Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Hall of Famer Series: Kenny Lofton

So a while ago, I posted something about how we determine who is a baseball Hall of Famer. Then I promised that I'd post some profiles of people who should be in the Hall of Fame, all leading up to HOF voting in January, where awful baseball writers pick all the wrong people and leave out all the right people. I'm not even going to get into Tim Raines in this series of posts because he's just so obvious. Suffice to say, the BBWAA is completely idiotic and they're keeping Tim Raines, a total Hall of Famer in every way, out of the Hall. Absolutely baffling.

But no, I'm going to steer away from Raines and go more into guys who may be a little less obvious. As I said in my previous HOF post, I have a broader-than-average definition of "Hall of Famer," but I think many people would agree with my approach. If a player helped his team win games as much as or more than other established Hall of Famers, he deserves to be inducted. And that's where Kenny Lofton comes in.

Kenny Lofton played good baseball for a very long time. You may remember him as the speedy center fielder for Cleveland for all those years, a guy who bounced around the league towards the end of his career, but always brought value to whatever team he played for. Lofton played for Cleveland from 1991-2001 (except for 1997, when he played for the Braves), and then changed teams at least once a year from 2002 until his retirement in 2007, when he played his final games with his old Indians team. He was never anything close to the centerpiece of an offense, but his value was absolutely immense, especially when considered historically.

As we've discussed on this blog before, WAR is a great stat, though it's far from perfect. It attempts to measure a player's entire contribution, with batting, fielding, and baserunning taken into account. Different people have different ways of calculating WAR, but my gold standard for WAR is The big two WAR calculations on the Internet, as far as I'm concerned, are and FanGraphs. While FanGraphs is the best baseball website there is, I find that they get caught up on certain things too much, and long story short, this adversely affects their WAR calculations in my opinion. So I'm going with WAR in evaluating Kenny Lofton.

Kenny Lofton, according to Baseball Reference, had 64.9 WAR for his career. This is tied for 104th all-time. That may not sound so great, but the two players he's tied with are Carl Hubbell and Ryne Sandberg. Both of these players are no-brainers for the Hall of Fame. Going down the all-time WAR leaders list from #104, you see Hall of Famers and Hall of Fame-caliber players for a while. The only guys who are not Hall of Famers from Kenny Lofton down to #121 on the list are steroid-era guys and guys who are not yet eligible (or both). Kenny Lofton finds himself comfortably ahead of guys like Willie McCovey and Dave Winfield, and in the company of guys like Jim Palmer and Gary Carter. If a player's ability to "help his team win" is at all a criterion for the Hall of Fame, Kenny Lofton should be in comfortably.

To the average baseball fan, this may seem very strange. Kenny Lofton? He was like the 6th best player on those great Indians teams of the '90s, wasn't he? Well, let's look at his career more closely.

Lofton is remembered mainly for two things: his speed and his defense. He is rightfully remembered for these things, because he was truly great in these facets of the game. Lofton is 5th all-time in Total Zone Runs as a center fielder. Essentially, this stat attempts to measure the number of runs that a player saved above (or below) the average center fielder. Lofton is also tied for 8th all-time in FanGraphs's Speed index for players with over 5000 plate appearances, just behind the likes of Lou Brock, and ahead of the likes of Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson. He's 15th on the all-time stolen bases list with 622, and his stolen base percentage was 79.5%, which is excellent for a player who attempted as many steals as Lofton did.

To go along with Lofton's historically good baserunning and fielding, however, went above-average hitting. Kenny Lofton was not one of these no-hit great fielders; he hit leadoff for most of his career, and he did so extremely well. The best statistic for determining effectiveness as a hitter and baserunner is wOBA. Average wOBA is between about .325 and .335. Kenny Lofton's career wOBA was .359, well above average. Among players with at least 5000 plate appearances, this puts Lofton in the top 300 of all-time. Though this is certainly not a Hall of Fame-caliber position by itself, it shows that he was indeed a solidly above-average hitter historically, and it does place him before Hall of Fame-caliber players like Ernie Banks and Craig Biggio on the all-time list.

Lofton was the kind of hitter who rarely struck out, and walked a good amount. He averaged 78 strikeouts and 73 walks per season in his career. His BA/OBP/SLG line is almost undoubtedly better than you'd expect: .299/.372 (this surprised me quite a bit)/.423. He was more than just a Punch and Judy hitter, averaging 30 doubles, 9 triples and 10 home runs per year. For a leadoff speedster, he ended his career with 130 home runs. Not too shabby at all.

