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    Friday, December 20, 2019

    Revisiting the Hall of Fame Case for Jeff Kent

    Now that the Veterans Committee is all taken care of, that leaves us with just the standard Baseball Writers Hall of Fame ballot. That one will take a little bit longer, since ballots need to be postmarked by December 31st and we won’t learn of the results until three weeks later, on January 21st. Of course, for those impatient to see how things are going in the meantime, Ryan Thibodaux’s Ballot Tracker is a nice resource to have on hand.

    Either way, that leaves us plenty of time to cover the many players on this year’s 32-person ballot, or at least, some of the most interesting candidates. I’ve already dealt with one of them, the deserving Larry Walker, who looks like he’ll be straddling the 75% needed for election right up until the announcement. Today, let’s go in a radically different direction and instead look at a former Astro who is nowhere near that 75% line, even if he deserves more attention than that.

    Granted, Kent was only on the Astros for two seasons, but they were full of pretty memorable moments, and he’s probably more closely tied to Houston in peoples’ memories than at least half the teams he played for. In any case, this election will mark his seventh go-around on the ballot, and so far, he’s struggled, topping out last year at just 18.1% of voters. Why has that been the case so far, and does he deserve better?

    I’m going to start with the latter and tackle his overall case for Cooperstown. Debuting in 1992 for the Toronto Blue Jays, Jeff Kent would go on to a seventeen season career that finally ended in 2008 after turns on the Mets, Indians, Astros, Dodgers, and most substantially, the Giants. The 2000 MVP and a five-time All-Star, Kent was a second baseman with a big bat, putting together a .290/.356/.500 slash line. That makes him just the second second baseman in history with a slugging percentage of .500 or higher (3000+ PA), the other being the legendary Rogers Hornsby.

    Despite something of a late start, that power (plus the era he played in) also helped him become the all-time leader in home runs at second base, breaking Hornsby’s seven-plus decade claim to the title, 377 to 301. As you can imagine, that power also brought him some big RBI totals (1518), and Kent is just one of three players at his position to top 1500 runs batted in (the other two being Nap Lajoie and Hornsby again). And to round out the more traditional counting stats, Kent also managed to finish tenth among second basemen in hits (2461), although Robinson Canó has since knocked him down a spot

    You’d think numbers like that would get him in easily, but there has been some hold up due to ballot backlog, and Jeff was sort of lost in the shuffle. See, those numbers are really good, but they also omit that there were some holes to his game. For instance, while his power was fantastic, his batting average was just fine, especially when accounting for the increased offense of the ‘90s and 2000s.

    And his batting eye was good, but not at all as good as his power, with his OBP ranking 39th all-time among his position (for another point of comparison, if his former teammate Craig Biggio had retired after 2003 instead of 2007, he would have finished with an OBP over 20 points higher in nearly 500 more plate appearances than Kent). Combining that with his power, his OPS+ and wRC+ were both just 123, good to still rank among the best ever (he’s twelfth in OPS+ and sixteen in wRC+, among second basemen with 5000+ PA) but not at all in the running for number one all-time like the home runs totals would suggest.

    And unlike a lot of other second basemen, Kent doesn’t get much extra credit for the other things, largely because he wasn’t very good at them. Jeff never had a reputation as a great fielder, with the best interpretation at the time being that he could wrestle his position to a standstill, not being bad enough to move off but never really being good at it to add to his value. Advanced stats have basically confirmed that interpretation; going by Baseball-Reference’s defensive component of WAR, Kent is rated at -0.1 Wins for his career, meaning that, spread out over seventeen years, he was basically a net zero each year. That’s not horrible, seeing as it’s still places 178th all-time (out of 217 second basemen with 3000 PA, not to mention all the people who couldn’t cut it and got moved to other positions), but the hard data here really only helps his case if voters thought he was so bad that he was giving away runs.

    What do you get when you put that all together into value stats like WAR? Baseball-Reference says he was worth 55.4 WAR for his career, and Fangraphs has him pretty similarly at 56.0. Positionally, he’s nineteenth in both all-time. Stats like JAWS and Hall Rating, which are built to combine peak value and longevity, also place him similarly; JAWS’s 45.6 rating puts him twentieth all-time at second, while his 103 Hall Rating marks him as 3% better than the Hall of Fame borderline and eighteenth at his position.

    Finishing just within the top twenty at the position all-time might not sound like a great Hall of Fame argument…until you consider that we already have twenty Hall of Fame second basemen. And more than that, given that some of the players who rank above him were either snubbed by voters or still aren’t eligible, Kent is better than about eight of the twenty second basemen already in Cooperstown, making him pretty middle-of-the-pack. His hypothetical election would hardly look out of place in the real Hall of Fame.

    So that, to me, seems like the gist of the case for Kent: better than enough Hall of Famers at his position that he would be a fine selection. And, given that he played on some good teams, had some eye-popping career totals (particularly the home run record), was generally seen as good during his career (see his 2000 MVP award), he picks up a little bit on intangibles as well. So why hasn’t he done better? Maybe it’s a case of his somewhat bristly personality, or maybe it was that he didn't reach a round number like 400 homers, or maybe it's voters dinging him even more for defense.

