The PitcherList staff is going to split up and debate some of the many candidates on the 2021 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot. We start with dynasty manager Andy Patton against Going Deep writer Max Greenfield, debating the merits of second baseman Jeff Kent.
We’ll start with the affirmative:
Pro Jeff Kent and the Hall of Fame
Entering his eighth year on the ballot, second baseman Jeff Kent has a long, long road ahead of him to reach the National Baseball Hall of Fame. His voting has trended upward in recent years, going from 14.5% in 2018 to 18.1% in 2019 and 27.5% in 2020, which is by far the highest percentage he has received thus far.
Of course, it does not take a mathematician to conclude that 27.5% is still nowhere close to the 75% necessary for induction, and while I expect his voting totals to go up substantially in his final two years on the ballot – he is almost certainly not going to get in via the BBWAA.
However, there is a strong argument that he does, in fact, deserve enshrinement, and while that argument will likely have to be made to the veteran’s committee down the line, we can certainly lay out his case here.
Kent played in 17 MLB seasons from 1992-2008, appearing with the Blue Jays, Mets, Cleveland, Giants, Astros, and Dodgers. He did most of his damage with the Giants, where he played from 1997-2002 – winning an MVP award in 2000 while making three All-Star teams and winning three Silver Slugger Awards.
All told, Kent finished his career with 377 home runs, the most among second basemen of all-time, along with a .290/.356/.500 slash line, a 123 OPS+, five All-Star nods, four Silver Slugger awards, the aforementioned MVP, and a baseball-reference WAR of 55.4.
That WAR is 21st among second basemen, and only three eligible second baseman with a higher WAR are not currently enshrined: Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich, and Willie Randolph. Whitaker and Grich are widely considered two of the Hall’s biggest misses, while Randolph has a compelling case as well. Additionally, Robinson Cano and Chase Utley are ahead of Kent – and Cano would be a slam dunk if not for multiple positive steroid tests, while Utley is considered a strong candidate when he is eligible in 2023.
Additionally, second basemen in the Hall of Fame who have a lower WAR than Kent include Bobby Doerr, Nellie Fox, Johnny Evers, Tony Lazzeri, and Bill Mazeroski. Kent also eclipses Hall of Fame hopefuls Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia, albeit barely.
Kent’s case resides on his raw power and his peak from 1997-2005, which was exceptional. There’s a strong case that he is the best power-hitting second baseman of all-time, and if it’s not him, he’s pretty clearly no lower than second behind Rogers Hornsby.
Kent’s .500 slugging percentage is second only to Hornsby, and his .855 OPS is fourth, behind Hornsby, Charlie Gehringer, and Jackie Robinson—certainly not bad company to be in.
So the power is Hall-worthy, particularly when evaluating him at his position. Additionally, the raw data points to a guy who deserves a plaque in Cooperstown: he had nine straight seasons with 93 or more RBI, he has plenty of hardware, he was a 1994 strike-shortened season away from reaching 2,500 career hits, and he hit 560 doubles (fifth among second basemen).
Before we move on, I want to show you a chart. You’ll recognize Kent’s numbers at the top, so I’ll leave his name, but Player B might surprise you:
Offensively, the profile between the two is extremely similar. Yet, no one is debating Robinson Cano’s worthiness for the Hall of Fame from a statistical perspective, and there’s not much separating the two at this point. Cano probably won’t get much chance to add to his resume following a season-long suspension, so they will likely finish their careers with similar offensive profiles.
Of course, one big separator between the two is defensive numbers, which is one of the primary arguments against Kent.
Kent’s career dWAR, according to BBRef, is -0.1. While that’s not good, it’s not exactly egregious either. Basically, he was a replacement-level defensive second baseman while being the GOAT (or close to it) offensively. Plus, something that is not often discussed about Kent’s defense is that it was actually above average for his position for most of his career.
Through Kent’s age 36 season, in 2004, he had a dWAR of 3.8. Again, not great, but a heck of a lot better than -0.1. However, because Kent was still good enough with the stick, and because he spent the 2005-2008 seasons with the Dodgers in the National League, he continued to play second base from age 37-40, where he put up an exceptionally bad -3.9 dWAR. Despite that, he managed to earn a 6.8 overall WAR because he slashed .291/.367/.479 with 75 home runs and a 119 OPS+ in his late, late 30’s.
Punishing Kent for his defense when he was slightly above average from age 24-36 and then bad from ages 37-40 (but still good enough at the plate to merit a full-time job on an NL team that didn’t have a DH) seems silly to me. Does the conversation completely change if Kent DH’d from 2005-2008? I’m not sure. We know he would still take a hit on his WAR because of the positional adjustment, but the narrative about his defense would be put to bed, and that’s a big sticking point for a lot of voters.
