In a sense, the answer to the title of this piece can be summed up this way: Jeff Kent snuck up on the baseball world as a Hall of Fame caliber player. Having bounced from the Blue Jays to the Mets to the Indians early in his career, Kent was an average player at best for five seasons in the major leagues before blossoming into a star in San Francisco.
Cooperstown Cred: Jeff Kent
5th year on ballot (received 17% of the vote in 2017)
- 377 home runs (most all-time for 2B)
- 1,518 runs batted in (3rd most-all-time for 2B)
- 560 doubles (4th most all-time for 2B)
- .500 slugging % (2nd most all time for 2B)
- .290 BA, .356 OBP, .500 SLG, .855 OPS, 123 OPS+
- 2000 NL MVP (.334 BA, 33 HR, 125 RBI)
- 5-time All-Star
- 55.2 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement)
(Cover photo: FanRag Sports)
Portions of this piece were originally published on August 20th. This is an updated version.
Jeff Kent debuted in the major league with Toronto in 1992, playing mostly at 3rd base while filling in for the injured Kelly Gruber. The Jays, a great team looking to bolster their starting pitching for the stretch run, traded Kent to the New York Mets late in August for David Cone, who helped them to their first World Series championship. Cone was extremely popular with Mets fans and, when Kent got off to a slow start with the bat, the boo birds really let him have it.
From August ’92 to July 1996, Kent was the Not So Amazin’s regular 2nd baseman. In ’93, his first full season as a starting player, Kent established his reputation as a good-hit, no-field infielder by hitting 21 home runs while committing 22 errors (he led all NL 2nd basemen in miscues in both ’93 and ’94). Shortly before the trading deadline in ’96, Kent was dealt to Cleveland in a four-player deal that sent Carlos Baerga to New York.
This trade was a bit of a shocker because Baerga was very popular in Cleveland and considered a rising star (having made three All-Star teams already). Baerga was 8 months younger than Kent and, prior to the 1996 season, if you asked 100 fans to pick which 2nd baseman would be a future Hall of Famer, likely 100 would have picked Baerga. However, in ’96, Baerga was having an injury-plagued mediocre season and was battling issues with his weight. He would never be the player the Mets had thought they were trading for. As for Kent, he only spent a couple of months in Cleveland, serving as a bench player for a team that was bounced out of the playoffs in the ALDS.
Through that age 28 season (1996 with Cleveland), Jeff Kent’s career WAR was 10.3.
There are currently 148 position players in the Hall of Fame. Of all of them, only five had a WAR of less than 10.3 through their age 28 seasons (Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Bill Terry, Earl Averill and Sam Rice). The first two got a late start in the bigs because of the color barrier so there are really only three of them who had such inauspicious early years in their respective careers.
Most Hall of Famers announce themselves to the world early: from their first to third seasons, they look, feel and smell like future Cooperstown inductees. The late bloomers are just plain rare: since they’re not on our radar as future Hall of Famers, we sometimes fail to notice what they’ve actually accomplished when their career is over.
This is the irony: look at the list of famous teammates that Kent had in Toronto, New York and Cleveland and marvel at how improbable it was that he would be a potential future Hall of Famer. The actual Hall of Famers are in boldface.
Toronto (1992): Dave Winfield, Roberto Alomar, Jack Morris, John Olerud, Joe Carter, Jimmy Key, Dave Stieb, and David Cone.
New York (’92-’96): Eddie Murray, Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen, John Franco
Winfield, Alomar, Murray and now Morris are in Cooperstown but many of those other names were looked upon as potential Hall of Famers while they playing. Thome and Vizquel are on the ballot this year. Jeff Kent wasn’t in the conversation as an All-Star or even a solid regular player, much less a future Cooperstown inductee.
A Trade to San Francisco: a Star Emerges
After the ’96 season, another trade sent Jeff Kent to the San Francisco Giants, near his alma mater at UC Berkeley. The deal to the Giants put him into the perfect situation that turned his career around. Besides his poor fielder rep, Kent had a reputation for having a bad attitude. With the Giants, he had the perfect players’ manager in Dusty Baker, who saw a hard-nosed player and not a bad attitude player. Dusty also showed confidence in Kent by inserting him mostly into the cleanup role, putting him behind a player, Barry Bonds, who was the ideal teammate to hit behind.
