Cooperstown and Kenny Loftonby Chris Jaffe
December 10, 2012
He doesn't have a chance. Not even the slightest chance.
The Cooperstown question about Kenny Lofton isn’t if he’ll get 75 percent of the vote in next month’s BBWAA election, it’s will he get the necessary five percent to stay on the ballot.
That’s a shame, because Lofton really was a great player. He wasn’t an inner-circle great or an obvious slam-dunk, no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer. Then again, most Hall of Famers aren’t inner-circlers, either. Lofton is in that gray zone. He doesn’t necessarily have to be in Cooperstown, but if he went in, he wouldn’t lower the standards. He’s better than many current immortals, and not just the obvious mistaken selections.
Lofton's overall quality
How good was Lofton? Well, let’s start with some of the "super stats" that are designed to measure a player’s entire worth. Over at Baseball-Reference.com, Lofton receives 64.9 career WAR. Yeah, that ain’t bad. It’s 71st all-time among position players. Among players on the ballot, that tops Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, and Sammy Sosa, among others. Among Hall of Famers, it beats Eddie Murray, Carlton Fisk, Roberto Alomar, and Ernie Banks, among others.
Well, that’s impressive, but we shouldn’t take WAR as the last word on anything. Still, Lofton does well by all other super stats, too. Fangraphs has an alternate version of WAR that likes him even more than B-ref does: 66.2 WAR. Baseball Prospectus’ stat de jour, WARP, is a little less enamored with Lofton but still gives him 55.8 wins. That’s a bit below Biggio, Piazza, and Sosa, but it's still better than quite a few Hall of Famers.
That’s nice, but ultimately, super stats, can obscure at least as much as they illuminate. On their own, they just raise a series of questions: how and why do they like Lofton so much? Are their values of Lofton really worth a dang? How do you explain the popular perception that Lofton was never as good as these numbers show?
Lofton in detail
In the case of Lofton, why he ranks so high can be stated fairly simply. He was very good in many different areas of the game, had no massive holes, had a very nice prime, and aged pretty well. You do all those things, and you’re value will add up. Also, it’s easier to overlook someone who is really good at many things compared to someone whose value is placed heavily in just one thing. A 500-homer guy who brings nothing else to the table still has those 500 homers to get your attention.
First, Lofton could hit. In 17 seasons, he batted .300 eight times. From 1992-96, Lofton hit at least .310 each year and .326 overall in that stretch. For his career, Lofton fell ever so narrowly under .300, landing at .299 for his career. He actually was a lifetime .300 hitter as late as July 29, 2007, when he had just two months to go in his lengthy career.
What’s more, it wasn’t just an empty batting average, either. Lofton could also get on base via base on balls. He was never great at it, but he was rather good at it. He never drew 100 walks in a season, never led the league and finished in the top ten just once (eighth place in 1998 with a career-high 87 walks).
That said, Lofton typically would draw 60-80 walks in a season, which is nice. Combined with his ability to get hits, Lofton consistently had a terrific on-base percentages, with four .400-OBP seasons and a .372 mark for his career. And as many out there in reader-land know, getting on base is the most valuable skill an offensive player can have.
Lofton’s main calling card, however, was his ability to steal bases. He led the AL in steals five straight years from 1992-96, an accomplishment no one in either league has repeated since. Lofton ended his career with 622 steals, 15th-most in baseball history, and eighth-most since the lively-ball era began in 1920.
Oh, and as an added bonus, Lofton stole all those bases with a terrific career success rate, with just 160 caught stealings alongside his 622 successful swipes. Using standard sabermetric shorthand valuing a stolen base at 0.3 runs and a caught stealing at –0.6 runs, Lofton provided 90.6 runs with his feet. That’s about nine wins, the eighth-best total by anyone since 1951 (when we have caught stealing data for both leagues).
In some ways, Lofton actually got better at judging when to run as he got older. As a 38-year-old with the Phillies, he was 22-for-25 in stolen base attempts. The next year with the Dodgers, Lofton was 32-for-37.
Between his ability to get on base and steal, Lofton had five 100-run seasons and would’ve had a sixth in 1995 had it not been for the labor stoppage that shortened that campaign to 144 games.
