JAWS and the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot: Jeff Kent
It took a long time for Jeff Kent to find a home. Drafted by the Blue Jays in 1989, he passed through the hands of three teams who didn’t quite realize the value of what they had. Not until a trade to the Giants in November 1996 — prior to his age 29 season — did he really settle in. Once he did, he established himself as a middle-of-the-lineup force, a complement to Barry Bonds who helped the Giants become perennial contenders, and one of the game’s top hitters for more than a decade.
Despite his late-arriving stardom and a prickly personality that sometimes rubbed teammates and media the wrong way, Kent earned All-Star honors five times, won an MVP award and helped four different franchises reach the playoffs a total of seven times. He put together a resume that gives him a claim as the best-hitting second baseman of the post-1960 expansion era — not an iron-clad claim, but not one that’s easily dismissed. For starters, he holds the all-time record for most home runs by a second baseman, with 351, 74 more than Ryne Sandberg, 85 more than Joe Morgan, 86 more than Rogers Hornsby — all Hall of Famers, and in Hornsby’s case, one from before the expansion era (note that I’m not counting homers hit while playing other positions). Among players with at least 7,000 plate appearances in their career who spent at least half their time at second base, only Hornsby (.577) has a higher slugging percentage than his .500. From that latter set, only Hornsby (1.010) and another pre-expansion Hall of Famer, Charlie Gehringer (.884) have a higher OPS.
Offense isn’t everything for a second baseman, however, and in a Hall of Fame discussion it needs to be set in its proper context. Taking the measure of all facets of his game, Kent appears to have a weaker case with regards to advanced statistics than to traditional ones. In an election that has more candidates with the JAWS stamp of approval than there are slots on an individual ballot, he falls short. Even if he did not, however, he’d face a tough road to Cooperstown.
|Avg HOF 2B||69.5||44.5||57.0|
Born in Bellflower, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, Kent was most interested in motocross — a sport in which his father, a former motorcycle cop, competed — while growing up. He played baseball at Edison High School in Huntington Beach, but despite being an all-county selection as a shortstop, was kicked off his team as a senior due to a personality conflict. Coach Ron La Ruffa called it “a bad case of senioritis,” while the Los Angeles Times characterized it as an “attitude problem.” Playing American Legion and Connie Mack League baseball that summer instead, he still secured a baseball scholarship to UC-Berkeley.
Kent helped his team to the College World Series as a sophomore in 1988, but his junior season ended when he broke his wrist, which scared away scouts. He nonetheless signed with the Blue Jays when they drafted him in the 21st round. Splitting his first professional season between shortstop and third base, he struggled both in the field and at the plate, but showed good power at every minor league stop, and took more smoothly to second base in 1990. He was set to start the 1992 season at Triple-A Syracuse, but injuries opened a roster spot and playing time at third and second. He played 65 games for the Blue Jays, hitting .240/.324/.443, but on August 27 — mere days after Dave Winfield joked in the pages of Sports Illustrated that Kent was Wally Pipp-ing injured third baseman Kelly Gruber — they sent him and a player to be named later to the Mets for David Cone, who went on to help them win the World Series.
Alas, the Mets were headed the opposite direction at that point, bound for their second straight losing season after seven (1984-1990) with at least 87 wins. The 1992 squad gained infamy as The Worst Team Money Could Buy after the book of the same name, but the 1993 one truly stunk, going 59-103, the team’s worst showing since 1965. The 25-year-old Kent spent most of that season as their starting second baseman, hitting a respectable .270/.320/.446 with 21 homers in 140 games, but he was terrible in the field (-20 runs, according to Total Zone), offsetting nearly all of his value with the bat; he finished with 0.3 WAR.
Kent maintained that level with the bat in the next three seasons, hitting a combined .284/.333/.457 while averaging 15 homers a year from 1994-1996, and his defense improved enough that he was worth an average of 2.8 WAR across that stretch. Even so, he disliked a 1996 shift to third base, and it took its toll. As Franz Lidz wrote in a 1999 Sports Illustrated profile:
“I hated third,” he says. It showed. Once, after a Shea Stadium ball girl backhanded a foul ball, a fan shouted, “Hey, Kent. You should trade positions with her.” When errors — 21 in 89 games — began mounting faster than the national debt, Kent became defensive about his defense. “Bobbling a ball would so humiliate me that I couldn’t speak,” he says.
