The Case Against Poorly Constructed Cases
In his new, cutting edge and hip forum, the 3 Dot Blog, Bruce Jenkins takes up the Hall of Fame case for Jeff Kent, just as a number of other writers have since Kent announced his retirement last week. It's a casual piece and I suspect if Jenkins put more than fifteen minutes into it, he may have been able to come up with something better. Nonetheless, he makes three points that I simply can't let pass. There will come a day when professional sports writers and editors will take enough pride in their work that outright falsehoods will not make it to the pages of respected publications. Until then, those of us that like to hold the mainstream baseball media accountable from time to time in our piddly writings will never starve for material.
Here is the first Jenkins misstep.
What matters most for Kent, at least from this corner, is that he'll go down as "the greatest" at something. Doesn't matter what it is -- Sandy Koufax' fastball, Bill Mazeroski's glove, Cal Ripken's longevity -- that's a defining criterion. Kent is without question the greatest power hitter ever seen at his position, hitting 351 homers as a second baseman and 377 overall. You could make a case for many others as the best pure hitter, notably Rogers Hornsby, Joe Morgan, Frankie Frisch, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie and Charlie Gehringer. But Kent set the standard for power...
Let's set aside the flimsy standard of being "the greatest" at something means you deserve Hall of Fame enshrinement and address the contention that Kent is - "without question" mind you - the greatest power hitter to play second base. Let's keep things in the Bay Area and make an analogy. This would be like saying that Steve Young was without question the finest quarterback ever to play for the 49ers. I suppose you could make the argument if you wanted; Young is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. But he was probably not better than Joe Montana.
By the same token, Kent was indeed one of the best power hitting second basemen of all time. But to claim he is the best is to overlook so egregiously the accomplishments of Rogers Hornsby that it's hard to imagine Jenkins even took a look at their respective numbers. Here are the career slugging leaders among second basemen since 1901 with at least 6,000 career plate appearances.
SLG R. Hornsby .577 J. Kent .500 C. Gehringer .480 T. Lazzeri .467 J. Gordon .466 B. Doerr .461 R. Sandberg .452
In his best power hitting season, Kent managed 33 home runs and a .596 slugging average. Hornsby eclipsed the .600 slugging average mark seven times and in three seasons bested Kent's career high of 33 home runs. Sure, a lot of Hornsby's slug was tied up in his unbelievable batting average (he hit .358 for his career). Still, his .219 ISO beats Kent's .210 career mark. The real differential between their respective career ISO numbers is even more drastic, as the league ISO was much higher during Kent's career than Hornsby's. To sum, there is simply no case whatsoever that Kent was a better power hitter than Rogers Hornsby. He hit more home runs, but so what?
Here is the next Jenkins remark that caught my eye.
...and if Ryne Sandberg makes the Hall (dubious choice in my mind), then Kent certainly qualifies.
Let me just state that I think Jeff Kent is probably a Hall of Famer. I have no problem with the contention that Kent deserves baseball immortality. What I object to is the iffy logic Jenkins employs here. So let's look at Sandberg on his own to see if he was in fact a "dubious choice" and then compare him to Kent to see if any Hall that includes Sandberg would simply have to open its doors to Kent as well.
Sandberg ranks 14th in career OPS+ among second basemen with at least 6,000 plate appearances. He won nine gold gloves, which admittedly loses meaning in a world where Derek Jeter and Michael Young and Rafael Palmeiro snag the honor. Nonetheless with nine to his name and thanks to other fielding metrics that quantify fielding quality, we can safely assume Sandberg was one of the finer keystone glove men during his time. Just as Bobby Grich's and Lou Whitaker's do, Sandberg's career stacks up among Hall of Fame second baseman.
Here is how Kent and Sandberg compare:
PA AVG OBP SLG OPS+ WARP3 Sandberg 9,282 .285 .344 .452 114 108.7 Kent 9,537 .290 .356 .500 123 110.2
They're awfully close, with Sandberg's glove narrowing Kent's advantage with the bat. So I don't know which one I would have rather had on my team but to imply that Kent must go in if Sandberg is in seems to overrate Kent's career compared to Ryno's.
Finally, in sort of a throwaway line, Jenkins says the following:
The fact that he had more career RBIs than Mickey Mantle (there's something very wrong about that, but for the record: 1518 to Mantle's 1509).
Jenkins gets so close here. Yes, Bruce, there is something wrong about that. It's almost as if RBI are a completely useless measure when it comes to comparing two players!
This doesn't have much to do with the broader case for Kent that Jenkins sought to make but I thought it was pretty funny. Yes, Kent has more RBI than Mantle for his career. Just like Ruben Sierra had more RBI than Andres Galarraga in 1993.
For a great look at the merits of Jeff Kent's Hall of Fame candidacy, I would direct you to Jay Jaffe's piece at Baseball Prospectus. It explores all of the interesting aspects of Kent's career; his late start, the brutal hitter's ballpark he had most of his great years in, his defense...Jaffe concludes:
Kent was a very good player for a long time, and an often misunderstood one. His lack of charisma and his businesslike approach made him an easy target, though his humorlessness should never have been confused with a lack of passion for the game. From this vantage point, he looks to be a borderline Hall of Famer at best. Even with no particular love lost for him as a fan—one who spent years rooting against him as a Giant before settling down and appreciating his uneven virtues with the Dodgers—I'll admit that this still contradicts my gut instinct, but then that's one of the reasons for the five-year waiting period before a player reaches the ballot. Nonetheless, I strongly suspect he'll find his way into Cooperstown in due time, and if that's the case, it will hardly be the crime of the century.
Compare that writing and measured tone with Jenkins' absolutes ("without question" the best power hitter, etc).