Lofton even does well in some of the overlooked secondary stats. For example, take double plays grounded into. In his 9,235 career plate appearances, Lofton had just 111 GIDP. That’s three and a half years for Jim Rice. Lofton grounded into one every 83.2 trips to the plate. If you look at the guys with the 200 most career plate appearances since both leagues tracked GIDP (1939-onward), Lofton is the 14th least-likely batter to ground into one.
Earlier, however, I said Lofton had “no massive holes” in his games. The word massive was there for a reason, as Lofton did have one notable issue. He didn’t have much power. He hit seven or fewer homers 10 times and ended his career with 130 homers. Perhaps even more notably, he didn’t get that many doubles, either.
Other recent batters like Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, and Rod Carew also hit very few homers, but they at least swatted their share of two-baggers. Boggs and Gwynn had over 500 and Carew ended at 445. Lofton? Just 383. Even for a guy who wasn’t just a power hitter, that is a little too power-impaired.
In all, Lofton was a fine offensive player for his career, but adding it all up, it doesn’t explain why WAR thinks he’s better than the likes of Biggio and Piazza.
Well, WAR isn’t just about offense. Biggio and Piazza easily top Lofton in offensive WAR, but Lofton crushes them in defensive WAR. According to WAR, Lofton was 108 runs better than average, which would place him among the 10 best defensive center fielders in history.
Fielding stats are a notoriously thorny area to understand. It’s the one area where we have the cloudiest understanding at what we’re looking back, especially if you try to go back in time for historical comparisons. That said, while WAR is very strong in its love for Lofton’s glove, it isn’t unique. In Win Shares, Bill James rates Lofton’s glove as an A+. The public also typically liked his defensive value, as Lofton won four Gold Gloves in his career.
The exception is Baseball Prospectus’ Fielding Runs Above Average, which actually calls Lofton a below-average fielder. WAR might be extreme in its feelings, but FRAA is the outlier.
To put it another way, at 65 WAR, Lofton ranks among the 10 best centerfielders of all time. Even if it overrates his defense, that means Lofton is worth what? Maybe 60 WAR? Well that’s alongside Richie Ashburn and Andre Dawson, both in Cooperstown, and neither is seen as a mistake. And hey, maybe WAR is right about how good Lofton was on defense.
But despite all that, Lofton has no chance at entering Cooperstown via the BBWAA. He’s just underrated. Several factors explain why he was overlooked.
The underrating of Lofton
First, he was never the biggest star on his team. In Lofton’s case, that’s not a knock against him as much as it’s a sign of how loaded his teams were. Fun fact: during his prime, Lofton might’ve been the worst outfielder on his team. The 1990s Indians had Lofton in center, Albert Belle in right field, and Manny Ramirez in left. Yeah, that ain’t bad. They also had Eddie Murray at DH, Omar Vizquel at shortstop, Jim Thome at third, and later on Roberto Alomar at second base. That’s on the short list of the greatest lineups of all time.
Sometimes voters are willing to put in a flock of guys from one team, provided that they have a lot of postseason success. That’s another problem for Lofton. As great as those Indians were, they had trouble in the postseason. They won one pennant and no world titles, and that diminishes their stature.
As it happens, Lofton went to the postseason more times away from the Indians (six) than with them (five). But those other teams had October troubles, as well. Lofton was on the 2002 Giants that won a pennant but famously choked a Game Six lead to the Angels and then lost Game Seven. Speaking of chokes, Lofton was on the 2003 Cubs when they blew it in the Bartman game against the Marlins. The year after that, Lofton was part of the Yankees squad that blew a three-games-to-none lead over the Red Sox in the ALCS.
Despite his 11 postseason appearances, Lofton never won a ring. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure that’s a record. Regardless, it doesn’t help Lofton with voters.
Not only did Lofton’s teams fail to peak at the rigth times, Lofton personally peaked in the worst season possible. Lofton’s best campaign was 1994, the year of the strike. In 112 games, he had 60 stolen bases, a league-leading 160 hits and personal bests of a .349 average and .412 on-base percantage. Odds are he would’ve regressed to the mean if the last 50 games had been played, but barring a complete collapse on his part, it easily would be the best season of his career.
Playing time hurts Lofton, too, and it hurts him two ways. First, he got a late start, with virtually no playing time in the majors until his age-25 season. In part that’s because he wasn’t a huge prospect, taken in the 17th round by Houston as a 21-year-old from the University of Arizona. It took him a bit of time to find his footing in the minors, too.
