Does Kenny Lofton deserve to be inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame?
Before we get too far into this, let’s take a quick look at Lofton’s career numbers in the basic offensive categories:
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com
If you’re looking at a player’s hitting, Lofton doesn’t have the portfolio of a Hall of Famer. An OPS+ of 107 would be among the lowest in the Hall, most of the players below that mark are among the most questionable inductees. Those below 107 who most modern fans would agree are deserving Hall of Famers tend to be among the greatest defensive players in history, guys like Brooks Robinson (104 OPS+) and Ozzie Smith (87 OPS+). If you’re looking to make a case for Lofton, you must argue he was a special player in other aspects of the game.
Lofton does not have the defensive reputation of those two, or of Willie Mays or Andrew Jones, but just about any fan old enough to remember him would tell you Lofton was an excellent fielder. He won four Gold Gloves, finished in the top five among AL outfielders in putouts four times and in the top five in assists five times. Lofton scores well on the newer fielding metrics at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs too. Among all outfielders in baseball history, Lofton has the 14th-best "Runs from Fielding" mark at Baseball-Reference (for their version of WAR) and the 15th-best mark at FanGraphs (for their version). Paired with more traditional numbers (assists, putouts, etc), these newer metrics paint the portrait of an outstanding center fielder.
On the combined merits of his bat and glove, Lofton is a strong HOF candidate, a far better player than many already inducted in Cooperstown, but maybe still a bit short of what it should take. To only look at his bat and glove is to overlook one of Lofton's most important attributes, his feet.
Lofton stole 622 bases in his career, the 15th-highest total in MLB history. He probably doesn’t get the full credit he deserves as a base stealer either, because his career began just as the golden age of stolen bases was ending. Lofton led the league in steals for five straight seasons from 1992 to 1996, averaging 65 SB per season. In the twelve years before Lofton entered the league, Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Willie Wilson, and Vince Coleman put up staggering totals (Henderson and Coleman each stole 100+ bases three times, giving them six of the eight such seasons in modern history), so Lofton’s numbers didn’t seem quite as impressive. The game was changing though, and as power rose, steals dropped off. Since the start of Lofton's career in 1991, his 622 stolen bases are the most by any player in baseball.
He didn’t take them at a cheap rate either. Lofton’s career stolen-base success rate was 79.54%. Among 259 players who’ve attempted 200+ steals since 1951 (when caught stealing records have been tracked in both leagues), Lofton’s SB% ranks 32nd. When you consider both the volume and the success rate of his attempts, I think Lofton was one of the ten greatest base stealers in history. At Baseball-Reference they keep a metric called "Runs from Baserunning," a major component of their WAR calculations. Lofton had a career total of 80, the best in baseball over the last 25 years and 8th best ever.
Jay Jaffe, a baseball writer for Sports Illustrated who also spent years contributing at Baseball Prospectus, developed a metric called the Jaffe WAR Score System (JAWS, for short). It is hosted at Baseball-Reference, where it’s defined as "a means to measure a player's Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined." JAWS looks at a player’s career bWAR, but, because some players play a number of seasons (usually at the end of their career) in which they are adding to their totals but no longer great (or in some cases even good), balances that with each player’s peak level of play (using their seven best seasons). It isn’t a perfect system (there’s no such thing), but it’s a good one.
When you look at the center field JAWS ratings you see 18 players inducted in the Hall of Fame who did most of their damage at the position. Willie Mays tops the list with a JAWS score of 111.1, he is followed by Cobb, Speaker, Mantle, Griffey, and Dimaggio. Those are the six best center fielders in baseball history. After those six though, there’s a huge jumble.
Hall of Fame CF average career: 67.1 Lofton’s career: 64.9
Hall of Fame CF average peak: 42.5 Lofton’s peak: 42.0
Hall of Fame CF average JAWS: 54.8 Lofton’s JAWS: 53.5
Lofton comes in just under the bar. The thing is, players like Mays and Cobb were so good they throw off the average. If instead of the mean, you look at the median, the career number drops to 55.7, the peak number drops to 39.5, and the JAWS score drops to 46.7. Lofton comfortably clears all of those marks.
Jaffe was good enough to discuss JAWS with me on Twitter. He pointed out that when the system was hosted at Baseball Prospectus and used their WARP metric instead of bWAR, Lofton's score was quite a bit lower, because they don't rate his defense as highly as Baseball-Reference does. Fangraphs version of WAR rates his glove work highly, but clearly there is not consensus on it. Whether you believe Lofton belongs in the Hall of Fame or not probably comes down to how you judge his defense.
Does Lofton deserve to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame? YES.
Will Kenny Lofton be inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame?
Lofton was robbed of the 1992 Rookie of the Year Award (even by the numbers preferred by voters twenty years ago, he looks better to me than Pat Listach). Lofton led the A.L. in bWAR in 1994. With the Indians only one game back of the White Sox when the strike hit, it’s no stretch to think Lofton might have won the MVP had the season continued. Instead, he finished in 4th place. Except in extreme cases like Brooks Robinson and Ozzie Smith, the Hall of Fame voting body has shown a strong tendency to value hitting far above all other parts of a position player's body of work, which isn't the way Lofton's case needs to be viewed.
Another factor working against Lofton’s chances is the huge cluster@#&% that the ballot has become this year, with more strong candidates than a voter is allowed to select. There will be voters who’d like to support Lofton, but, forced to choose from among an historically high number of strong candidates, choose ten others instead.
Will Lofton be inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame? NO.
Definitely not this year, and probably never by the BBWAA. There are simply too many strong candidates and Lofton’s case is too nuanced to expect anywhere near 75% of the voters to accept it. If Lofton can stay on the ballot though, his support could grow over time, as the logjam of candidates eventually gets straightened out (one way or another) and more and more voters in tune with modern metrics such as WAR gain voting rights. There's some chance he'll fall short of the 5% of the vote needed to remain on the ballot though, which would be a shame.
Lofton was one of the top dozen or so players in history at one of the most important and prestigious positions in baseball. He was a good hitter, a great fielder, and an incredible base runner. He deserves a spot in Cooperstown, and I hope someday to see him receive it.