The Mets remained mired below .500, but Kent caught a break when he was traded to the Indians in a four-player deal that sent Carlos Baerga to New York; the Mets, on the other hand, caught a falling knife, but that’s a story for another day. The Indians had won the AL pennant the year before, and were bound for 99 wins and another postseason appearance. Kent filled in at first, second, third and DH down the stretch, and started twice in a losing cause in the Division Series. On November 13, he was part of a six-player trade that sent him to San Francisco, with slugging third baseman Matt Williams headlining Cleveland’s end of the deal.
Giants manager Dusty Baker wasn’t wild about the trade because of Kent’s temper, but he did return him to second base, and batted him cleanup behind Bonds. Now 29 years old, Kent responded by setting career highs with 155 games, 29 homers, 121 RBI and 4.1 WAR despite a rather lopsided .250/.316/.472 line. The Giants won the NL West at 90-72, but they were swept by the Marlins in the Division Series despite a pair of solo homers from Kent in Game 3. He receive down-ballot support in the MVP race, finishing eighth in the voting.
That was the start of a six-year run in which Kent reached the 20-homer and 100-RBI plateaus, thanks in part to hitting behind Bonds, an on-base machine as well as an elite slugger. He matured at the plate, suddenly able to hit for both average and power after altering his stance by holding his hands higher — an epiphany that came from watching Edgar Martinez. In 1998, he hit .297/.359/.555 with 31 homers and 4.4 WAR; the Giants lost a Game 163 play-in for the Wild Card, something they might have avoided had they not gone 11-13 while Kent missed most of June due to a hyperextended knee. He earned All-Star honors for the first time in 1999, then took his game to a new level in 2000, as the Giants moved into brand new Pacific Bell Park (now AT&T Park) and won the NL West with a 97-65 mark. Kent hit .334/.424/.596 with 33 homers and 7.2 WAR that year, all career bests. The latter mark ranked fourth in the league, but thanks to his 125 RBI, he beat out Bonds (who hit .306/.440/.688 with 49 homers, 106 RBI and 7.7 WAR) in the MVP race. The Giants lost the Division Series to the Mets in four games despite Kent going 6-for-16.
The 2001 season was Bonds’ turn, as he bashed 73 homers to shatter the single-season record while winning his fourth MVP award. By that point, tensions between the two stars was bubbling to the surface; in August, Kent told SI’s Rick Reilly, “On the field, we’re fine, but, off the field, I don’t care about Barry and Barry doesn’t care about me [Pause.] Or anybody else.” Kent himself had a good year (.298/.369/.507, 5.2 WAR), earning All-Star honors, but the Giants missed the playoffs.
The 2002 season saw highs and lows for the 34-year-old Kent. On March 1, he broke a bone in his wrist, initially claiming it happened while washing his truck. Soon it surfaced that eyewitnesses reported seeing a motorcyclist crash while doing a wheelie near Scottsdale Stadium, the Giants’ spring home, and further information corroborated that it was Kent, who would have been riding in violation of his contract. The incident became the butt of jokes, but the Giants showed leniency, and he wound up missing just four games. On June 25, he scuffled with Bonds in the dugout after Kent yelled at third baseman David Bell. Afterwards, Kent dismissed the altercation, saying it wasn’t a “big deal” adding it to the “half-dozen times we’ve done it before.” Even so, he was also reported as telling Baker afterwards, “I want off this team.”
For all of the tension, Kent set a new career high with 37 homers while hitting .313/.368/.565 en route to 7.0 WAR, helping the Giants win 96 games and the NL Wild Card. They proceeded to beat the Braves and Cardinals to advance to the World Series against the Angels. Kent hit .276/.290/.621 in 31 PA for the series, homering in a losing cause in Game 2, then hitting two homers and driving in four runs in a 16-4 rout in Game 5 that put the Giants within one win of their first championship since moving to San Francisco in 1958. In Game 6, they were up 5-0 with nine outs to go when all hell broke loose via a pair of three-run Angels rallies, the second keyed by a Bonds error. They lost the last two games, with Kent going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in Game 7.
