Let the Hall of Fame debate begin. With Jeff Kent’s announcement that he will retire from baseball after 17 seasons in the game, the career of arguably the most powerful second baseman ever to swing a bat draws to a close. He is the all-time home run leader at his position with 377 dingers, but his career statistics will undoubtedly re-ignite the long running disagreement between Hall of Fame voters regarding whether to judge a player against those who played his position or against all those who have played the game. The majority consensus that prevails when Kent reaches eligibility will undoubtedly determine whether or not he ultimately gains induction.
There are solid arguments on both sides, with each perspective presenting a definitive conclusion on an otherwise borderline player. First lets examine the argument supporting his induction, operating under the premise that a player should be judged against predominately those who have played the same position as he.
An Argument for Kent’s induction:
Jeff Kent’s most obvious claim to Hall of Fame status is his power production. The mere fact that he hit more home runs than any second baseman in the history of the game is arguably enough to warrant induction on its own merrit. Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg — perhaps the most comparable second basemen to Kent, as they were both known for their rare power at the position — gained induction with 95 less home runs and a .452 slugging percentage, compared to Kent’s very solid slugging mark of .500. Kent also trumps Sandberg in OBP (.356 to .344), hits (2461 to 2386), and batting average (.290 to .285), clearly showing that, if Sandberg is worthy of induction, then Jeff Kent very obviously is.
Kent was also an absolute RBI machine over the course of his career. His glutinous total of 1518 places him at 47th on the all time list among players of every position. For some perspective on this number, the total is nine more than Yankee legend Mickey Mantle, and 67 more than newly elected Boston slugger Jim Rice. He is also the only second basemen to have 100 or more RBIs in six consecutive seasons, a massively productive run with the Giants from 1997 to 2002 during which he accumulated a grand total of 689 RBIs, averaging 115 a season. Within that stretch he also notably garnered the NL MVP award in 2000, a season in which he hit .334, with 34 home runs, 125 RBIs, a .424 OBP, and a 1.020 OPS; composing one of the greatest offensive seasons by a second basemen ever.
While Kent failed to reach the typical Hall of Fame career plateaus that usually ensure induction (3,000 hits, 500 home runs, etc) he was an offensive force relative to many of the other players that have played his position throughout history. If Ryne Sandberg and especially Bill Mazeroski are Hall of Famers there is no possible logic that the voters can utilize to deny Kent, the second base home run king, his rightful induction. Examining the career stats of Kent compared to other Hall of Fame second basemen this becomes even more abundantly clear.
Kent: .290/377/1518 .356 OBP, .856 OPS, 123 OPS+
Hall of Fame Second Basemen
Sandberg: .285/282/1061 .344 OBP, .796 OPS, 114 OPS+
Nellie Fox: .288/35/790 .348 OBP, .711 OPS, 93 OPS+
Mazeroski: .260/138/853 .299 OBP, .666 OPS, 84 OPS+
An argument against Kent’s induction:
There are not separate wings in the Hall of Fame for the different positions in baseball. When you are judging the offensive output of a player you must compare that player against the greatest of all time, not simply against those who also happened to play a certain position.
Under this perspective of scrutiny Kent’s stats just don’t add up. While his 377 home runs are — as previously noted — the most among second basemen, that total is only 62nd all time, tied with Norm Cash, and one below Matt Williams. Add to this his .500 career slugging percentage (lower than Darryl Strawberry, Ellis Burks, and Richie Sexson to name a few), his very mediocre 123 OPS+, a .356 OBP, and his .290 career batting average, and it is evident that his offensive numbers, while strong for a second basemen, are mediocre when compared to a solid majority of players elected to the Hall, especially those enshrined based predominately on their offensive output.
While he may have put up better numbers than some second base Hall of Famers, his numbers fall short of the greatest hitting second basemen of all time; Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins, Rogers Hornsby and Charlie Gehringer. These men may not have hit as many home runs as Kent but — as illustrated below — they trump him in nearly every other measurement.
Kent: .290/377/1518 .356 OBP/.856 OPS/123 OPS+ (2461 hits)
Hall of Fame Second Basemen
Lajoie: .338/83/1599 .380 OBP/.847 OPS/150 OPS+ (3242 hits)
Collins: .333/47/1300 .424 OBP/.853 OPS/141 OPS+ (3315 hits)
Gehringer: .320/184/1427 .404 OBP/.884 OPS/124 OPS+ (2839 hits)
Hornsby: .358/301/1584 .434 OBP/1.011 OPS/175 OPS+ (3315 hits)
Jeff Kent is definitely one of the greatest hitting second basemen of all time — this is inarguable — but unlike Lajoie, Collins, Gehringer, and Hornsby, he is not one of the greatest hitters period. Like many of the men excruciatingly wavering on the edge of induction, Kent’s career totals just aren’t prolific enough to garner enshrinement.
The consideration of Jeff Kent’s Hall of Fame candidacy is notably interesting because very few players’ induction chances have rested so heavily on the perspectives and philosophies of the voters. Second base is a position that, throughout its history, has seen very little offensive production beyond a few legendary players. Because of this, Kent’s numbers tower above many of his predecessors and most of his contemporaries, at the position he manned.
There is always an argument for subjectivity in the Hall of Fame voting process, most recently revitalized in defense of the ridiculous election of Jim Rice. Ironically, in the year of Rice’s election, Kent’s retirement brings into consideration a case that is one where subjectivity is actually the final tool that must be used to ultimately decide his induction. His stats literally and simultaneously prove and disprove his worthiness of enshrinement, and depending on how the voters feel players should be considered and compared (to each other as a whole or in regards to their position) an incredibly strong argument can be made either way.
Kent’s case once again calls to attention the negative effects of the lack of structure involved in the Hall of Fame voting process. A player like Don Mattingly is kept out of the Hall of Fame because he played first base and did not post numbers comparable to that of Gehrig, Foxx, or Greenberg, and yet a player like Mazeroski is bestowed induction and excused for his pitiful offensive production, because he played second base, and yet is not penalized for falling critically short of the top second basemen that have been elected.
Depending on which method voters use to judge players, the exclusivity of the Hall of Fame will be affected one way or the other, but whether the standards tighten or loosen, the process will be far more acceptable as the exclusivity level established would finally represent a solid and standard scope and/or frame of reference by which voters could structure their analysis of the credentials of players under future consideration.
On a final note concerning Kent’s career; whatever one’s opinion of his worthiness for the Hall, a main factor that should never cloud his election is the steroid haze that muddles the reliability of the stats produced by many of the players who played against, and notably alongside, Kent throughout his career. An outspoken advocate of strict drug testing in baseball and a sharp critic of players who cheated, Kent noted about the era in which he played, “The integrity of the game has been jeopardized for so many years and I’m just so embarrassed about the steroid era.”
Yes, the integrity of the game during the bulk of Kent’s career has been irreparably tarnished. The one thing though that will never be in “jeopardy” is Jeff Kent’s integrity as a ball player and his contributions to the game, testaments in themselves to his greatness; whether the voters choose to recognize him or not.