However, once he did find himself, the Astros moved Lofton up slowly. He tore up the Florida State League in 1990, hitting .331 with 62 steals but didn’t win a promotion until 1991. In 1991, Lofton excelled in Triple-A but didn’t make his major league debut until September. That offseason, the Indians traded for him, and that’s when Lofton finally cracked the lineup for good. By that time, he was 25, a rather old start for a possible Hall of Famer.
However, even when he was a regular, Lofton was rarely an everyday player. In 17 seasons, Lofton appeared in 150 games just twice. In his earlier years, Lofton had trouble staying healthy. He went on the 15-day DL eight times from 1995 to 2001. After that, he stayed healthy but still sat about 20-30 games a year. His teams typically would sit the left-handed Lofton against southpaws.
That’s actually a theme with other players have trouble getting into Cooperstown. Lou Whitaker was a perennial All-Star in his 20s who had a very productive stretch in his 30s, missing a few dozen games a year. Like Lofton, he sat when at a platoon disadvantage. Whitaker’s numbers are great, but platooning dinged his reputation, causing him to get less then five percent of the vote when he reached the ballot. It also hurts Tim Raines, who debuted with support from just a quarter of the electorate despite a career that on paper is very deserving.
Actually, the Raines comparison works even better than that. Lofton is a poor man’s Raines. Both were OBP-heavy outfielders without much power that interspersed singles with walks, stole tons of bases with a terrific success rate, and after a terrific prime, hung around for many years as a solid if not spectacular player. Raines was better than Lofton in almost everyway, though, except defense, which is always the hardest element to gauge.
During his final years, Lofton became the Bobby Bonds of his generation, constantly moving from one team to another. In his final six seasons, Lofton played for nine teams. Because he was older, teams wouldn’t sign him for more than one year, and three times they traded him midseason. It’s funny because it shows many teams wanted him, but none wanted him for long. That doesn’t sound like a Hall of Famer.
Cooperstown's least favorite position: center field
Lofton has a final problem, perhaps the biggest one of all for his case: the chronic undervaluation of center fielders. Center, left, and right all get lumped together as outfielders, and that really isn’t fair. Center is more important defensively than the others. People realize that at a certain level, but it’s not like the infield. People don’t expect shortstops to post batting lines like first baseman, and they thus give shortstops more defensive credit. That’s not how it works in the outfield, though.
Because fielding is more important to an up-the-middle slot, center fielders don’t hit nearly as well as corner outfielders. Over the last five years, major league center fielders have a total OPS of 743, well behind left fielders (764) and even further behind right fielders (784). In 2012, only second basemen, shortstops, and catchers posted a lower OPS than center fielders did, yet we lump center fielders in with corner outfielders when it comes time to evaluate their performance.
Upshot: center fielders get the worst of both worlds. They almost never get extra credit for their very real extra defensive value but are asked to hit as well as the best corner outfielders to get consideration.
That fact kills Lofton. He hit fantastically for almost any position, but not as fantastically for a corner outfielder. He had a great glove, but whoever heard of an outfielder going to Cooperstown on the strength of his glove?
This problem isn’t unique to Lofton. Fun fact: in the entire 75-plus-year history of BBWAA voting for Cooperstown, center fielders have not only received fewer votes than any other starting position, they’ve even received barely as many votes as relief pitchers.
Relievers have 11,515 votes. Center fielders? Well, if you include Dawson, they are narrowly ahead with 12,870. If you call Dawson a right fielder, they’re behind.
In part that’s because many Hall of Fame center fielders flew in on the first or second ballot: Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, etc. Meanwhile, most relievers spent several years on the ballot racking up more votes, such as Bruce Sutter or Rich Gossage. However, it’s also because a center fielder has to be damn near inner-circle in overall value or he won’t get much support at all. The BBWAA has elected just seven or eight center fielders (depending on how you count Dawson), the fewest of any position.
So Lofton has a credible Cooperstown case—on paper, anyway. But he has no chance to enter Cooperstown via the BBWAA.
References and Resources
Baseball-Reference.com provides almost all the info, except where otherwise noted.
I got the Hall of Fame votes from their website a few years ago, determined the main position for everyone, and have added to it ever since.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.
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