Mac made it an offseason tradition to write a “Keltner List” for one ex-Brave who either was on the cusp of the Hall of Fame, or in Mac’s opinion, should have been considered worthy. It’s called “Keltner List” in reference to Ken Keltner, a third baseman who’s a charter member of the Hall of the Very Good: basically, if a player is better than Ken Keltner then Bill James thought that they had a serious case for the Hall, whereas a player worse than Ken Keltner shouldn’t receive serious consideration. You can read the previous ones Mac did here.
He always began with the following preamble: The Keltner List was developed by Bill James as a device to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. In The Politics of Glory [also known as Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?] James says that it is probably his favorite tool to do that. (You can read about the background in that book, or do a Google search, for further information.)
Mac did Keltner lists for Javy Lopez, Andres Galarraga, and Fred McGriff, and concluded that McGriff belonged in the Hall but the other two fell short. Other than McGriff, in the past two decades, the Braves have had four position players who might also be considered worthy of the Hall.
The first, Chipper Jones, is certainly going in. The second, Andruw Jones, had a Hall of Fame decade with the Braves and then had a Dale Murphy-like crash that may cost him his candidacy. The third, Gary Sheffield, is a member of the 500-homer club, but lingering suspicions over his possible steroid use–along with the fact that during his career he was perceived as a malcontent–will likely conspire to keep him out. The fourth was Kenny Lofton.
The Braves fan base likely has no love lost with Kenny and vice versa, but Lofton was nonetheless one of the best centerfielders of his era. Let’s run the Keltner List for him.
Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
No. No one would have thought this even for a moment. During his prime, the most acclaimed players in the American League would probably been Frank Thomas and then Ken Griffey Jr. He was probably the second-best center fielder in the AL, after Griffey, from 1992 until 2000.
Lofton left the AL for a single year, in 1997 with the Braves, and he was arguably the best center fielder in the NL that year. (Lofton is a hair behind Ray Lankford by WAR, but Lofton played fewer games and Lofton was generally a better player than Lankford in that period.) Andruw Jones moved to right field to accommodate him. After Lofton left, Jones moved back to center — and was immediately the best center fielder in the league.
Was he the best player on his team?
Yes. He was probably the best player on the Indians from 1992-1994. He actually led the Braves in WAR in 1997 — he’s ahead of Jeff Blauser by 0.3 rWAR and 0.0 fWAR. (You could say that they’re neck and neck, but Lofton was better than Blauser by a healthy margin for the entire decade, so I’d give it to Lofton.) He also led the Indians in WAR when he returned in 1998, but at the end of that season the Indians signed Roberto Alomar, who immediately became their best player. At that point, Lofton was 32 years old. He played for the Indians for two more years, and then he played for nine different teams in his last six seasons.
Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the league at his position?
The best center fielder in baseball for most of his prime was Griffey Jr., then Andruw Jones. He may have been the best center fielder in the National League in 1997, though Ray Lankford was a very good player in his prime, and has him beat on WAR.
Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Quite a few. Lofton was on hand for five first-place finishes by the Indians — he missed the 1997 AL championship, but was there for the 1995 World Series and pennants in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2001. He was one of the best players on all of these teams. (Edit: actually, he contributed to six first-place Indians squads. As mentioned below, he was a midseason addition to the 2007 team.) Since 1948 — the last time the Indians won the World Series — the Indians have been to the playoffs eight times, and Lofton contributed to all but two: 1954, when Willie Mays made The Catch; and 1997, when he was with the Braves.
Lofton was in Cleveland from 1992-1996 and 1998-2001, and then he became a journeyman. In 2002, he began the year with the White Sox, and he was having a decent enough year for a 33-year old center fielder, putting up a 102 OPS+ with basically average defense. Then the Giants traded a couple minor leaguers who never did anything for Lofton, who replaced the awful-hitting Tsuyoshi Shinjo in center field. They were 58-47 at the time, six games back. They went 37-19 for the rest of the year, finished in second place and won the wild card, and wound up losing the World Series to the Angels.