In the city by the Bay, Kent became an instant star, finishing in the top 10 of the NL MVP voting in ’97 and ’98 before winning it over his more famous teammate in 2000. For 9 straight seasons, Kent hit no less than 22 home runs and drove in no less than 93 runs (both totals which were higher than his previous career highs).
After 6 productive seasons in San Francisco (including the pennant-winning 2002 campaign), Kent signed a two-year free agent contract with the Houston Astros, moving teammate and future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio to the outfield. After two seasons in Houston, Kent spent the final four years of his career with the L.A. Dodgers, retiring at the age of 40.
So, after being a average starting player in the major leagues until he was 29 years old, Jeff Kent turned himself into a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate by the time he left the game 12 seasons later. At first glance, when you look at his power numbers at a key defensive position, it looks like there should be no debate whatsoever: he not only has the most home runs all-time for a 2nd baseman (377), he is WAY ahead of the man in 2nd place, all-time great Rogers Horsnby, who hit 301.
Comparing Jeff Kent to Hall of Famers Alomar and Biggio
Let’s look at how Kent compares to the last three second sackers inducted into the Hall (Biggio, Ryne Sandberg, and Roberto Alomar). All three were elected by the writers in their 2nd or 3rd times on the ballot so if we can establish that Kent is in their league, then he should de facto be a Hall of Famer. Let’s start with traditional batting statistics, including OPS+ (which adjusts for ballpark effects and hitting era, with 100 being league average):
We can see that Kent dominates the power stats, Biggio dominates the “longevity” stats and Alomar is the on-base and speed king.
Next, we’re going to break down Wins Above Replacement into it’s component parts: batting, fielding and base-running. It’s not crucial to understand precisely how the numbers are calculated. What they are supposed to mean is the number of runs each player created (or saved) above or below that of a replacement level player (defined as someone you could find at AAA, the top level of the minor leagues).
I included the last two columns (All-Star appearances and Gold Gloves Awards) to help explain why Kent is struggling at under 20% voting support while the other three made it into the Hall fairly easily. They all established themselves as stars early in their careers. This is the Hall of Fame and they became famous early:
- Sandberg won the NL MVP in 1984, which was just his third full season in the majors, his age 24 season.
- Alomar, the son of a major leaguer, made his first All-Star game at the age of 22 and was a cog on two World Championship teams before his 26th birthday.
- Biggio made his first All-Star team at 25 and of course he achieved the benchmark of 3,000 hits.
It’s interesting (and very surprising) that the advanced defensive metric WAR runs fielding puts 10-time Gold Glove winner Alomar into the same class of mediocrity as Kent and that Biggio was even worse. Still, while Kent’s OPS+ and WAR Batting show him to have been the superior offensive force, he wasn’t dramatically better than the others (except for the home runs) and he did not add the base-running value of all the others or the defensive value of Sandberg.
Biggio and Alomar were Kent’s peers, both within 3 years of age; the three players had significant overlap in their careers so if the former two can be considered demonstrably better overall players at the same position during the same era, it’s reasonable to question whether Kent deserves to join them in Cooperstown.
For whatever it’s worth to you, Kent’s career WAR of 55.2 is lower than the more recent inductees at the position but is better than that of seven older second sackers inducted in the past. Still, it’s significantly lower than non-Hall of Fame 2nd basemen Lou Whitaker (74.8), Bobby Grich (70.9) and Willie Randolph (65.6).
The Bonds Effect
There’s also the question about whether Jeff Kent’s batting numbers (in particular his RBI stats) are in small part the result of the good fortune of having spent six seasons mostly hitting behind Barry Bonds and two more mostly behind Jeff Bagwell, two of the best on-base guys in the era.
In 1997, his first year hitting behind Barry, he had 532 runners on base for his 651 plate appearances, an average of 0.82 base runners per plate appearance. In his previous career, the combined rate was 0.65 runners per plate appearance. That’s an increase of over 25%, which contributed to a career-best 121 RBI, blowing away his previous career high of 80.
