Change-UpJanuary 28, 2009
The Case Against Poorly Constructed Cases
By Patrick Sullivan

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.

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).


Sandberg (346) and Kent (344) also have almost identical career Win Shares totals.

In my opinion, Ryno was a better player at his peak than Kent. He had four 30+ WS seasons, including a career best of 38 in 1984 when he was the NL MVP and three consecutive campaigns (1990-92) over 30 when he was considered one of the top players in the league, if not all of baseball.

Using WARP1, Sandberg had a single-season peak of 13.5 in 1992 (plus a 12.5 in 1984 and two other years over 10) vs. Kent's best of 11.8 in 2000 and only two others over 10.

To the extent that baserunning isn't being captured in any of the OPS+, WS, WARP measurements, Sandberg's superiority in this phase of the game probably narrows any gap, if there is one, and perhaps elevates him above Kent. To wit, Sandberg stole 344 bases at a 76% success rate whereas Kent stole 94 at a 61% clip. I would be shocked if his first to third and second to home rate on singles and first to home rate on doubles wasn't quite a bit better than Kent as well.

Sandberg also had 1 1/2 additional "decline phase" seasons than Kent, which detracts a bit from his rate stats (while admittedly helping ever so slightly his counting stats).

Shake it all up and I would take Sandberg over Kent but not quite to the extent that I would take Hornsby's slugging prowess over Kent. :-)

Thanks for mentioning the baserunning advantages of Ryno, Rich.

I think my main objection to the point Jenkins made about Ryno is that it just struck me as odd to single out Sandberg. It's not like Kent is clearly superior to him.

Perhaps Kent got worse after Truck-gate and wasn't as good in LA, but when he was with the Giants, he was considered charismatic. He certainly had charmed the beat-writers, and the fans also, until Truck-gate.

Another reason Kent's homer total shouldn't sway voters as much as Jenkins believes is because the era he played in had a juiced ball, according to Eric Walker, the man who literally wrote the textbook for the A's, at his website:

He didn't give a particular number outright, but in one section he compared what Babe Ruth might have hit in this era at his peak and tacked on approximately 10%, which is also approximately the percentage increase in runs scored between our era and the previous era. That doesn't seem right to me, because the average home run event should result in more than one run on average, but like I noted, he didn't attempt to give an exact number, he gave an approximation with his Babe Ruth example.
I would put Kent's accomplishments up there with Bobby Bonds, who I think belongs in the Hall but who most probably won't ever get in, in that both had nice peaks but a relatively short career span in terms of everyday play. Bonds' short career had hurt his chances to make the Hall, or so it seems to me from what I've read about that.

However, while I think Bobby Bonds belong in the Hall for his accomplishments in combining power and speed, I would not put Kent in the Hall. While he has clearly been good, even very good, particularly in his peak years, I did not see anything to make me think of him as extraordinary at 2B, aside from his MVP year, which probably should have been Barry Bonds' award if he were more popular with baseball writers. But if he were to make it in, that would not surprise me nor make me think it was an outrage, it is just that my scale tipped the other way.

Given the evidence here, he's clearly in the mix with others, so I would go with what Jaffe said above about how he's a borderline candidate and either way it works out is fine.

The only thing I can say absolutely about Jeff Kent is that he hit the most home runs at second base that's it. But I would think the title of best power hitting 2b rests with Hornsby.

I don't think a question like that is entirely fair considering 2 guys (Lajoie, Collins) played in the dead ball era, One guy (Robinson) didn't start playing until he was 28, and one guy (Grich) who was stuck in Pitcher's parks (Memorial, The Big A)

Kent is ranked 9th among 2b in ops+

Hornsby: 175
Lajoie: 150
Collins: 141
Robinson: 132
Morgan: 132
Carew: 131
Grich: 125
Gehringer: 124
Kent: 123

How is Grich not in the HOF??

He was a better hitter than Kent and he's one of the greatest defensive 2b in baseball history. Big miss by the BWAA.

As far as Sandberg and Kent, I don't get his logic at all. How could Kent be a solid HOF and Sandberg be questionable?? Here's the Warp 3 numbers, Career and Top 7:

Ryne Sandberg:
Career Warp 3: 108.7

Jeff Kent: Career: 110.2

Career+Best7= (110.2+64.8)=175/2=87.5

Kent had a slighly better career, Sandberg had a better peak.

Where do you find WARP3 numbers for retired players?

Texas John,

You can find them at baseball prospectus. Just type the players name and search. One thing though they're in the process of changing the replacement level.

Rogers of the most forgotten and underrated players of all-time. Something about playing in St. Louis and not getting due respect like Mr. Musial and now Mr. Pujols.

Anyway, sure you can knock Hornsby glove, but even if he'd played 1st or in the OF, his bat would still inspire awe to nearly every other batter ever to step into the batters box.

340 ws at 2b means you should be at least in the conversation for 15 years (sorry about that, Lou Whitaker).

Another thing to remember about Ryne Sandberg is that his career was significantly impacted by a family issue/divorce. I don't know if that situation was largely responsible for his lousy year in 1994, but it seems to have been the reason why he didn't play at all in 1995.