Kent's a Hall of Famer -- just look at the numbers (cont.)
Kent was a 20th-round pick out of Cal. He was a shortstop at Cal, and the Blue Jays initially tried him at short and third. They moved him to second base his first season in High Class A, and he showed signs of power and even a little flash of speed, but his batting averages were low, and he struck out a ton. But the Blue Jays must have loved him because he never played a single game in Triple A. The Blue Jays called him up to the big leagues in 1992, when he was 24. He showed enough promise that he was the key player in the trade that brought the Blue Jays David Cone for the pennant stretch that year.
Kent played 140 games in 1993 for the Mets, hit 21 homers, slugged .446, didn't walk at all, struck out quite a bit, not bad for a second-year second baseman in a lousy hitting ballpark. The Mets did not seem to quite know what they had with him. He was apparently a pain in the neck -- that reputation would follow him everywhere he went -- and, in a way that's hard to explain, something about him seemed unsubstantial. The Mets were awful then, and Kent seemed to define that. He hit fine when he was in the lineup, which was only about two-thirds of the time. The Mets dumped him on the Indians in the closing days of 1996 for a fading Carlos Baerga. Kent played 39 games without distinction for the Tribe before he was traded again, this time to San Francisco.
And give this to then-Giants manager Dusty Baker: He did what nobody else seemed willing to do -- he put Jeff Kent out at second base every day. Kent was 29 years old, he had been traded three times, he had never gotten 500 at-bats in a season. And in 1997, Baker played him in 155 games, put him in the heart of the lineup, and the guy banged 29 homers and drove in 121 RBIs. True, Kent had his failings that year -- his on-base percentage was .316, he struck out 133 times, and those RBIs were largely because Barry Bonds had one of his many miraculous years in front of him -- but, hey, the only second basemen who had ever driven in that man runs: Hornsby, Gehringer, Lajoie and Gordon. It was a breakout year.
His 1998 season was MUCH better -- .298/.359/.555 with 31 homers, 128 RBIs, a 142 OPS+. I can't tell you if he was playing a credible second base at the time ... I really don't know. Baseball Prospectus rates him as a slightly above average defensive second baseman in 1998 -- and well above average later on -- and his range factor numbers are good for almost his entire career. When I saw him play, I thought he was a statue at second base. But, we're getting back to the point of the post, aren't we? I didn't see him enough to really know.
And: I was wrong about his MVP year of 2000 too -- there's a strong argument to be made that Kent deserved the MVP over Bonds. True, Bonds had better on-base percentage and slugging percentage and he bashed 49 homers (Bonds hit .305/.440/.688). But Kent's .334/.424/.596 are very strong, certainly MVP caliber. Also:
-- Kent played in 16 more games than Bonds.
-- Kent played the more difficult and valuable defensive position.
-- Because of this, Kent actually had more Win Shares than Bonds (37-32), which surprised me.
Point is, that was not a bogus MVP award at all -- he had a true MVP season (so did Bonds, and so did Todd Helton and a couple of others). Kent was an excellent player the next two years, a very good one until 2005. He got a late start, but he had a nine-year peak from 1997-2005, where he started in the All-Star Game four times, he drove in 100 or more RBIs eight times, won an MVP, hit 22 or more homers every year, finished among the league leaders in numerous categories. The guy has a career OPS+ of 123, which is better than Roberto Alomar (116 OPS+), Craig Biggio (111 OPS+), Derek Jeter (120 OPS+), Barry Larkin (116 OPS+), Alan Trammell (116 OPS+), Cal Ripken (112 OPS+), Ryne Sandberg (114 OPS+), Lou Whitaker (116 OPS+) and every other middle-infielder of the last 25 years or so who would get serious Hall of Fame consideration, with the exception of A-Rod, who is a whole other story. Sure, many of these players offered other things that Kent did not -- better defense, more speed, a better attitude, a sense of leadership. But Kent hit the baseball as well or better than any of them.
Is Jeff Kent a Hall of Famer? I sure never thought so. But, yes, that's why we have numbers. That's why people keep up with this stuff. What really bothers me about Bert Blyleven is that his pitching brilliance wasn't fully appreciated in his time, and BECAUSE of that, it's not fully appreciated now. We keep twisting around in the same circle. It's like we keep trying to justify our own notions and convictions, even if it means making the same mistakes. I saw someone, in making the Hall of Fame case for Jim Rice, pointed out that he was the highest paid player in baseball for a few years. That's great. But you know what? Rice already got paid for those years.
The part that makes sense to me about the Hall of Fame is perspective, it is that a Hall of Famer's career should stand up long after the trends and quirks of the time have faded, long after the camera has panned back. If a player's career looks better in reverse -- Bert Blyleven, Lou Whitaker, Dan Quisenberry, Ron Santo, Dwight Evans on and on and on -- we should honor that, give them a fair Hall of Fame hearing, one that isn't marred by hunches of the time that might not have been right in the first place. And if a player's career doesn't stand up to the scrutiny of the years, well, that's why we wait five years before voting. I look at Jeff Kent's numbers now and -- well, he won't be eligible for five years so things can change. But I would predict that, when we look back, Kent's career will look awfully good. I'll bet it will look like a Hall of Fame career.