Part 5 of our Hall of Fame series explores the career of second baseman Jeff Kent. You can find the first four parts of the series at the links below.
The Mets acquired Kent from the Blue Jays during his rookie year of 1992. The second baseman spent the next four years in New York until the Mets infamously traded him to the Indians for Carlos Baerga at the trade deadline in 1996. From ’92 to ’96, including his brief time with Toronto and Cleveland, Kent hit .274/.327/.450 (107 wRC+), and averaged 16 home runs, 64 RBIs, 59 runs scored, 24 doubles, and 1.8 fWAR per year.
Kent’s time in New York is often overlooked for a couple of reasons: First, he had not yet blossomed into the borderline Hall of Famer that he would one day become. Second, he played for the Mets during a dark period of franchise history in which the team averaged just 65 wins a year. (The strike-shortened 1994-1995 seasons undercut that win total, but not by much.) Still, as a Met, Kent flashed signs of the power hitter he would grow into as a Giant. During the five years he played for the Mets, Kent had the second-most home runs among all second basemen in baseball, the third-most RBIs, the fifth-highest slugging percentage, and was in the top 10 in doubles, wrC+, runs scored, and WAR.
The case for
Kent finished his career as one of the best offensive second basemen in the history of the game. In 17 big league seasons, Kent hit an impressive .290/.356/.500 (123 wRC+), with 377 home runs, 1,518 RBIs, 2,461 hits, 1,320 runs scored, 560 doubles, and 56.1 fWAR. Among players whose primary position was second base, Kent ranks first in home runs, third in RBIs, fourth in doubles, and 12th in hits and runs scored. Among qualified second basemen, he ranks second in slugging percentage to Rogers Hornsby.
After leaving the Indians, Kent finally hit his stride when he joined the Giants in 1997. From 1997 to 2005, the peak of his career, Kent hit an excellent .296/.365/.529 (131 wRC+), and averaged 28 homers, 110 RBIs, 94 runs scored, 40 doubles, and 4.7 fWAR per year for the Giants, Astros, and Dodgers. He also hit for the cycle in 1999, which you can watch below.
During those nine years, Kent’s performance earned him five All-Star Game appearances, four Silver Slugger Awards, and four top-10 finishes in MVP voting. The second baseman won the MVP Award in 2000, his best season, when he hit .334/.424/.596 (159 wRC+), with 33 home runs, 125 RBIs, 114 runs scored, 41 doubles, and 7.4 fWAR for the division champion Giants. Each of those, except for his home runs and doubles totals, was a career high.
Hall of Fame voters value MVP Awards, because they signal that the recipient was a dominant player in his league at some point in his career. Hall voters also value postseason performance. For a borderline candidate like Kent, it helps that he played in seven postseasons and performed quite well in them. In his 49 playoff games for the Indians, Giants, Astros, and Dodgers, Kent hit .276/.340/.500, with nine home runs, 23 RBIs, 25 runs scored, and 11 doubles. His signature postseason moment was a three-run walk-off homer off the Cardinals’ Jason Isringhausen in Game 5 of the 2004 NLCS, which you can watch below. That win gave the Astros a 3-2 series lead after going down 2-0 in St. Louis. (The Cardinals ultimately won in seven games.)
As for Kent’s place in baseball history, JAWS ranks him as 18th-best second baseman to ever play the game. He ranks higher than eight Hall of Famers at his position, including Bobby Doerr, Nellie Fox, Tony Lazzeri, and Bill Mazeroski, as well as non-Hall-of-Famers like Tony Phillips, Davey Lopes, and Frank White. When you consider his great offense, his impact play in the postseason, and his MVP Award, Kent starts to look like a legitimate dark horse candidate for the Hall.
The case against
While Kent was a strong offensive player, he was mediocre defensively. Throughout his career, he compiled just -1 total zone run (TZ) at second base, indicating that he was just about league average (zero being average). Kent had two seasons—1993 and 2003—of -14 TZ or worse, which is especially poor for a middle infielder.
In terms of his offense, there’s no denying Kent’s talent, particularly for a second baseman. However, his offensive value was somewhat diminished by the era in which he played. Kent’s career wRC+ is indicative of that point. wRC+ is a great stat because it measures a player’s production per plate appearance, and adjusts for the park, league, and year in which the player played. While Kent’s 123 wRC+ (100 being league average) was very good, it was nowhere near the best of all time at his position. In fact, there were 16 second basemen throughout history with better career wRC+. It's also telling that Kent never led his league in any major offensive category.
By WAR, Kent ranks just 18th among second basemen. This is partly due to his mediocre defense, and partly to the fact that it took awhile for his career to take off. Kent’s first three-fWAR season didn’t come until 1997, when he was 29 years old. He had his last one in 2005, at the age of 37. Therefore, while Kent was at least a solid player for just about every one of his 17 big league seasons, he was only truly great for about six to nine of them.
All three of these factors hurt Kent’s JAWS. His 45.4 score is significantly lower than the average Hall of Fame second baseman’s score of 56.9. JAWS ranks Kent behind 12 Hall of Fame second basemen, including Joe Gordon, Craig Biggio, and Roberto Alomar, who are below the average Hall of Famer at their position, yet still ahead of Kent. He also ranks behind non-Hall-of-Famers like Willie Randolph, Lou Whitaker, and Bobby Grich. In short, JAWS sees Kent as a great offensive second baseman—although not the best ever—whose defense and length of peak performance weren’t enough to make him one of the true legends at his position.
Prospects for induction
Kent debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2014 with 15.2% support of the voters. He followed that up with a 14.0% showing in 2015. While he hasn’t been close to the 75.0% needed for induction, Kent has been comfortably above the 5.0% needed to stay on the ballot.
Given his solid early showing, it looks like Kent will have some staying power. Also keep in mind that he debuted on two extremely competitive ballots from which a total of seven players were inducted. As the field clears up, Kent will have room to grow in his next eight years of eligibility.