By NICK LECO
July 9, 2008
Assuming Kenny Lofton, currently a free agent, does not get picked up by any teams this year or next, he will be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2013. This class figures to be one of the most interesting ever with the likes of Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza all eligible (provided, of course, that they all stay retired). When I told a colleague my next article would focus on Lofton, he was stunned.
“Yeah, Kenny Lofton.”
If you take a closer look at the career of Lofton - who was once parodied in a DHL commercial about the number of teams he has played for - you’ll see that his case for Cooperstown is a little stronger than you might think.
KENNY LOFTON - CAREER STATISTICS
Home Runs: 130
Stolen Bases: 622
Batting Average: .299
On-Base Percentage: .372
Teams: Astros (2001), Indians (1992-1996,1998-2001, 2007), Braves (1997), White Sox (2002), Giants (2002), Pirates (2003), Cubs (2003), Yankees (2004), Phillies (2005), Dodgers (2006), Rangers (2007)
Lofton was a six-time All-Star (1994-1999) and finished second (behind Pat Listach) in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 1992 when he batted .285 and set an A.L. rookie record with 66 stolen bases. He was an excellent defensive center fielder, winning Gold Gloves every season from 1993 to 1996 and leading the A.L. in assists in 1994. Lofton had his best year in 1994, leading the league in hits while batting .349 with 60 stolen bases in the strike-shortened year and finishing fourth in the A.L. MVP voting. He holds several MLB records, including most first-inning runs scored (18 in 2000), most postseason stolen bases (34), and most different teams played for in the playoffs (6).
Lofton was considered one of the premier leadoff hitters in the majors during the 1990s, setting the table for future Hall of Famers Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome on a dominant Indians ballclub. He batted first for many playoff teams, playing in a total of 95 postseason games, incuding the 1995 and 2002 World Series. Lofton is 15th all-time in stolen bases, and among active players - he hasn’t officially retired yet - he is first in stolen bases and triples, second in singles and ninth in hits.
Lofton’s combination of speed and run-scoring ability and his penchant for getting on base is surpassed by only a few in the history of the game. Since World War II, the only players to combine for as many runs, hits and steals as Lofton are Lou Brock, Joe Morgan, Ricky Henderson and Tim Raines. Of the four, Brock and Morgan are already in the Hall of Fame, Henderson will be a first ballot Hall of Famer in 2009 and Raines is a potential Hall of Famer who got more than 24 percent of the vote in in his first year of elgibility in 2008.
Lofton’s career most resembles Raines’, and his induction into Cooperstown may hinge on whether Raines gets in or not. The two have similar career statistics, though Raines played in almost 400 more games and had more than 700 more at bats than Lofton:
G AB H R 2B 3B HR AVG SB
Raines: 2502 8872 2605 1571 430 113 170 .294 808
Lofton: 2103 8120 2428 1528 383 116 130 .299 622
It should also be noted that Raines never won a gold glove, while Lofton won four.
Lofton played for 11 teams during his 17-year career. On three occasions, he played for more than one team during a single season. At times it seemed no one wanted Lofton, which obviously isn’t usually the case for a Hall of Fame-caliber player. This also hurt his overall numbers. Relegated to part-time duty at times, Lofton failed to surpass the 500-at bat mark in each of his last four seasons. The turning point in his career was when he played 83 unremarkable games for the Yankees in 2004, mostly serving as a pinch-runner. After that, teams didn’t seem to take Lofton seriously as a full-time player even though he put up good numbers when he got on the field.
Statistically, Lofton’s numbers don’t measure up to those of most Hall of Fame-caliber players. He failed to reach 2,500 career hits and his greatest asset, his speed, still puts him only 15th all-time on the career stolen base list. Lofton ranks behind the likes of Willie Wilson (668), Vince Coleman (752), and Bert Campaneris (649), none of whom will ever be in the Hall of Fame.
Lofton also never had any dominating years, which seperates many Hall of Famers from those that are just very good. He finished in the top five in the MVP voting just once (fourth in 1994), and his next-best finish was 11th in 1996. Other than that, Lofton had only two other years in which he was even in the top 26. Lofton also never separated himself as a clutch performer in the postseason. While he played in a lot of postseason games, he batted only .247 - 52 points below his career avergage - and had a weak .315 on-base percentage - 57 points below his average.
Lofton presents an interesting case but falls short of making the Hall of Fame. His numbers simply aren’t Cooperstown-caliber. Had he been able to play a few more years and reach 2,700 or so hits and 700 stolen bases, I think he would have had a serious case for induction, as he would have eclipsed Raines, who will have tough time getting in himself but definitely has a shot. Playing for so many teams doesn’t help Lofton’s case, either, and down the stretch of his career his sometimes part-time status lost him fans and more importantly, at bats. Lofton will be remembered as a very good player, and while he is not worthy of Cooperstown, his case is a lot stronger than you may have thought.
Nick Leco’s Cooperstown Bound? column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime.
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