Yesterday, Kenny Lofton received just 3.2% of the BBWAA writers’ Hall of Fame votes, falling off the ballot despite a reasonable case for induction. This piece at High Heat Stats compares Lofton to other excellent players who fell off the ballot after one year of eligibility. To wit:
Lou Whitaker (71.4 WAR, 2.9% in 2001)
Bill Dahlen (70.9 WAR, 0.4% in 1938)
Bobby Grich (67.3 WAR, 2.6% in 1992)
Kenny Lofton (64.9 WAR, 3.2% in 2013)
Kevin Brown (64.3 WAR, 2.1% in 2011)
Willie Randolph (63.0 WAR, 1.1% in 1998)
Buddy Bell (61.6 WAR, 1.7% in 1995)
Reggie Smith (60.8 WAR, 0.7% in 1988)
David Cone (58.8 WAR, 3.9% in 2009)
Sal Bando (57.1 WAR, 0.7% in 1987)
While I voted for Lofton in the BBA mock vote, I’m not sure we should weep for him today. While an objective look at the current Hall roster and at Lofton’s numbers makes a very solid case that he’s worthy (he hit .299/.372/.432 over 9,235 PA and stole 622 bases), he doesn’t exactly fit the bill of a BBWAA-elected Hall of Famer. Here are the Hall of Fame center fielders within 10 career WAR of Lofton’s 64.9:
Duke Snider 63.1
Andre Dawson 60.6
Richie Ashburn 60.2
Here’s that same group and their OPS+ and oWAR:
Lofton 107, 54.5
Snider 140, 66.9
Dawson 119, 50.9
Ashburn 111, 54.4
Despite more WAR than any of these peers, Lofton was the weakest hitter relative to his leagues. Snider was a far better hitter who played for some very visible Dodgers teams. Longevity and baserunning give Lofton an edge on Dawson in total offense, but Dawson is widely viewed as one of the BBWAA’s weakest picks, perhaps a product of a thin ballot. Ashburn produced similar offensive value once we factor in Lofton’s wheels, but Ashburn was elected in large part due to his stellar defensive reputation. While the numbers suggest Lofton was even better with the glove, I don’t remember him carrying a defensive reputation like Andruw Jones or Jim Edmonds.
This, of course, doesn’t mean Lofton wasn’t comparable to (or perhaps better than) these other playes, but if advanced metrics can’t get Jeff Bagwell elected, should we really have expected the writers to come around to Lofton?
The flip side of this argument is that Lofton at least deserved to see his name on the ballot a few more times, to have his case celebrated and dissected alongside comparable players with better chances of induction. But let’s be realistic. With Maddux, Thomas, Glavine, the Big Unit, Pedro, and a much more heralded center fielder in Ken Griffey about to hit the ballot, Lofton was bound to get less ink in future years, not more.
I wasn’t in this line of work (if I am now) when Whitaker, Grich, and the others listed above fell of their respective ballots (though I mourned Brown’s plight last year), but it seems to me that none of their cases was trumpeted the way Lofton’s was, largely due to the absence of a medium that catered to potential supporters. It seems that, for each of the 22 writers who actually voted for Lofton, five bloggers made him their personal cause this winter. His underappreciated case will live on through pieces like Andy’s at HHS, and by the time some veterans committee gets to look at his case, at least some of that electorate will be familiar with The Tragic Tale of Kenny Lofton, who was ignored by the writers despite 64.9 WAR (or 5,217 awesome points or whatever the metric du jour is by then).
I doubt Kenny Lofton thought of himself as a future Hall of Famer when he played. Without metrics that accumulate offense, defense, and baserunning into value, Lofton was little more than a solid all-around player (he was in the top ten in MVP voting once) who made a lot of money playing the game he loved. Yesterday, his Twitter account blew up with condolences from complete strangers over his falling off the Hall of Fame ballot.
I can guarantee that didn’t happen to Bobby Grich.