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Why Jeff Kent isn’t in the Hall of Fame

Jeff Kent has an unusual Hall of Fame case. He has a reputation for being surly, not being the best teammate, and then there is that motorcycle incident, but if his career had looked a little bit different, I think everyone would have looked right past all of that.

I argue that Jeff Kent had an inverted career, and that inverted career made it more difficult for him to put up conventional Hall of Fame numbers.

The inverted career

Jeff Kent

Jeff Kent didn’t have much job security until age 29. But he played at a Hall of Fame level throughout his 30s.

The difference between a borderline Hall of Famer and a Hall of Famer who makes it in their early years of eligibility is frequently how they performed in their 30s. Most of them emerged as stars by their mid-20s, had their best seasons between the ages of 26 and 31, and the better they did after the age of 32, the stronger their Hall of Fame case would be.

Jeff Kent had his first All Star caliber season at 29. And then he had a 10-year run that was absolutely Hall of Fame worthy. And he didn’t really show much in the way of slowdown until his age 40 season. At 40, he was basically a league average player. Most Hall of Famers start having the occasional league average season around age 33.

That suggests he may have still had something left in the tank. He might have been a bit above average at 41 or 42, had he chosen to play. But he decided at 40 he’d had enough.

What happened in his twenties?

It’s fair to ask what happened to Jeff Kent early in his career. He wasn’t a bad player before the age of 29, but three teams struggled to figure out what they wanted to do with him. He was not a great fielder at second base, so he played a fair bit of third base early in his career, and that didn’t work out so well.

I think what happened to him at 29 was that the San Francisco Giants recognized him for what he was, a gifted hitter whose best position was second base, and valued what he could potentially do with the bat enough that they could accept he was never going to win a gold glove. When they gave him a stable situation, playing second base everyday and hitting in the middle of the lineup, he emerged as a middle infielder who could hit 30 home runs a year.

If he’d gotten that chance a bit earlier in his career, he would have had a more conventional Hall of Fame case.

His problem is that he fell slightly short of typical Hall of Fame standards in a couple of areas, and that’s enough to cast doubt on his entire Hall of Fame case.

By conventional statistics, the knock on Jeff Kent is that he didn’t bring much value on defense, and didn’t lead the league in enough offensive categories. When it comes to advanced statistics, the main knock on him was that he didn’t dominate long enough in the WAR category.

There was nothing wrong with his offensive statistics between the ages of 25 and 29. He had one season where his defense offset most of his offensive value, and that aftershock cut into his playing time.

The trendsetter

If Jeff Kent played today, modern teams would be more willing to overlook his defensive shortcomings because his ability to play second base adequately allows them to get another big bat in the lineup.

Ron Gant is an example of another power hitter who came up as a second baseman, didn’t field the position especially well, and his team moved him off the position, first to third base, and then to the outfield.

Today, I think either player would get a chance at second base because we can use modern analytics to figure out exactly how bad a second baseman has to be before they cost their team more in the field than the value they bring with the bat. And I would argue that Jeff Kent was the player who got us thinking along those lines.

Ryne Sandberg got us thinking about the idea about a second baseman can hit for power. But he made that conversation easy because he also won gold gloves consistently. The knock on him was that Jeff Kent was a better hitter. The knock on Kent is that Sandberg was a better fielder.

The other knock on Kent

The other knock on Jeff Kent was that he wasn’t the best teammate. He famously didn’t get along with Barry Bonds all the time. But that’s not necessarily something that their teammates held against him. They were glad someone was willing to stand up to Bonds and keep his ego somewhat in check.

Late in his career, a teammate did accuse him of being racist. But that teammate was an outfielder named Milton Bradley. That name may not mean a lot now. But at the time, Bradley was known for being an immensely talented player whose talents on the field were only surpassed by his talent at wearing out his welcome. He played for 8 different teams in 12 years. He was even traded for the same player, a journeyman pitcher named Andrew Brown, twice.

Like his run ins with Barry Bonds, not getting along with Milton Bradley wasn’t something the rest of the team would hold against you. Fighting with Jeff Kent meant they weren’t fighting with someone else.

The consensus among teammates not named Barry Bonds and Milton Bradley was that Jeff Kent could be standoffish. But if he thought you would listen, he’d try to help you.

The motorcycle incident

There was an incident later in Kent’s career, where he told the team he injured himself washing his truck. Inconsistencies in his story led to the truth coming out. In reality, he had injured himself riding a motorcycle.

Teams will sometimes put clauses in a star players contract forbidding them from participating in certain activities. I don’t know what other reason he would have for lying about the origin or nature of his injury. But the major element of the story always was that he lied.

The character problem

It’s strange to me how character is an issue with Hall of Fame candidacy when it keeps people out, but not with getting people elected. Otherwise Dale Murphy would have been elected by now.

So I think the motorcycle story and the accusations of being a bad teammate are really a crutch.

Jeff Kent’s career OPS+ puts him right in line with Jim Rice or Andre Dawson. And he ran up those numbers while playing second base, not the outfield. So I think he eventually will get in.

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