    But I would argue that the biggest culprit so far has been the ten-player limit on the ballot. I haven't done a comprehensive check of this, but it's difficult for me to think of many other players who have been hit harder than Jeff Kent, especially when paired with the recent reduction in ballot time from fifteen years to ten. Maybe Larry Walker, if he doesn't make it this year? Or one of the recent players who couldn't make it to 5%, like Kenny Lofton or Jim Edmonds? Either way, it's pretty limited company.

    Jeff Kent joined what may be the most crowded ballot since the Hall shifted towards its current election process decades ago. The year before was the infamous 2013 ballot, where eighteen different players topped 5%; all but Dale Murphy, who aged off, would be returning the following year. Biggio had led the pack, but failed to reach the 75% needed for election despite his 3000 hits, and having a second basemen of Craig’s caliber fail to get elected the year before could not have done Jeff any favors.

    If that sounds bad, 2014's freshmen class just exacerbated his problems. Kent was clearly the fifth best player joining, which is less bad than it sounds when you consider that the other newcomers were Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas (all first ballot choices), and Mike Mussina (finally inducted last year), but it’s still clearly not great news. And to make matters worse, Biggio missed induction this time by 0.2%, meaning that Kent would need to live in his shadow for at least one more election cycle.

    Even for voters who thought Kent was worthy of induction, or at least worth considering, he was stuck competing with over twenty other strong candidates to pick up one of ten spots on a ballot (as a reminder, Rafael Palmeiro, who reached both 500 homers and 3000 hits, finished 22nd in voting that year with just 4.4% of the vote and couldn’t secure another appearance). In that context, it’s a minor miracle that Kent got a solid 15.2% and a sixteenth-place finish; the fifteen players ahead of him consisted of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and twelve players who have since been elected to Cooperstown.

    And of course, the 2015 election would not ease matters at all. While four of the twenty-one players to get 5% of the vote last time were gone (the three inductees plus Jack Morris, who aged off), the newcomers that year included Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz (all again first ballot picks), Gary Sheffield (still on the ballot), plus Nomar Garciaparra (who would stick around for one more ballot) and Carlos Delgado (who just missed). So, in fact, there were actually more players who got 5% of the vote in Kent’s second time around, which is probably why he dropped to 14%.

    The three first ballot picks plus Craig making it (and Don Mattingly aging out) made 2016 a little lighter, but it still featured Ken Griffey Jr., Trevor Hoffman, and Billy Wagner entering the picture (as well as Edmonds), meaning that votes were still spread pretty thin. At least it was enough to bounce Jeff up to 16.6%.

    The induction of Griffey and Piazza, plus Alan Trammell and Mark McGwire hitting the end of the line, meant that next year’s new class of Iván Rodríguez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Manny Ramirez was basically just a lateral move. Kent stayed more or less in place (16.7%), as three people went in (plus Lee Smith reached his final year), although Hoffman and Guerrero each fell less than 4% shy.

    Unfortunately, the 2018 newcomers were once again plentiful, meaning that Kent was once again struggling to gain attention (14.5%). Chipper Jones and Jim Thome made the Hall (with Hoffman and Guerrero), while Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen, and Andruw Jones all stuck around for another vote, meaning that this ballot was once again stronger than the previous year’s. And once again, a four-person election didn’t really solve all that much, since once again, the next year brought just as many newcomers: Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay (two more first-ballot picks), Todd Helton, and Andy Pettitte. Kent rose slightly (to 18.1%), which seems to be setting the stage for this year.

    As crazy as it sounds, 2020 is the first year since Kent joined the ballot where it looks like only one new nominee will cross the 5% threshold (Derek Jeter, although maybe Bobby Abreu has a shot). Consequentially, he's picked up nine new voters through the first thirty-eight ballots revealed; that puts him at about 36% of the vote, which probably won't hold, but it does mean that he has a bigger net increase than any other player on the ballot so far, edging out Scott Rolen by one (Todd Helton has also picked up nine votes, but lost two, meaning his net change is just plus-seven). That also gives the impression that there were a lot of voters who have wanted to vote for Kent, but just haven't had the ballot space for it.

    Which just shows the silliness of the ten-player limit on the ballot: there's no reason it couldn't be a simple "up or down" vote on each player, but instead they ask voters not only if a player is worthy, but if they're worth spending a limited ballot slot on, something that is itself totally up to the interpretation of the voter (Do you pick the best players? Or the ones closest to induction? Or maybe drop a guaranteed player to get someone else over 5%?). Had Kent debuted debuted five years earlier or later, it would have greatly increased his vote totals just because voters who liked him enough to vote for him could have done so without having to make space for so many other players.

    We've seen some impressive jumps in vote totals the last few years, so maybe Jeff Kent isn't totally out of the picture yet, especially if he can hold in the 30s this year. But that would still mean that he needs to make up 40-ish percent in his final three ballots, which is a challenge no matter how you slice it. Momentum is a massive part of Hall voting, and between the recent change in rules from 15 years of eligibility to 10 and the overstuffed last few ballots, Kent will basically only get four to five real chances before he becomes the Veterans Committee's problem (and who knows how that will shake out). And it just feels like his case deserved a little more discussion than that.

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