Here's a question: How important is a player's position when considering him for the Hall of Fame? I think we all would agree it's important if the player was particularly notable for his defense -- Ozzie Smith, Bill Mazeroski, Brooks Robinson, Ray Schalk and numerous other players are in the
Here's a question: How important is a player's position when considering him for the Hall of Fame? I think we all would agree it's important if the player was particularly notable for his defense -- Ozzie Smith, Bill Mazeroski, Brooks Robinson, Ray Schalk and numerous other players are in the Hall of Fame in large part because they played great defense at a key defensive spot.
But what of players who were not especially great defenders? Does it matter if you were an OK second baseman or an OK left fielder?
This is really the question that lights up the Hall of Fame case of Jeff Kent. Purely as a hitter, Kent was very good, but probably not Hall of Fame worthy. If you isolate his hitting using Baseball Reference's handy batting runs above average, Kent ranks as the 42nd best hitter not in the Hall of Fame, sandwiched in with guys like Reggie Smith, Norm Cash, Ken Singleton, Bernie Williams, Jimmy Wynn and Moises Alou.
What separates him from those guys who are rarely touted as Hall of Fame candidates?
Well, he won an MVP Award. But so did Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Keith Hernandez and Fred Lynn. Dale Murphy won two of them. They are not in the Hall. Kent was not a great baserunner. He was not viewed as an exception defender, and he did not have the sort of jaw-dropping five- or seven-year peak that might get him extra credit.
So what is Kent's Hall of Fame case?
He, unlike all those other guys, was a second baseman.
And as a second baseman, suddenly Kent stands out. Most home runs by a second baseman? Kent. Most RBIs by a second baseman? Well, it's the legendary Rogers Hornsby -- but next is Kent. Most doubles by a second baseman? Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, then Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, then Kent. Highest slugging percentage for a second baseman? Hornsby, naturally. Then Kent.
Because of this, Kent draws a relatively small but extremely passionate Hall of Fame backing. They wonder: How could you not have the guy who hit more home runs than any other second baseman in the Hall of Fame?
It all depends on how you look at the question.
Kent was a hard-charging, no-filter, no-apologies ballplayer … and he was a late bloomer. He was thrown off his high school team as a senior for what could best be described as an attitude problem, and he decided to walk on at Cal. He clashed with coaches there, too, which might have been part of the reason why he was not drafted until the 20th round by the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Blue Jays tried him at third and short before Kent finally settled in as a second baseman. In 1992, he came to Spring Training and impressed everyone with his versatility, his power as a hitter and his toughness. He made the team and slowly worked his way into the lineup until August when the Blue Jays, in desperate need for a pitcher to help them in the stretch run and playoffs, dealt him to the Mets for David Cone.
Kent's time with the Mets was forgettable. He flashed some power -- averaging 18 home runs in his three full seasons with New York -- but his defense was pretty consistently mocked in the New York media swirl, and in 1996, he was dealt to Cleveland to help the Tribe with its stretch run. After an equally forgettable couple of months, Cleveland traded him to San Francisco; Kent was 29 years old, he had been traded three times and he had yet to establish himself.
But all that changed in San Francisco. Giants' manager Dusty Baker had been looking for a batter he could slot in after Barry Bonds -- someone who could provide some consistency and power, someone who could drive in Bonds, who got on base like few players in baseball history.
It was an ideal spot for Kent. He finally had the full confidence of his manager. He knew where he would be in the lineup. And for the next six seasons with the Giants, he drove in 100 runs -- he averaged 29 homers and 115 RBIs per year -- he won an MVP Award, made three All-Star teams, took home a couple of Silver Slugger Awards and helped the Giants make the 2002 World Series, where he hit three home runs.
Kent went from San Francisco to Houston and finally to his hometown Dodgers; he had spent much of his childhood with his father at Dodger Stadium. He cried at that Dodgers news conference.
"I grew up here," he said.
Kent kept on hitting right up until he turned 40.
He was something of a divisive player -- there were enough "Jeff Kent haters out there," that he mentioned them in his retirement announcement. He was an outspoken player. He was one of the few players who came out in favor of stronger steroid testing and he was extremely critical of players who used ("There should be more integrity in this game," he said), but he was equally critical of fans and media who pointed fingers without any proof, and he made the point that no one knows that old-time players like Babe Ruth were clean.
"People are so pinned on the era now vs. the era then," Kent said. "How do we know about then? Do we really know about then? I think starting to understand and learn more facts about now, so everybody's trying to relate the records broken, the way ballplayer are bigger and badder and better than ever now, but how do we know about then?"
And when told that Ruth fans were deeply offended by his comments, he offered a classic Kent one-word response: "Wah."
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.