His most notable pennant race was probably 2003. He began the year with the Pirates, and he was having a decent enough year for a 35-year old center fielder, putting up a 98 OPS+ with basically average defense. Then the Cubs traded for him on July 23 (it was a notorious salary dump; the Pirates threw in Aramis Ramirez, and all they got back was Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill, and Matt Bruback). At the time of the trade, the Cubs were 50-50, in 3rd place, 5.5 games out. Lofton hit leadoff and replaced Corey Patterson in center field, hitting .327 in 56 games, during which time the Cubs went 38-24 and won the division. They lost to the Marlins in the NLCS, which you probably remember, but still.
He went to the playoffs with the Yankees in 2004, but he was basically Bernie Williams’s backup and didn’t have a great deal of effect on the pennant race; he went to the playoffs with the Dodgers in 2006 and was the regular center fielder but he really wasn’t very good, as his defense had slipped badly.
He finally came back to Cleveland in late July of 2007, taking over for Jason Michaels. At the time, the Indians were 60-43 and a half-game out of first; they went 36-23 with him, and won the division by eight games. They lost the ALCS to the Yankees, famously, but Lofton was terrific, playing all four games and batting .375 while batting seventh. The Indians haven’t been back to the playoffs since.
Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
Yes. He spent the last six years of his career as a supreme journeyman, but few teams could regret his on-field results. Three different teams made the playoffs after acquiring him midseason. He was a five-to seven-win player at his peak, from 1992 to 1999. But after that, he was more or less a three-win player through 2005.
He aged extremely gracefully — unlike Jones, his center field replacement in Atlanta. And unlike Bernie Williams, who basically stopped being a useful player after 2002, when he was 33. Certainly unlike the players that he was acquired to replace: Shinjo, Patterson, and Michaels. Unlike his predecessors in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, Marlon Byrd and Milton Bradley.
Center field is a grueling position. Lofton played it exceptionally for nearly a decade, and quite well for the better part of a decade after that.
Is he the very best player in baseball history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
Not at all. Among eligible players, that may well be Jeff Bagwell. But there are a lot of as-yet ineligible players who have a much better case than Lofton, like Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols, and of course Ken Griffey Jr. (Lofton has never been connected to PEDs, as have Bonds and Rodriguez, so it’s hard to tell exactly how voters will evaluate his candidacy against theirs.)
Still, even before Barry Bonds’s head started expanding, he was a much, much better player than Lofton.
Are most players who have comparable career statistics in the Hall of Fame?
Depends on how you look at it. By Similarity Scores on baseball-reference, only three of his most similar players are in the Hall, but none of them have particularly comparable stats. As Bill James would say, this means that Kenny Lofton is a historically unique player, and that usually applies to extraordinary players more than ordinary players.
In the history of baseball, there are somewhere between 10 and 20 center fielders who have amassed at least 60 Wins Above Replacement. Lofton’s around 65 WAR. Per B-R WAR, the number is 10, and all seven of the eligible players are in: Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider, and Richie Ashburn. The ineligible players are Griffey, who will definitely be in; Carlos Beltran, who could make it if he has a few more years like this; and Lofton.
Per Fangraphs WAR, there are 21 center fielders with at least 60, of whom 16 are eligible for the Hall and 12 of those 16 are in the Hall of Fame. The ineligibles are Griffey, Beltran, Lofton, and Andruw Jones and Jim Edmonds, both of whom deserve a Keltner list of their own. The four eligible players who are not in the Hall are Willie Davis, Tommy Leach, Reggie Smith, and Jimmy Wynn, and Wynn and Smith have often been hailed as more deserving of the Hall than Dawson and Jim Rice.
If you look at WAR, Kenny Lofton’s one of the very best center fielders of all time who is not in the Hall of Fame.
Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
No. Bill James developed four Hall of Fame stats to try to measure the likelihood that a player would make it in, and Lofton falls slightly short by these.
By Hall of Fame Standards, Lofton comes close but does not meet the bar. By Black Ink (times he led the league in things), he’s at 15, where the average Hall of Famer is at 27; by Gray Ink (times he appeared on the leaderboard) he’s at 62, where an average Hall of Famer is at 62 144. By the Hall of Fame Monitor, he’s at 91, while a likely HOFer is at 100, and by the Hall of Fame Standards, he’s at 42 while an average Hall of Famer is 50.
Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
Not really. He was a truly superb defensive center fielder during his first decade, which WAR reflects but James’s HOF stats and Similarity Scores do not. He was also generally considered to be a jerk, which is one reason why so many of his stops were brief, despite the fact that he was terrific on the field.
Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame but not in?
Depends on who you ask. Fangraphs WAR prefers Reggie Smith, but baseball-reference WAR would consider Lofton to be the best center fielder of all time who is eligible for the Hall but has not yet made it. However, if you expand his position to “outfield,” then Tim Raines may be a slightly better candidate.
But that will evaporate in a couple of years, when Ken Griffey Jr. becomes eligible. And Andruw Jones will have an interesting case in eight or ten years, depending on when he retires.
How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If not, how many times was he close?
Lofton really only had one MVP-type season, 1994, when he batted .349 and stole 60 bases in 112 games. Unfortunately, the ball was jumping off everybody’s bat that year, and Lofton finished fourth behind Frank Thomas (.353 BA, 38 HRs), Ken Griffey Jr. (.323 BA, 40 HRs), and Albert Belle (.357 BA, 36 HRs). If you add in Lofton’s defense, he may have been the best player in the league–he led the league in rWAR, for what it’s worth–but he wasn’t beating out all of those guys.
Lofton’s fourth-place finish in 1994 is the only time he finished in the top 10, though he also received downballot votes in 1993, 1996, and 1997. Overall, he has 0.58 career MVP shares, which is about right. He was often good to great, but rarely transcendent.
How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he play in? Did most of the other players who played in this many go into the Hall of Fame?
Kenny Lofton was selected to six All-Star Games and definitely should have been selected to two more, in his rookie 1992 and his stellar 1993. Six All-Star selections does not put him in illustrious company, though it is hardly a disqualifier. Eight All-Star selections would look a lot better — it wouldn’t guarantee him a spot in the Hall, but it would make him look like he belonged.
As it happens, exactly 130 Hall of Famers have appeared in at least one All-Star game. Sixty-three of them have appeared in nine or more, and 68 have appeared in eight or fewer. But just 43 of 125 have appeared in six or fewer. If you give Lofton credit for eight, then he’s an above-average Hall of Famer by that standard. If you count his six as is, then he’s below-average.
If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team could win the pennant?
No. On his pennant-winning teams in Cleveland, he was usually one of the best three players, rather than the single best player. He was a very useful piece, but he couldn’t carry a team.
What impact did the player have on baseball history? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in any way?
Not that I am aware of, no.
Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
No. As previously mentioned, he was kind of a jerk.
Lofton’s candidacy basically depends on how much of a WAR-determinist you are. By WAR, he meets the standards for a Hall of Fame center fielder. But he was not perceived as a future Hall of Famer when he was playing, and James’s Hall of Fame predictors appear to predict that he will fall just short.
And that makes sense: I’m guessing that hardly any of the commenters on this blog post will believe that Lofton deserves to make it. In 2010, the baseball-reference.com blog had a poll, and 50 percent of respondents said that they believed he deserved to go into the Hall. And again, that makes sense: he feels like the kind of guy who will never be able to get over the 40-50 percent plateau. (That would make him like Dale Murphy, who was otherwise very different from Lofton in most ways: major power hitter, beloved by teammates, and fell off a cliff at age 32.)
Having said all that, Lofton was one of the best center fielders of his era, a dynamic leadoff hitter who was a vital cog in numerous pennant races. If he weren’t such a jerk, he would be remembered fondly by fans of the Giants and Cubs, whom he helped to achieve some of their greatest recent success. Instead, he’s really only claimed by Indians fans, who basically have experienced no success whatsoever without him. And even they would probably prefer to vote for Omar Vizquel.
Through Mac’s influence, I’ve become more of a big-Hall guy, and so I wouldn’t have much of a problem with seeing Lofton in the Hall. He was a really, really good player for a very long time. There are a lot of borderline-type players I’d rather in there first, though, especially Andruw Jones and Scott Rolen.
Lofton will be eligible in 2013. I’d vote for him. I guess.