Should Kenny Lofton be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame? For me, the answer is yes. However Lofton finds himself on the borderline. Below is a statistical look at how he compares to the Hall of Fame averages, and to some of his Hall-worthy contemporaries.
Lofton meets or exceeds the Hall of Fame averages for center fielders in many traditional counting numbers including hits (2428), runs (1528), stolen bases (622), and walks (945). He also meets standards in career bWAR (Baseball-Reference) but falls short in fWAR (FanGraphs). Looking at advanced metrics like OPS+, wRC+, and wOBA, Lofton falls significantly short of the Hall of Fame averages, however that’s to be expected as those numbers only measure hitting. This is in part why Lofton’s case is difficult to quantify, because so much of his value comes from his defense and baserunning.
According to UZR, Lofton saved 114.5 runs over his career–that’s 7th all time among center fielders. Lofton saved 86.4 more runs than the average of the seventeen center fielders enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The only center fielder in the Hall who saved more runs was Willie Mays at 185.
Moving away from the averages, Lofton also approaches standards in C-WAR. C-WAR is a Hall of Fame monitoring system that I created using career and peak WAR. C-WAR is the career WAR(P) totals from Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus added up and averaged out, plus an eight year peak (five best years in a row, plus 3 best additional years) from Baseball-Reference. Click here for more information on C-WAR.
The average C-WAR line for a Hall of Fame center fielder is: 73.8 career average/47.1 peak/121.0 C-WAR. Those are the highest standards at any position by far. Only five center fielders enshrined in the Hall actually meet those standards. Lofton’s C-WAR line is: 62.3 AVG/45.8 PK/108.1 C-WAR. His 108.1 C-WAR is higher than nine Hall of Fame center fielders.
BP’s WARP system is unstable and frequently produces drastic changes to a player’s value. Looking at the full C-WAR chart you will notice that I included C-WAR without using BP’s WARP at all. Using just the career WAR totals from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, Lofton moves ahead of two more Hall of Famers, Richie Ashburn and Billy Hamilton, and ranks 9th all time among center fielders.
From 1990-1999 Lofton produced a bWAR of 45.8, 10th best in the majors. During the decade of the 90′s, Lofton generated more value than several of his Hall-worthy contemporaries including: Mark McGwire (44.3), Roberto Alomar (43), Cal Ripken (42.3), and Mike Piazza (39.8). Lofton produced six seasons with a bWAR of 5.0 or more, including his 1994 season when he led the American League with a WAR at 7.1.
From 1975-2000, Lofton’s six seasons with a WAR of 5.0 or greater is tied with Tim Raines for 4th most by an outfielder during that span. Barry Bonds is 1st (13), Rickey Henderson is 2nd (11), Ken Griffey Jr. ranks 3rd (9). Lofton had more 5+ WAR seasons than several Hall of Fame outfielders including, Dave Winfield (5), Tony Gwynn (4) and Andre Dawson (4). Three of his Hall-worthy contemporaries, Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Larry Walker each produced five seasons with a WAR of 5.0 or greater.
It’s tough to compare Lofton to modern Hall of Famers, or even to many of his contemporaries in the outfield because of the era he played in. Lofton played during a time when the home run was king. Offensive production was up for a variety of reasons, one of them being the rampant use of performance enhancing drugs throughout the sport. How much steroids increased value is unclear, but they certainly had an impact. When the league was hitting home runs at a record rate, Lofton was creating runs in very different ways.
Lofton also has some black ink on his Hall of Fame resume; in addition to leading the Majors in WAR (7.1) and hits (160) in 1994, Lofton also led the American League in stolen bases five consecutive seasons from 1992-1996. Using the defensive metrics at Baseball-Reference, Lofton led center fielders in runs saved three times and finished top five an additional five times.
Earlier in the piece I looked at the overall Hall of Fame averages. While those can be valuable to look at, it’s not a perfect mechanism to determine if a player is Hall-worthy. Different eras greatly skew the averages, as do some of the undeserving members at each position. Comparing Lofton to Billy Hamilton doesn’t make much sense, but comparing him to someone like Ryne Sandberg does.
Because so much of Lofton’s value came from fielding and baserunning, it was more difficult to find player’s to compare him to. I settled on Sandberg, Tim Raines, and Richie Ashburn. Ashburn played from 1948-1962, yet he and Lofton had very similar careers. Sandberg and Ashburn are members of the baseball Hall of Fame, Raines should be in, but isn’t yet. My HOF case for him can be found here.
Although Lofton and Sandberg played different positions, they were actually very similar players. Their bWAR is identical (64.9). Sandberg had more power (.452 SLG) than Lofton (.423), but Lofton was a better defender and baserunner who also topped Sandberg by 28 points in OBP (.372-.344). Lofton’s wOBA of .352 is just a tick higher than Sandberg’s at .351. Lofton created more runs(1303-1285), but Sandberg has a higher wRC+ (114-110).
Lofton was not the hitter that Raines was, but was a much better defender saving 114.5 runs (UZR) over his career, compared to Raines’ -11.2 . Both were great baserunners, however Raines stole more bases and did so more efficiently with his 84.6% success rate. Lofton’s success rate was still an impressive 79.5%
Ashburn got on base a lot (.396 OBP) and was and excellent defender who, like Lofton, played in the shadows of some of the biggest stars in the history of the game. Despite Ashburn’s paltry home run total (29), he and Lofton posted very similar numbers and career value. Ashburn was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, and I suspect Lofton will travel a similar path.
Looking at WAA (not in the charts above) you get a better look at a player’s value at his best. WAA measures how much better than league average a player is, while WAR measures how much better than a replacement level player a player is. Lofton and Sandberg are tied at top with a WAA of 38.4. Raines is next at 35.5, followed by Ashburn at 28.2
Of the seventeen center fielders enshrined in the Hall because of their MLB playing careers, eleven started their career prior to 1945, eight of them began before 1925. Modern center fielders are under represented in the Hall of Fame. Balancing out some of the discrepancies in eras represented is valuable when possible, it would more accurately reflect the great players from all generations which is what the Hall of Fame is supposed to do. For me, this helps Lofton’s cause.
Since Lofton’s retirement, the BBWAA has since discredited (perhaps unfairly) most of the home run hitters who played in the 90′s and early 2000′s. One would think with power being devalued, Hall of Fame voters would put more weight on defense and speed, and turn their attention to players like Lofton. 2013 will be Lofton’s first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, and unfortunately, likely his last.
One other note, because the numbers used to the compile the Hall of Fame averages are MLB stats only, it makes it impossible for me to include players who played exclusively in the Negro Leagues. Nothing has diluted stats and the integrity of the game like the exclusion of black players for over fifty years. While I can’t include them with these averages, I encourage you to visit the websites for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame to find out more about the many great players who were shamefully excluded from the game because of the color of their skin.
Many thanks to the incredibly smart people who work at Baseball-Reference, and FanGraphs, without their tireless efforts to improve and maintain their sites and information none of this research would be possible. It’s also worth noting that sometimes FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference have slightly different numbers for the same player. For example, FanGraphs has Willie Mays with 12,493 plate appearances, Baseball-Reference has him at 12,496. These slight differences are common with historical players, the differences aren’t enough to skew the averages but it’s worth mentioning that the statistics represented in the charts above were compiled using data mostly from Baseball-Reference.
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Images used courtesy of Dan Mendlik/Cleveland Indians
Originally posted 11/14/12