As of right now, I would bet money that Kenny Lofton receives less than 5% of the vote next year and falls off of the ballot for 2014, and that would be a huge shame. I think the guy is a Hall of Famer; even if you don’t, I think you’ll at least admit that he deserves to stick around for a few ballots and have his case debated some.
For his career, Lofton got 2428 hits and held a .299 batting average, both respectable figures. He was known for his speed too, and totaled 622 steals in his career at an 80% success rate, both good marks. In fact, he’s fifteenth all-time in steals. Really, all of this is impressive, but it’s very easy to ask what makes him stand out so far; that’s going to be the argument against Lofton, that he doesn’t stand out.
Which just isn’t true. All of this is just scratching the surface on his true value. For example, he walked 945 times in addition to his hits, giving him a .372 OBP. He also carried a decent slugging percentage of .423. Together, those give him a 107 OPS+, which sounds good, but not great. However, this doesn’t account for his base running, which we established is well above average.
Also, he translated that speed into superb fielding skills; both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference rate him at an 11.5 win defender over his career, which makes him one of the elite fielders of all-time (for example, he’s tied for 38th all-time in total zone rating, just for the sake reference). Also not taken into account is his position, center fielder, which is one of the harder positions to play on the diamond. This isn’t to say it’s as hard as catcher or shortstop, but it’s on par with third base in difficultly and closer to second base than right field. So, Lofton was an above average hitter and exceptional fielder and runner at a difficult position.
All of this translates to 65.3 bWAR and 66.3 fWAR, both well inside the normal boundaries of Cooperstown. Also, it’s worth noting that neither method completely accounts for base running; fWAR tries, but they only have data going back to 2002, meaning we’re missing more or less all of Lofton’s prime. He was worth positive value on the bases up until he retired (over a win, in fact), so by adding his 1991 through 2001 numbers can only increase his value.
This may make you very skeptical, but consider it this way: name every center fielder better than Kenny Lofton. Going by Fangraph’s sorting tool, Lofton is placed sixteenth all-time at the position. Those ahead of him are: Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Ken Griffey, Jr. (who are all sort of on their own tier); Al Simmons, Robin Yount, and Reggie Smith (all of whom spent more time at other positions); and then there’s sort of second tier, which includes Duke Snider, Billy Hamilton, Jim Edmonds, Andruw Jones (thanks to his legendary fielding), Richie Ashburn, Max Carey, and Lofton.* So, that means Lofton can roughly be put somewhere between 7th and 13th all-time.
*As of right now, Carlos Beltran stands one more season like last year from joining this group too.
This may not seem like a great case for induction...until you realize that there are 24 center fielders in the Hall of Fame. So, worst case scenario, you count both Robin Yount and Reggie Smith as center fielders despite their time being spent 50/50 at other positions AND you assume Lofton is the worst of the second tier (which I doubt), he’s still 15th all time, at a position with 24 Hall of Famers. More realistically, he’s better than something like half of the people at his position in the Hall.*
*Again, let’s say worst case scenario is true and he’s 15th. Of the 14 center fielders who would rank above him, 10 are currently enshrined, so saying he’s better than half of the Hall of Fame center fielders is indeed very realistic.
I realize this second half has mostly been more subjective arguments, but I still feel safe saying that Kenny Lofton should be in elected. I can’t see any major leaps in my reasoning, and Lofton still definitely rates better than most enshrined center fielders, possibly even top ten at his position all-time. If that doesn’t seem like serious Hall credentials, then I don’t know what is.