Kent, however, deserves credit for delivering on the opportunities he was presented with. Starting with his reinvention season of 1997, look at how Kent performed in several key on-base situations, compared to all plate appearances:
These numbers help explain why, from 1997-2008, Kent had the sixth most RBI of any player in baseball while posting an OPS+ of 125, a very solid number (especially for a 2nd baseman). Kent had the good fortune of hitting in favorable circumstances but he came through in the clutch.
The Hall of Fame Case
Finally, 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). Look at the numbers:
Not on the chart but also noteworthy is that, among the 12 second baseman who qualified (with at least 3,000 PA over 10 years), Kent’s WAR runs from fielding are 4th best, and actually better than the numbers for Biggio and Alomar.
So, even if you don’t believe the defensive metrics and say what you will about him being a mediocre fielder, this man was by far and away the dominant hitter at his position for a decade. Beyond that, he has the most home runs ever (by a wide margin) at his position. He has the most RBI in the last 100 years at his position and, as we’ve seen, deserved those RBI by performing at a high level in situations with runners in scoring position.
Now, it’s fair to point out that you can take ten-year periods of time for many different players at many different positions and make Hall of Famers out of them. Any player at his peak has the potential to look better than his contemporaries who are on the downswing of their peak productivity. So, to be fair, let’s take an 11-year look at the top MLB 2nd basemen from 1991-2001 (using 11 years to include the best years for both Biggio and Alomar). Kent debuted in 1992 so this comparison will include the first five seasons of Kent’s career, when he was not yet an established player. The years selected are rigged for Alomar and Biggio just as the other chart was rigged for Kent.
Even when given a 6-year handicap (1991, when he didn’t play, and 1992-1996, the relatively slow start to his career), Kent still fares well here, especially with respect to the power numbers. And, for these 11 years, the WAR Runs from Fielding metric puts Kent at a higher level than his already enshrined in Cooperstown contemporaries.
For these reasons, in my view, Jeff Kent is a Hall of Fame player.
Why Kent is Languishing in the Hall of Fame Vote:
The preponderance of Hall of Fame voters have not to date agreed with my assessment. Jeff Kent’s vote percentage has held steady at between 14% and 17%, far, far, away from the 75% needed for election. In the early publicly revealed vote for 2018, as compiled by the most interesting man in the world during the Hall of Fame voting season (Ryan Thibodaux), Kent is losing ground, having earned just 11.5% of the vote so far (as of 5:00p PT on January 14th). I highly recommend bookmarking Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker to get real-time updates on the voting.
There’s a small nucleus of writers who believe in him but not even close to enough to make him a lobbying cause. So why has he been forgotten by the vast majority of the writers who vote on the Hall of Fame?
The answers are really quite simple. 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 55.2 is much lower than many others on the ballot. Third, Kent was quite prickly with the media. 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.
Which leads to the fourth reason. Now, I’m not exactly revealing the meaning of life here either: the Hall of Fame ballot is stacked with talent and has been for many years. To me, Jeff Kent is a Hall of Famer. The question is whether he’s one of the ten best on the ballot right now; clearly for the writers that have the privilege, most are saying “no.” ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick is publicly wrestling with choice #10 on his ballot (writers are limited to ten selections). Crasnick is down to three players: Kent, Larry Walker and Gary Sheffield. If I were picking between those three, I’d go with Kent.
Per Thibodaux’s tracker, there are 39 writers (out of 181) who have voted for Chipper Jones, Thome, Vladimir Guerrero, Trevor Hoffman, Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Bonds and Roger Clemens. Cransnick, who has not revealed his full ballot yet and thus doesn’t count as one of the 37, has checked these names as well and is agonizing over the 10th. I’m not a voter but I’m in the same boat. On my virtual ballot, those nine names are easy, the 10th much harder. So, for a lot of voters, Kent is competing with Walker, Sheffield, Vizquel, Fred McGriff, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, and Billy Wagner for that one lone check mark.
Jeff Kent has gotten nowhere on the BBWAA ballot in his first five years but recent balloting history has shown that massive mind-shifts can occur among the voters. Perhaps Kent has been #11 or #12 on dozens of writers’ ballots, as he might wind of being on Crasnick’s. With five years left on the BBWAA ballot after this year and, if/when the backlog starts to clear, maybe there’s a chance. Yes, I’m saying there’s a chance, but it doesn’t look good.
Thanks for reading.