Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jeff Kent and the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame: Not a Question of If But When

"I hate to see you go, but I love to watch you leave."—John Travolta, Face/Off

Let's be clear here: I'm not saying Jeff Kent has a nice caboose. That may very well be true, but I don't happen to swing that way—I've got no beef if you do, just not my thing (sorry, it's the San Franciscan in me that feels the need to qualify these things). Anyway, back to, I mean.

Whoo boy, just a minefield of Freudian slips and puns. Let's just move on.

I'm referring to the love/hate relationship that even Kent's most loyal fans developed with him and I count myself in that group due to his exceptional service for my beloved San Francisco Giants.

The fact that the man left the Orange and Black to eventually enlist with those Bums in Los Angeles is the perfect metaphor for Jeff Kent. He is the essence of enjoying your greatest and most prolonged success with one team, then signing with its archrival in one of the most acrimonious tete-a-tetes in Major League Baseball.

Kent would deliver clutch hit after clutch hit, and then bark at some fan favorite for a seemingly inconsequential flub. This is a man who was so ill-tempered (at times) towards teammates that he once moved one Barry Lamar Bonds to physical confrontation in defense of David Bell.

So, when Jeff Kent announced his retirement, Travolta's line jumped to mind.

As Chris Haft pointed out, Kent will always have a special place in the heart of true Giant. But he was Anakin gone to the Dark Side. He had been a Dodger for several years and had delivered his share of crushing blows while in that vomitous Blue (OK, so it's gorgeous—it's still the ugliest pretty color I've seen).

Of course, while I was fighting myself on the issue, the baseball-watching world apparently lost its freakin' mind. Is Jeff Kent a Hall-of-Famer? IS JEFF KENT A HALL-OF-FAMER?

Can this be serious?

I can see asking the question as a perfunctory way of praising Kent's fabulous career, but that's not the case. This question has inspired sincere (although misguided) debate and some participants have actually come out in the negative.

That's right, some observers decided Jeff Kent didn't deserve enshrinement in Cooperstown.

Wow. A quick perusal of three areas will show just how unfortunate that decision is:

1. Raw data

Kent played in 2298 games, had 8498 at-bats, scored 1320 runs, registered 2461 hits, knocked 560 doubles, launched 377 HRs, drove in 1518 runs, hit to a .290 average, reached base at a .356 clip, and finished his career slugging .500.

He is the all-time leader in homeruns for second basemen and is 21st on the all-time doubles leaderboard. He also makes the list of top 100 MLB players in history for career RBI (47th), homeruns (tied for 62nd), hits (96th), and slugging percentage (tied for 98th). Jeff is a five-time All-Star, won the National League Most Valuable Player award in 2000, and finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting three other times (despite sharing his team with perennial winner Bonds).

2. His defense at second base

No, Jeff Kent was not a Gold Glove second sacker; he wasn't particularly close. But he was not a trainwreck, contrary to growing popular opinion. I can honestly say that I saw the vast majority of games Kent played while he was with the Giants and I never once thought Kent was particularly bad.

I never thought he was particularly good either. But you could never convince me Jeff Kent was anything short of above-average defensively—to argue such would be an exercise in lunacy. The guy just wasn't that bad. His range wasn't great and his hands were always a work in progress.

But his footwork was good and he turned a slick doubleplay. Plus, his courage at the pivot was unparalleled.

However, you don't have to take my word for it—just look at the Gents during Kent's tenure. Any juggernaut third basemen jump out at you? Or any other position for that matter? If Kent's defense were so awful, San Francisco could have easily moved him to the hot corner and gone with defense at second.

Except the Giants didn't.

SF kept Kent at second because his defense was never a problem and his offense from a traditionally weak spot on the field gave the franchise the potential for an additional big bat in the lineup from a more traditional power position.

That it never found one can't be put on Kent.

3. Lack of individual accolades

This one really makes me laugh. I've actually read some people saying that Kent doesn't deserve to go to Cooperstown on MLB's buck because he only won a single MVP and made an All-Star trip five times.

Well, he only won a single MVP because his career coincided with that of Mr. Bonds' and they toiled in the same league. Indeed, they toiled on the same team for Kent's peak years. How many other players were able to wrest the award from Barry's death grip during his reign?

I think we can all agree that Albert Pujols (barring injury or scandal) is destined for the Hall-of-Fame, possibly first ballot. Yet he had quite a time beating out Barry.

That Kent received MVP votes so regularly despite playing alongside Bonds and even managed the one win speaks volume as to how special he was.

The All-Star thing can be dismissed with even more ease.

Forget that the game is at midseason so it's hardly a good barometer of season-long success.

Consider that Jeff Kent was an All-Star in 1999-2001, 2004, and 2005. If he made the All-Star team in 1997, 1998, and 2002, then he would have made the team in eight of nine years.

In 1997, the All-Star second basemen were Craig Biggio (a fellow Hall-of-Famer so no shame there) and Tony Womack (the Pittsburgh Pirates' lone representative). Jeff Kent finished 1997 with 29 HRs (Womack six), 90 runs (Womack 85), 121 RBI (Womack 50), 38 doubles (Womack 26), a .316 OBP (Womack .326), and a .250 average (Womack .278). So who was the better player?

In 1998, the All-Star second basemen were Biggio, Bret Boone (the Cincinnati Reds' lone rep), and Fernando Vina (the Milwaukee Brewers' lone rep). Jeff Kent finished 1998 with 31 HRs (Boone 24, Vina seven), 94 runs (Boone 76, Vina 101), 128 RBI (Boone 95, Vina 45), 37 doubles (Boone 38, Vina 39), a .359 OBP (Boone .324, Vina .386), and a .297 average (Boone .286, Vina .311). So who was the best player?

In 2002, it was really ridiculous. The All-Star second basemen were Jose Vidro (VOTED in by the fans of Montreal), Junior Spivey (one of several questionable Arizona Diamondbacks to be chosen for the team by Diamondback manager Bob Brenly), and Luis Castillo (one of two Florida Marlins inexplicably on the team). Jeff Kent finished 2002 with 37 HRs (Vidro 19, Spivey 16, Castillo two), 102 runs (Vidro 103, Spivey 103, Castillo 86), 108 RBI (Vidro 96, Spivey 78, Castillo 39), 42 doubles (Vidro 43, Spivey 34, Castillo 18), a .368 OBP (Vidro .378, Spivey .389, Castillo .364), and a .313 average (Vidro .315, Spivey .301, Castillo .305). So who was the best player?

Still think that All-Star argument should be held against Kent?

Having addressed these three pressure points and shown how strong Jeff Kent really is where his critics think him most vulnerable, there's one last thing that needs attention: the name Barry Lamar Bonds pops up with regularity whenever discussing Kent.

His critics say he wouldn't have been half the player he was without Barry.

To which I say, so what?

That's probably true, but he did have Barry and it still took quite a bit of work and ability on his part. Many men played with Barry Bonds and many hit in front of him. Few produced the career Jeff Kent did.

A Hall-of-Fame career. Without a doubt.
(as for the argument that Kent wouldn't have been the player without

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