(Brace yourself: this is a long one…)
The National Baseball Hall of Fame inducted two of the most deserving Hall-of-Famers in years on Sunday, a pair of 1990s icons who were standard bearers of their respective positions. One was a five-tool all-star outfielder with a sweet, left-handed swing. The other was a right-handed offensive force at a position historically lacking big hitters. Interestingly, that could very well describe a pair of San Francisco Giants who were on the ballot.
Now, Sunday belonged to Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza, so I don’t want to take anything a way from their enshrinements. Griffey is one of the best players of all-time, while Piazza is considered the best hitting catcher of all-time. But it’s difficult not to look at that pair and think about Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent.
Bonds was a five-tool outfielder with a sweet left-handed swing. Kent is arguably one of the best hitters at his historically weak-hitting position. (Of course, Kent was a second baseman, while Piazza was a catcher.) Bonds’ candidacy has been, and will be continue to be, discussed exhaustively. He obviously has the numbers of a top-5 all-time player, but he’s being reprimanded for suspected PED use. Kent, on the other hand, has struggled to get more than 15 percent of the vote in the first three years of his candidacy, as a largely overlooked candidate dogged by some weak arguments used to explain his exclusion from the Hall.
It’s a curious oversight, considering that Kent is on a very short list of the best hitting second basemen of all-time. He is by far the position’s all-time leader in home runs (he has 76 more than Rogers Hornsby, who is second on the list), and he is third in RBI and OPS (plus third in extra-base hits and second in slugging percentage). His 2,461 hits are only 10th on the list, but all nine players ahead of him are in the Hall.
Kent won the 2000 National League MVP—when Bonds was on the same team and playing at his peak level, and he finished in the top-10 in voting three other times.
Since league MVPs (or preceding iterations of the award) were first given out in 1911, second basemen have only been honored 15 times. Joe Morgan is the only second baseman to win twice (which he did 40 years ago). Dustin Pedroia, the last to win, in 2008, is still playing. And so of the 13 retired second basemen who have won an MVP or equivalent, Kent is one of only two not in the Hall. The other is “Laughing” Larry Doyle, the first second baseman to ever win it—in 1912, back when it was called the Chalmers Award. (Doyle happened to play for the New York Giants.)
So, every MVP second baseman after Doyle has been elected to the Hall, except for Kent and the still-active Pedroia. Ryne Sandberg is the last of these MVP second basemen to enter the Hall. I was a big Sandberg fan growing up, and I think he is deserving of his enshrinement. But why is he in the Hall and Kent, whose career numbers are better than Sandberg’s in every major category except stolen bases, isn’t even considered a strong candidate?
One argument used against Kent is that he wasn’t a very good defender. Well, there is some truth to that, but he wasn’t a butcher in the field. He made more errors than the average second baseman, though his range factor was usually pretty good. But these numbers don’t really matter. You can look at all the metrics you want, but here’s the most important thing to consider regarding his defense: he was such a good hitter that, if his glove had been a problem at second base, he would have been moved to a different position.
Had Kent been a first baseman or a designated hitter, he would have still hit in the middle of batting orders for the better part of two decades. But Kent was good enough stay at second, which is a crucial point to his candidacy: his offensive production was far more valuable than any defensive wizardry that a mediocre-hitting second baseman could have provided.
I’ve seen arguments out there that some sabermetrics suggest he doesn’t meet the Hall standard. For instance, his career WAR isn’t all that great. I can only take a deep breath to contain my disdain for such arguments, considering that WAR is not a statistic, but rather a calculation of an arbitrary, human-made formula. (I’m speaking as a math nerd with an engineering degree, so it’s not like I have an aversion to numerical analysis.) It does not measure any particular performance on the field, but rather is someone’s interpretation of how overall performance can be represented as one number.
I have also come across the argument that his personality has something to do with his exclusion. Huh? He wasn’t particularly warm n’ fuzzy (which is well known to Giants fans), so that overshadows his play on the field? I have reported in clubhouses and dealt with difficult players. But that doesn’t factor into my assessment of the player’s value on the field. I really hope that sports writers aren’t withholding Hall votes because they’re harboring ill will toward Kent’s prickly nature. Sadly, though, it probably does factor in.
There’s also the argument that he racked up his numbers during an offensive era. But that is a horrifically flawed argument. If Kent were a PED user, then yeah, that argument would hold water. HOWEVER, offensive numbers were up throughout the 1990s and early 2000s because many hitters were artificially inflating their muscles. But there is no such association with Kent. If anything, assuming he was clean, his numbers are that much more impressive—especially considering that pitchers were also juicing and that his best years were with San Francisco, playing home games at offense-suppressing Candlestick and PacBell/AT&T parks.
Of course, many baseball commentators make the logically flawed era argument when discussing presumably clean players from the Steroid Era. An argument against Jim Thome and Fred McGriff is that they weren’t among the most dominant first basemen of their era. Well, if you adjust the picture to eliminate the ‘roiders, Thome and McGriff all of a sudden shoot to the top of the list of best first basemen of the past 30 years. Logically, it doesn’t make sense to dismiss the ‘roiders for using but then dismiss the clean players because they didn’t stand out among the ‘roiders.
To counter the park factor, some argue that Kent’s San Francisco numbers were augmented by batting behind Bonds. Okay… I’m sure Lou Gehrig’s numbers would have been less impressive if he hadn’t batted in the same lineup as Babe Ruth. Did Willie Mays make Willie McCovey? Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray batted back-to-back for years and are both in the Hall now.
Do players benefit from hitting in good lineups? Sure, but they still had to hit the ball. And in all of these cases, including Kent’s, the second fiddles still batted in the middle of their respective lineups because they were good enough to do so. And they did it over extended periods of time. And in Kent’s case, he continued to produce even after he left the Giants for Houston and then the Dodgers. Bonds did not make Kent.
To summarize, Kent wasn’t considered a defensive wizard, the arbitrary computation, WAR, casts doubt on his value, he wasn’t the most beloved individual, and he batted behind Bonds for a few years. On the flip side, Kent arguably has the best offensive numbers of any second baseman in history, doing so in an era when the much of the competition was jacked up on PEDs though he presumably wasn’t, and he is one of only 14 at the position to win an MVP in more than a century of the award’s existence.
It appears to me that the Hall of Fame voters are guilty of an egregious oversight. But please, share your thoughts on whether Kent should be inducted.