That was it for Kent in San Francisco. In December, he signed a two-year, $18.2 million deal with the Astros, a move that bumped All-Star second baseman Craig Biggio to centerfield. While superficially Kent’s performance with the bat in Houston (.293/.350/.521 in 2003-2004) looked a whole lot like his six years in San Francisco (.297/.368/.535), the reality was that hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park was masking his decline. His OPS+ as a Giant was 136, while as an Astro, it was 121 — still good, but not elite; he was worth just 6.7 WAR over those two years. Kent missed four weeks in 2003 due to wrist inflammation, and again, his injury probably cost his team a playoff spot; despite the presence of Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman, the Astros went 12-11 in his absence and lost the NL Central by one game.
Kent earned All-Star honors for the fourth time in 2004 and hit 27 homers. Career number 300 came off St. Louis’ Jeff Suppan on September 29, while number 278 as a second baseman came on October 2 off Colorado’s Adam Bernero. Bolstered by the midseason arrival of Carlos Beltran, the Astros won 92 games and the Wild Card, then beat the Braves to advance to the NLCS against the Cardinals. Kent homered three times in the series; his three-run homer off Jason Isrignhausen in the ninth inning of Game 5 provided all of the scoring and put Houston one win away from their first trip to the World Series, but they team lost the next two.
A free agent again, Kent decided to return to California, signing a two-year, $17 million deal with the Dodgers, the team he grew up rooting for, and the NL West champs in 2004. Alas, he was one of the few bright spots on a squad that tumbled to 71-91 amid such a slew of injuries that he was one of just two players to reach 100 hits. Kent himself was limited to 115 games and 0.7 WAR the following year due to wrist and oblique injuries, not to mention deteriorating defense (-18 Defensive Runs Saved). His 14 homers and 68 RBI ended a string of nine straight years of at least 22 homers and 93 RBI, though his last homer was noteworthy. Hit on September 18, 2006 off the Padres’ Jon Adkins, it was the first of four consecutive ninth-inning homers that allowed the Dodgers to tie the game. They ultimately won, and soon claimed the NL West flag. While Kent went bananas in the Division Series against the Mets, 8-for-13 with a double and a homer, the Dodgers were nonetheless swept.
In March 2006, Kent had signed an extension to cover the 2007 season with an option for 2008. At 39, he had one more big year with the stick left; he hit .302/.375/.500 with 21 homers, though bad defense (-12 DRS) again offset much of his value. Late in the year, as the Dodgers’ playoff hopes slipped away, he made waves by criticizing the professionalism of some of the team’s young players, particularly Matt Kemp. He mulled retirement but returned for 2008. He hit just .280/.327/.418 with 12 homers and needed late-August knee surgery before coming back for the playoffs — the Dodgers had won the NL West at 84-78 — but was limited to a bench role. In January of the following year, he announced his retirement.
Kent finished his career with 2,461 hits and 377 homers, respectable counting stats to accompany a hefty .290/.356/.500 line, particularly for a player who spent almost 90 percent of his career as a middle infielder. Among post-expansion players who spent most of their careers at the keystone, only Biggio (3,060), Roberto Alomar (2,724) and Morgan (2,517) — Hall of Famers all, at least eventually — accumulated more hits. Biggio’s 291 homers (including his time at catcher and the outfield) are the next closest total, and his 1,175 RBI are as close as any of those players got to Kent’s 1,518. At a cutoff of 5,000 plate appearances for such players (of whom there are 60), Kent’s batting average ranks sixth, his on-base percentage 13th, his slugging percentage second behind Robinson Cano (.504), his raw OPS third behind Chase Utley (.871) and Cano (.860). Even after adjusting for the offensive environment of his era, his 123 OPS+ ranks fifth, and if the bar is raised even to 6,000 PA (a level not yet attained by either Utley or Cano), he climbs to third behind Morgan (132) and the unjustly bypassed Bobby Grich (125). From that vantage, his candidacy for Cooperstown certainly has credibility, particularly because second base is generally a defense-first position where the offensive bar is lower.
