Saturday, December 8, 2012
Don't ignore Lofton's Hall of Fame case
By Bill Baer
Kenny Lofton hit .299 in his career, with 622 steals and more than 1,500 runs scored.
The 2013 Hall of Fame ballot is the most interesting in quite some time, if only for the inaugural appearances of controversial figures Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, Mike Piazza, and Craig Biggio also appear for the first time. We have already been inundated with articles from voters expressing why they will or will not cast votes for players under the black cloud of suspected performance-enhancing drug use, and such writing will continue to pervade print and the web for many more weeks.
Lost in the PED controversy, though, is the underappreciated career of Kenny Lofton. The outfielder is on the ballot for the first time as well, but he isn't expected to garner much support. A light-hitting speedster during his 17-year playing career, Lofton's production was dwarfed by the 50-homer seasons that were common between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s.
Sabermetrics, the pursuit of truth in baseball through objective means, has done a fantastic job of accurately capturing the value of various offensive contributions. For example, using a stat such as weighted on-base average (wOBA), we can compare the production of a power hitter to a slap hitter. For example, despite hitting only 10 home runs in 2012, Twins catcher Joe Mauer was as valuable as David Wright, who hit 21 home runs, as both finished with a .376 wOBA. Sabermetrics have also made strides in evaluating pitching with stats such as Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and Skill Interactive Earned Run Average (SIERA).
Less progress has been made in properly evaluating defense, as stats such as Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) still need several thousand innings' worth of data to become reliable; sometimes it doesn't properly account for the interaction of fielders to each other, as well as opposing hitters (e.g., ones who require a shift).
As a result, in general we tend to overlook the value of players whose skill sets relied less on offense and more on speed and defense. It is precisely the reason why Mike Trout lost the American League MVP award to Miguel Cabrera, in fact. It is possible that this bias will cause Lofton to receive less than the 5 percent of the vote that would keep him on future ballots.
With more than 9,235 plate appearances, Lofton posted a career .352 wOBA, tied for the 75th-best mark of the 304 outfielders who had enough plate appearances to qualify for the leaderboard spanning 1992-2007. That puts him in the upper quartile despite never hitting more than 15 home runs in a season. Lofton's offensive value came from a high batting average (eight seasons with a .300 average or better), great baserunning (six seasons of 50 or more stolen bases with a career 79.5 percent success rate) and incredible defense.
As mentioned, it is very tough to grade defense accurately, but you would be hard-pressed to find a dissenter if you called Lofton's glove "consistently elite." He frequently made highlight-reel grabs that rivaled those of Ken Griffey Jr. Click this link to see Lofton rob B.J. Surhoff of a homer with one of the greatest grabs you'll ever see.
Baseball-Reference.com, which has done an admirable job of attempting to quantify defense before batted-ball data was logged regularly (spanning most of Lofton's playing career), puts Lofton at 64.9 career Wins Above Replacement (WAR), just a sliver behind Tony Gwynn at 65.3. Among Hall of Fame outfielders, Lofton would have the 21st-highest WAR of the 56 who are currently enshrined. He ranks ahead of such luminaries as Duke Snider, Richie Ashburn, Willie Stargell and Jim Rice.
Some might say that if you allow a fringe Hall of Famer like Lofton in, you lower the standard for everybody else, but that ship has already sailed. Rice, with his 44.3 WAR, is only one recent example of voters' letting some of the less-worthy into the hallowed grounds. If Rice is in, then Lofton should be pushed in on a landslide.
It is a very unfortunate ballot for Lofton to appear on for the first time. Bonds and Clemens posted a career 158.1 and 133.9 WAR, respectively -- both historically legendary marks. Had Lofton appeared last year, for example, he would have had to compete with a top five of Jeff Bagwell (76.7), Larry Walker (69.7), Barry Larkin (67.1), Alan Trammell (67.1) and Tim Raines (66.2). Though he shouldn't, it will be understandable when Lofton gets looked over on a very stacked ballot. Hopefully, though, when all is said and done, we'll have at least gained a better appreciation for what Lofton did over an impressive 17-year career.