Kenny Lofton is a Hall of Fame player. He is historically great in the field at one of the three most important defensive positions. He is also an historically great baserunner. And if this were not enough, he pairs that with very solidly above-average hitting for his entire career, something that other defensive Hall of Famers like Ozzie Smith and soon-to-be Omar Vizquel (both .311 wOBA) simply cannot say. If Lofton is every bit as good a fielder as those guys, plus an excellent hitter for the better part of two decades, how is he not a Hall of Famer?

2013 will be the first year that Kenny Lofton's name appears on the Hall of Fame ballot. I'm sure he'll get enough votes to stay on the ballot (all you need is 5%), but he will in no way be inducted. 2013 will see an influx of steroid-era giants being on the ballot for the first time, like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Sammy Sosa. It also features Craig Biggio, a player who is a Hall of Famer, but who is really not better than Kenny Lofton. Biggio will be voted in (3000 hits) and Lofton will be kept out, at least for now. I have hope for the 15 years that Lofton is on the ballot. Old, idiotic baseball writers will die off and reasonable people will be able to vote, and I'm somewhat confident that Kenny Lofton will get that plaque in Cooperstown that he so deserves. But he'll have to wait an unjust amount of time.


  1. To me Lofton is a hall of very good player. There are players in the hall of fame already that fit this category also. If it were up to me, I'd ask questions like, was he ever a top 10 player in a year? If so, how many times? WAR's weakness to me is that it doesn't measure you against your contemporaries. OPS+ and wOBA do this a bit, but if in my opinion Kenny Lofton was never even a top 10 guy in any single season how does he deserve to be in the Hall?

  2. I would argue that the "top 10" metric is a very narrow one. Top 10 players can come and go very quickly, and just because a guy was, say, the 8th-best player in 5 seasons, that doesn't qualify him as a Hall of Famer more than a guy who, for his entire career, was better than other Hall of Famers. Looking at individual seasons is one way to do determine Hall of Famers, but ultimately I think it's a very narrow way of determining Hall of Famers. How many years was a guy like Derek Jeter a top-10 player in the league? 2-4 times maybe? Jack Morris was the best pitcher for the arbitrary period of 1980-1989, but he's not a Hall of Famer.

  3. Lofton also got MVP votes four times, meaning at least some writers thought he was top 10 for that year, and definitely when he finished fourth in 1994, stealing 60 bases with an OPS+ of 149. Plus, as we're about to see with Trout versus Cabrera, the two things that Lofton excelled at are often completely ignored by baseball writers. It's more of a conversation because both Trout and Cabrera had such excellent seasons this year, but the pattern holds.

  4. Looking back over his stats he definitely qualifies in 1994. My issue is, and this same thing can be said about guys like Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey, the defensive stats are so iffy that we don't really know how good someone was. Lofton was definitely above average but was he an all time great? He certainly didn't have a strong arm but he did have range. It is absolutely unfair to a player like him that the stats don't let us appreciate his true ability to help his team win games, but I'm just not confident saying, absent baseball talent evaluators everywhere saying themselves, that someone was an all-time great fielder.

  5. Another thought is that if you let a guy like Lofton in then all of a sudden Todd Helton, Larry Walker, Jim Edmonds, Mike Mussina, Tim Hudson, and like fucking Billy Wagner could get in.

  6. Defensive stats are iffy, but as you've said before, if a player is consistently among the top, it PROBABLY means something. Not definitely, but probably. If Lofton's 5th all-time in runs saved, I think he's probably one of the best ever.

    Also, I think steroids complicates most of those choices, but I don't see why it's so ridiculous for Larry Walker or Mike Mussina to be Hall of Famers. In fact, I definitely think Mussina should be. Edmonds and Helton are borderline, and because they're steroid era guys, I think they're out for me, but they are borderline. Not sure where Tim Hudson came from...his comps in terms of WAR include guys like Jeff Kent, Johnny Damon and Kevin Appier. HOFers closest to Tim Hudson in terms of WAR are guys that pretty much shouldn't be in there, like Bill Terry and Eppa Rixey. And in terms of Billy Wagner, he is 5th all-time in saves, but I don't see saves as a great stat. He does, however, have a case for the HOF, though I'd ultimately vote against him.