That bar is lower because in the middle infield, defense counts, and Kent didn’t really add any extra value with the leather relative to other post-expansion second basemen — and again, this is including those players’ time at all positions. Via Baseball-Reference.com’s combination of Total Zone and Defensive Runs Saved, he’s 42 runs below average for his career, with a Defensive WAR (dWAR) of −0.5 once positional adjustments are accounted for. That ranks 51st among those 60 players, higher than Biggio (-3.9) but lower than Morgan (3.3), who had far more offensive value, to say nothing of Sandberg (12.7), Grich (16.3), Utley (17.1) or the top defensive second baseman of the post-expansion era, Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski (18.0).
Coupling offense and defense, adjusting for ballpark and era, Kent accumulated 55.2 WAR, a total that ranks 18th among second basemen, very respectable but nonetheless 14.3 wins below the average enshrined second baseman and better than just eight of the 19 in the Hall. Even among those below the Hall average, he’s a mile behind Sandberg (67.6), Alomar (66.8) and Biggio (64.9), all of whom had careers that overlapped with his; he’s also bit behind Utley (58.2), who’s still going. Only twice did he even have a WAR that cracked the league’s top 10.
Turning to peak WAR, covering his best seven seasons, Kent’s 35.6 ranks 25th, about nine wins behind the average Hall of Fame second baseman and below 13 of the 19 enshrined. Kent is hurt on both WAR fronts because he had just three seasons of at least 5.0 WAR, all of them from 1999-2001, and two more seasons of at least 4.0 WAR. By comparison, Morgan had 10 seasons of at least 5.0 WAR, Utley, Alomar, Sandberg and Grich six apiece, Cano, Biggio and Rod Carew five. Even at the 4.0 WAR bar, 10 post-expansion second basemen had more big seasons.
In the end, Kent’s 45.4 JAWS is 12.6 points below the Hall standard for second basemen, 18th all-time but below 11 of the 19 Hall of Famers, and too far to be made up by the parts of his resumé that the system doesn’t capture, mainly the awards and the postseason (a characteristic .276/.340/.500 with nine homers in 189 PA). Outside of his 2000 MVP award, his highest finish was sixth, he made just five All-Star teams, and so on. He scores 122 (“a good possibility”) on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, but the average score for a Hall of Fame second baseman is 161.
I have to admit that it’s rare that my own system surprises me, but this is one of those cases. I am genuinely surprised by how far off the standard Kent is; it runs contrast to my own gut feeling, to say nothing of those of others. That said, it bears remembering that he did play such in a high-offense era that 40 players with at least 5,000 plate appearances over the span of his career (1992-2008) surpassed his OPS+, in contrast to only six surpassing his RBI total. Moreover, while he accumulated 9,537 plate appearances, he reached 600 in only six seasons due to injuries and the strike, and only 500 in 11. Only some of that owes to being mishandled by the Mets; health is another factor.
This ballot is piled high with candidates who score above the JAWS average at their position, a whopping 13 not including Biggio, who’s close enough once you account for his time at catcher and in the outfield, even with the aforementioned questionable defense. Confronted with the hard choices of who to leave off to pare my (virtual) ballot down to 10 — an issue I’ll address in the not-too-distant future — I would not bump any of those 14 off for Kent. That’s in part because the ballot also includes five other candidates who are below the JAWS average at their positions but closer to the line than Kent is to his (four if you don’t count Lee Smith, who’s being measured against a relief pitcher standard that’s far lower).
Given such a crunch, I suspect voters will have a very hard time finding room for Kent; in fact, if former Hall of Fame senior research associate Bill Deane‘s estimate is correct, he’ll be single-digit territory at nine percent, closer to falling off the ballot — a fate that befell Grich and the cruelly overlooked Lou Whitaker after one shot — than to gaining entry anytime soon. I hardly wish him that fate, because I remain open-minded on his candidacy, but I’m not alone among those who will take far more convincing that he truly belongs.