Kent’s Cooperstown Case

In today’s Hit and Run column at Baseball Prospectus, I take up “The Curious Case of Jeff Kent”, who retired last week:

There’s no crying in baseball, which may or may not explain why Jeff Kent’s stoic facade crumbled during the press conference in which he announced his retirement last week. A notoriously gruff and prickly personality, Kent had spent the better part of two decades distancing himself from his teammates and the media as much as possible. Thus the sight of him fighting back the tears was surprising, even shocking given his apparent lack of emotional range. As the legendary sportswriter Frank Graham once wrote of Yankee outfielder Bob Meusel, “He’s learning to say hello when it’s time to say goodbye.”

…While Kent hasn’t been the object of many fond farewells, the widespread consensus in the mainstream media is that he’s bound for the Hall of Fame. From a traditional perspective, it’s not difficult to see why. Although he didn’t debut in the majors until he was 24 and didn’t top 400 plate appearances until the following year, Kent nonetheless racked up 2,461 hits and 377 homers, reached the postseason seven times, made five All-Star teams, and won the 2000 NL MVP award. The 351 home runs he hit as a second baseman are tops for the position, far outdistancing the second-, third-, and fourth-ranked second-sackers—Ryne Sandberg (277), Joe Morgan (266), and Rogers Hornsby (263)—all of whom are enshrined in Cooperstown. He also leads all second basemen in RBI and extra-base hits, while ranking 12th in games played at the position.

…Kent does not fare nearly so well when it comes to JAWS, and I say that as somebody whose first impulse would be to vote for him if the BBWAA granted me a ballot today. I’ve explored his case before, but with his final two seasons of play as well as a major adjustment in the WARP system’s replacement level—one that’s not yet reflected on our player cards, alas—it’s appropriate to take another look…

Kent ranks 12th in career WARP, 20th in peak WARP (best seven seasons) and 14th overall among all second basemen. As odd as it sounds for a player who lasted through his Age 40 season, he’s hampered by a lack of durability. Kent topped 145 games just five times (including in 2002, the season he infamously broke his wrist while “washing his truck”) and averaged only 133 games a year over his last six seasons, the Houston and Los Angeles phases of his career. He’s got just four seasons above 5.5 WARP via the new system, and just three above 7.0. Overall, his JAWS score tops only one of the nine second basemen elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America, that being Jackie Robinson, whose career was shortened by the color barrier but who nonetheless had a peak that was well above average, to say nothing of his monumentally larger role in history.

Kent falls slightly short via JAWS, and his case appears to rest upon how much value one places on holding the home run record for second basemen, a record set under historically favorable conditions.

As you’d expect, the article has plenty of charts to illuminate the case as well as a deeper look at the JAWS system and in particular the odd distribution of second basemen amid the rankings. None of which will have an impact on whether Kent makes the Hall of Fame; he’ll likely find a spot there in due time, and while I doubt I’ll greet that news with more enthusiasm than Kent showed in his Dodger days, it’s not something that will be worth fighting against the way Jim Rice’s candidacy was.

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