NEW YORK -- After Jeff Kent retired following the 2008 season, Dusty Baker, his former manager for six seasons (1997-2002), called Kent and said: “I expect you to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.”
Unfortunately for Kent, he hasn’t come close to being elected into Cooperstown. Baseball writers are voting on who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in July, with the 2020 electees to be announced on Jan. 21. In the previous six years, Kent had fallen well short of the 75 percent required for election -- in January 2019, Kent was named on only 18.1 percent of ballots.
In his first year of eligibility in 2014, Kent received 15.2 percent of the vote. The next year, he fell to 14 percent, before rising to 16.6 percent in '16. In '17, he got up to 16.7 percent, before trending down again to 14.5 last year. Now in his seventh year of eligibility, Kent will have stiff competition in 2020. Derek Jeter is a shoo-in to be elected into the Hall. Larry Walker is in his 10th and final year of eligibility, while Curt Schilling is expected to gain ground after receiving 60 percent of the vote in his eighth year of eligibility. If Kent isn’t voted into the Hall in ’20, the Baseball Writers' Association of America has three more chances to put him into Cooperstown. If the BBWAA doesn’t vote him in, Kent’s last chance will be the Veterans Committee.
Why has Kent struggled to gain traction among HOF voters? At his peak, Kent’s performance often was overshadowed by Barry Bonds. Kent never led the Major Leagues in any offensive category and he was widely considered a below-average second baseman. And it certainly didn’t help that Kent had a frosty relationship with the media.
But his career stats and the eye test say he deserves consideration for the HOF.
The Case for Kent
Let’s start with why Baker feels so strongly about Kent being a strong candidate to make the Hall; for starters, he had a front-row seat from which to evaluate his performance. Kent had a slash line of .297/.368/.535 in six years with the Giants, during which Kent and Bonds formed a powerful 1-2 punch in the middle of the lineup and led them to the postseason three times. Kent was an All-Star in three of those years (1999, 2000, 2001) and won the NL MVP Award in 2000, a season in which he hit 33 home runs and drove in 125 with a .334/.424/.596 slash line.
But the Giants weren’t the only team who benefited from Kent’s production. Late in his career, he was an All-Star with the Astros (2004) and Dodgers ('05) at ages 36-37. Even during his four-plus years with the Mets, Kent was above average. His best year was during the strike-shortened season of 1995, during which he finished first on the team in WAR (3.2) and had a slash line of .278 /.327/.464.
During his 17 years in the big leagues, Kent hit 351 of his 377 career home runs as a second baseman, which is tops at the position. His power and run production numbers are without peer among second basemen. At a position not known for power production, he has a legitimate case as the greatest run producing second baseman in baseball history. Only Rogers Hornsby, perhaps the best second baseman of all time, rivals his offensive production.
Kent reached the century mark for RBIs eight times, better than some of the all-time great second basemen -- Ryne Sandberg, Joe Morgan, Paul Molitor and Charlie Gehringer. As great as Roberto Alomar was on both sides of the ball, he drove in 100 runs just twice in his career. Kent’s .290 career batting average is higher than Hall of Famers like Sandberg, Morgan and Craig Biggio, who never hit 30 home runs in a season.
Using wRC+, Kent is among the all-time greats at his position. The stat is adjusted, so a wRC+ of 100 is Major League average and 150 would be 50 percent above MLB average. Hornsby leads all second basemen at 173 wRC+, followed by Nap Lajoie and Eddie Collins at 144, then Jackie Robinson and Joe Morgan at 135. Hall of Famers, one and all. Gehringer, another Hall of Famer, stands at 124, with Kent right behind him at 123. Alomar is at 118, as are Lou Whitaker and Chase Utley. Sandberg is at 115.
And, as we discussed, Kent had a significant peak season -- 2000 -- that earned him a National League MVP Award with the Giants. Many great players, such as shortstop Alan Trammell, have struggled to make the HOF because they don’t have an MVP Award. Kent does. Ten second basemen have earned an MVP Award and, of the eight eligible for the Hall of Fame, all but Kent are in. Dustin Pedroia and Jose Altuve are not yet eligible for election.
Kent is not known for postseason heroics, but his decisive home run in Game 5 of the 2004 NL Championship Series against Cardinals reliever Jason Isringhausen helped the Astros take a 3-2 lead in the series. Houston ended up losing in seven games. Kent appeared in the postseason seven times and was six outs away from the winning the 2002 World Series against the Angels before losing in seven games.
What’s hurting his chances?
Kent is the first to admit he has had a strained relationship with most members of the media. As he put it, he cared more about his teammates and winning ballgames than about those who covered the game or how they viewed him.
"I played on what the New York media calls the 'Worst Team Money Could Buy,'” Kent said, referencing the 1992 Mets. “I was right in the middle of that mix, traded for David Cone, who was a beloved East Coast guy. Heck, I love the guy, too. I'm a guy that came from Berkeley, Calif., and stood up for what I thought was right.
“Why haven't I been able to kick [the bad reputation]? I don't know. Probably because I haven't cowed down to the pressure. I haven't cowed down to the bullies [reporters] who told me, 'I could make or break your career.' But if you ask the best reporters out there, they know I was respectful. I spoke the truth. I tried not to hide behind my bad play by leaving the locker room early. Sometimes, when you take it, you get beat up."
Kent was not known as a stellar defender, but he does rate -- according to FanGraphs -- as about MLB average, with a 1.2 career defensive WAR. Kent believes he was better than what defensive analytics say. As he put it, he may not have been as graceful as Alomar, but, “I believe I was better than guys like Sandberg and guys like Chase Utley.”
"That's another stigma I can't leave," Kent said. "The [baseball critics] sit there on their couches and say, ‘Well, he is a [6-foot-2] power-hitter, so therefore, he didn't have range up the middle.’ That is such a farce. I don't think there is anybody that could turn the double play better than I did in the era that I did. I played with some great shortstops. We were able to be [one of] the best double-play combinations. Jose Vizcaino was my favorite. I want people to understand that as much as I loved to hit and drive in runs, it disappointed me more when I made errors. I really cared about defense."
Maybe MLB Network’s Chris Russo said it best about Kent’s defense: “There wasn’t one game between 1997 and 2002 where I walked out of the building and said, ‘Geez, Kent’s defense. He killed us in this game.’”
Kent never won a Gold Glove Award. However, former teammate F.P. Santangelo, now a Nationals broadcaster, said that Kent -- while never flashy -- always made the plays at second base.
"He was a lot better second baseman than people ever gave him credit for," Santangelo said in 2016. "He really worked hard on his defense. People always talk about his offensive numbers as a second baseman. People say he was all right at second. I thought he was better than all right.
"He really worked hard to go from a below-average shortstop, when he was first called up by the Blue Jays, to make himself an average to slightly above-average second baseman. He really hung in there on the double play. He had great range going up the middle, throwing across his body because he had the shortstop arm strength. He made all the plays. He was really consistent."