.5%), 4 Gold Gloves in 9,235 PA
A few things stand out to me. First, despite Ichiro's shiny batting average: Lofton finished his career with a higher on-base percentage than Ichiro. This would be true even if you take off the last several years of Ichiro's career where he toiled as a below average backup outfielder to reach 3,000 hits: Ichiro's OBP was only .361 if you cut off his age 40 seasons and beyond. Second, despite over 1,000 fewer plate appearances: Lofton hit more doubles, triples and home runs than Ichiro. His slugging percentage is 20 points higher; his ISO (Isolated Slugging Percentage) is 30 points higher. By Baseball-Reference’s OPS+ statistic Lofton & Ichiro share about the exact same OPS+ of 107. Fangraphs, which figures things differently, shows a similar score of 109 v. 104 respectively.
Overall, offensively: Kenny Lofton and Ichiro Suzuki were quite similar players. If we look at each player’s best offensive season, we again see similarities:
Kenny Lofton, 1994:
.349/.412/.536 (OPS+ 145) 160 H (Led League), 60 SB (Led League), 32 2B, 12 HR, 105 Runs Scored, 52 BB-56 SO in 523 Plate Appearances
Suzuki Ichiro, 2004:
.372 (Led League/.414/.455 (OPS+ 130), 262 H (MLB Record), 36 SB, 24 2B, 8 HR, 101 Runs Scored, 49 BB-63 S in 762 Plate Appearances
Here we see, I think, a good michrocasm of the differences and similarities of their games. Both were superb table setters in their prime; both were excellent base stealers. While Ichiro got on base by hitting the ball where fielders weren’t: Kenny combined strong batting averages with a solid walk rate, and also hit the ball for slightly more power.
Now, defensively it would appear (superficially) that Suzuki has the advantage. This would be a mistake. Ichiro did win six more Gold Gloves than Lofton. But Lofton was likely underappreciated defensively. If we look at their Baseball-Reference defensive scores, B-R reckons Lofton added 108 runs defensively, while Ichiro added 123. Given that Lofton competed against several excellent outfielders including Ken Griffey Jr, Andruw Jones & Jim Edmonds: it is not surprising that his total is comparatively low.
The same can be said on the baserunning side; Lofton owns over 100 steals more than Ichiro, but Ichiro (remember his swing) was far superior in preventing double plays. Ichiro stole bases more efficiently than Lofton, but Lofton was also a better all around baserunner. If we add the two pieces of baserunning value together: both appear to be about equally as valuable: Ichiro 118 baserunning runs; Lofton 102.
How is this factored? Baseball-Reference has a wonderful tool which shows things like how often a player took an extra base. For example: Kenny Lofton was on first base 535 times when a single was hit in his career; he took the extra base (meaning he reached third base) 44% of the time. Ichiro only did this 27% of the time. Lofton was on second base when a single was hit 408 times: he scored 70% of the time. Ichiro only scored 63% of the time. Overall, Lofton took the extra base 55% of the time while Ichiro only took the extra base 41%.
A Matter of Position
Additionally, we also need to factor in position. Lofton spent almost the entirety of his career in center field, while Ichiro spent almost the entirety of his career in right. Center is a more valuable defensive position than right, and is also a far less represented position. Only 19 primarily center fielders are in the Hall, while there are 28 right fielders. Their position also impacts their overall value.
Although both were quite similar as players: Lofton ranks 10th all time in JAWS for Center Fielders, and accumulated about 10 more bWAR than Ichiro. Why? Simple: Lofton was a center fielder, Ichiro spent most of his time in right. As a result: bWAR credits Lofton 43 runs, while deducting Ichiro for 77. The overall picture are two quite similar players, with expansive skillsets. The only real difference between the two is contemporary recognition: Ichiro was heralded as a scion of his country, lauded with All-Star appearances, Gold Gloves, and an MVP. Lofton was barely noticed.
In my mind comparing Lofton to Ichiro reminds me of the arguments in favor of Tim Raines for the Hall of Fame. Tim Raines was frequently compared to Tony Gwynn; the gist of the argument being that while Tony Gwynn reached 3,000 hits and was a superb table setter that Raines was too. While Raines did not bat .300 for his career; he hit for more power than Gwynn and walked enough to actually get on base more frequently than Gwynn.
There are similarities here as well. Runs Created is a useful way to envision this; what is Runs Created? It’s a statistic developed by the father of baseball statistics Bill James. The formula is simple: ((Hits + Walks) * Total Bases) / (At Bats +Walks). The goal is to capture how well a player got on base and hit for power, factoring in how many opportunities you received. Here are the Runs Created for both Ichiro & Lofton:
Suzuki Ichiro 1,410 RC
Kenny Lofton 1,277 RC
As we can see: Ichiro has more, but Ichiro’s career was longer than Lofton’s (over 1,000 plate appearances more than Lofton’s). But the original Runs Created formula misses some things. Baseball-Reference adjusts the formula to factor in things like grounding into double plays, stealing bases and other things. In their formula this adjusts to:
Suzuki Ichiro 1,501 RC
Kenny Lofton 1,386 RC
If we consider Ichiro played longer:
Lofton’s RC/Game Played is 6.1
Ichiro’s RC/Game Played is 5.6
Overall, I think Lofton was the superior offensive player to Ichiro; by an inch.
When eligible: I expect Ichiro to sail into Cooperstown. Japanese fans will flood the area, and as Ichiro watches his plaque enter the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. Lofton languishes outside even the purview of the Veteran's Committee (for at least a little bit longer). I don't question the worthiness of Ichiro: I'd vote for him in a heartbeat. But Lofton may be the most overlooked player of his generation.
Thanks for reading! Find the original post here, and the new one on my Substack