There’s also two other key issues: his overall attitude toward the media (which is overblown) and allegations of steroid use, which is obviously understandable considering his late career power surge (his best years were in San Francisco from 1997-2002, ages 29-34, where he was teammates with Barry Bonds).
For voters (or fans) who won’t vote for steroid users, I suppose I can understand the hesitancy on Kent. Although, it is worth pointing out that he has never, at least up to this point, had any legitimate connections to steroid use—no allegations made about him, nothing. Being teammates with Bonds during that time certainly raises some eyebrows, but I don’t think it is fair to keep him off your ballot because of that and that alone.
Kent is undoubtedly a borderline candidate, but for a position that isn’t super well represented in Cooperstown, I think he has a great case to be enshrined. It won’t happen in the next two years, but perhaps the Veteran’s Committee will give him a closer look in time. He deserves it.
Against Jeff Kent and the Hall of Fame
As Andy has already stated, Kent is a borderline candidate for the Hall of Fame. His career WAR is 55.4 by Baseball-Reference and 56 by Fangraphs. Those are both below the 60 WAR mark that has been assumed by voters as the standard of the Hall of Fame. WAR is not everything, but of the 17 people ahead of Kent in fWAR, 9 of them have had fewer plate appearances than Kent, meaning Kent had more opportunities to put himself above them but failed to do so.
Looking at WAA, or Wins Above Average, Kent falls short of the Hall of Fame mark as well. His career 26.6 WAA is a few points short of the 30 WAA Hall of Fame mark. Kent ranks 22nd all-time in WAA among 2nd baseman, so he’s not exactly an upper-tier 2nd baseman in that regard either. Much like WAR, WAA is not the end-all-be-all stat, so it’s time to look at Kent’s prime first.
Kent’s prime, as already mentioned, was 1997-2002. During this prime, he hit .297/.368/.535 with 175 home runs, 670 runs, and 689 RBI. His wRC+ over that stretch was 134 and featured a 2000 season where he had a 159 wRC+, the highest of his career. His rWAR over that time was 31.6, and his fWAR was 30.9. Those WAR values make him a 5-win player per year in his peak. His dWAR was 3.0 during that time, which means he was an average fielding 2nd baseman, much like his career. That’s the peak of a good player, and definitely, one that should get you some consideration into the Hall of Fame. It falls just short of what a Hall of Famer should look like, though. Let’s compare that to Robinson Cano, just as Andy did.
Cano’s prime was from 2009-2014. It should be noted that Cano played about 50 more games during this prime than Kent did, so he had more opportunities to create value. Over that time, Cano hit .314/.371/.518 with 156 home runs, 573 runs, and 595 RBI. His wRC+ over that stretch was 138 and had three seasons where he had a wRC+ over 140 over that time. Cano accumulated 39.8 rWAR and 34.1 fWAR over that time as well. That makes him about a 6 win player over that stretch. Cano doesn’t have the counting stats that are featured on the back of a baseball card that Kent does, but in the modern metrics, Cano has him beat by a lot. Cano’s numbers are closer to that of an average Hall of Famers prime.
It’s important to use metrics like wRC+ to adjust the offensive production to the era and park because it gets us closer to figuring out how good the player was. The biggest difference between Cano and Kent is in the roughly 10 years beyond their prime; Kent only produced about two wins a year while Cano produced close to three wins a year, which hurts Kent’s case.
It’s a tough argument of which matters more, a player’s prime or a player’s longevity. If a player has a below-average prime for a Hall of Famer, like Kent, you need to make it up in longevity. Kent isn’t able to do that. That’s going to work against him when he comes up on the ballot. 57% of his baseball-reference WAR comes during those six years. Kent’s under 60 WAR, signals to voters that he didn’t have much of a career outside of that peak. In fact, Kent only had three seasons with a WAR above 3 outside of his peak.
Some Voters may value awards, and Kent has some hardware to his name, mainly an MVP. An MVP he probably didn’t deserve, though, and most voters recognize that now. He still has five All-Star appearances and 4 Silver Slugger awards. Those might sway some voters, but it probably shouldn’t. Awards and All-Star appearances are voted on by people and aren’t objective. The play on the field is what matters towards the players’ contribution to the game on the field. Not the accolades. Still, voters may still give Kent a chance based on the rest of the ballot.
Of the 25 players on the ballot, here are Kent’s ranks in major stats:
Voters are only allowed to vote for 10 people, and based on these metrics, Kent falls short of being in the top 10. It’s going to be difficult for Kent to make up votes in one of his final years on the ballot. Kent isn’t the best hitting second baseman of all time; in fact he’s 15th in wRC+ among all second baseman with at least 5000 PAs. He wasn’t an elite defender as Andy already mentioned. His peak wasn’t quite as good as other Hall of Fame peaks and he had very little longevity beyond it. I don’t see the case for Kent on this ballot. I will say this about Jeff Kent, however: he should be in over Omar Vizquel.
Photos by Chris Williams & Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)