Monday, January 26, 2009

Through the Years: Jeff Kent

Last week, I took a look at the career of Craig Biggio, arguably the most successful second-baseman of the last 20 years. It's a pretty safe bet that, in 4 years time, he'll be getting his call into Cooperstown. Only a couple of days after that, I read an interesting article on Bill James Online by Matthew Namee, comparing Biggio to his contemporary second-baseman, Roberto Alomar. For some reason, I had never made the connection between these two Hall-of-Famers, despite being fans of both. It only made sense then that I would continue to look at the second-basemen of the '90s and write my next Through the Years post on Alomar.

But then Jeff Kent went and announced his retirement after 17 years in the major leagues, and the topic suddenly shifted to Kent and his career. How good was he, really? Did his attitude affect the way we remember him? How much did he benefit from the era and, more importantly, from hitting behind Barry Bonds? And, finally, is he a Hall of Famer?

The HOF debate around Kent seems to focus on his power, his defense, and, to a lesser extent, his attitude or his value as a teammate. Some people seem to be saying that since he never seemed like a HOFer, then he obviously isn't one (kind of the reverse-Rice defense), while others seem to be saying that his numbers are just too good for a middle infielder to deny him a spot. And still others seem to be going out of their way to come up with excuses for not voting him in (kind of the anti-Jack Morris defense, I suppose).

But what's lost in this debate over Kent's Hall-worthiness (and all those who are so certain of his credentials) is the fact that there is a legitimate debate to begin with. With Alomar and Biggio out there playing second-base at such a high level for such a long time, it was easy to forget about Kent out in San Francisco. But there he was, putting up terrific numbers and doing his part to help Bonds do his thing, even winning an MVP award in the process. Kent belongs alongside those two as the top second-basemen of their generation. Which makes him perfect for a "Through the Years" piece.

As with all other "Through the Years" posts, I'll be looking at his career through my collection of baseball preview guides to see how he was being viewed by writers on a year-to-year basis, and to see if they ever viewed him as the best player at his position.

Kent began his career in Toronto in 1992 as a second-base/third-base utility man, backing up Kelly Gruber and, yes, Roberto Alomar. He wasn't a top-rated prospect, though, as the immortal Eddie Zosky (from my hometown Fresno State Bulldogs) was mentioned before him. He was a good enough prospect, however, to be packaged in a deal to the Mets for soon-to-be free agent David Cone in late August. In '93, he began the season as the Mets' starting second-baseman who the Mets were "counting heavily on." He started off poorly, but ended the season with very respectable numbers: .270/.320/.446 with 21 HRs, 80 RBIs, and a 104 OPS+.

The 1994 Sporting News preview guide seemed to be won over:
"...the only certainty on the infield is Kent at second base.

Certainly, he had earned that much with his work in the team's final 95 games. Kent, who was batting .217 with 23 runs batted in and five homers in 184 at-bats through June 20, finished at .270 with 21 homers and 80 RBIs, establishing club records for homers and RBIs by a second baseman. Kent led all NL second baseman in RBIs and tied Houston's Craig Biggio for the home run lead.

Kent's season took off after he was moved back to second base following an unsuccessful 12-game experiment at third base. Although rough edges still exist, his defense at second base improved over the second half of the season."
Kent improved his rate stats in 1994, hitting .292/.341/.475 with a 111 OPS+ before the strike cut short his season. His defense wasn't much to write home about, though, with TSN calling him an "essentially offensive player" and one of the team's "primary RBI men." He continued his strong offense in 1995, with a .278/.327/.464 line with 20 HRs, 65 RBIs, and a 110 OPS+ (he still hadn't learned to take a walk). The ballclub didn't see him in the best light, though. From the 1996 TSN:
"Kent fell into disfavor last season when he placed among the bottom five in the league in batting with runners in scoring position (.197) and in second-base fielding percentage. Third base probably is the assignment for Kent if [Rey] Ordonez plays short."
Kent did end up playing at third that year for the Mets, though he didn't last the full season. Apparently, the "disfavor" he fell into was bigger than TSN let on, and he (and Jose Vizciano) was traded to the Indians near the trade deadline for Carlos Baerga. He never fit in with the Indians, though, getting only 102 at-bats in August and September. That winter, Kent and Vizcaino were sent on to San Francisco for Matt Williams.

It marked a major change in fortunes for both the Giants and for Kent. Having finished last in the NL West in 1996, the Giants moved up to first, winning 90 games. They would continue to play at the top of their division for the next eight years. Kent had a strong year in '97, though his rate stats were down and his strikeouts were up. He batted .250/.316/472, with 29 HRs, 90 runs scored, 121 RBIs and a 105 OPS+.
"Fans who derided the Matt Williams trade in November 1996 - and there were many - sang a different tune when the Giants started winning behind the explosive bat of second baseman Jeff Kent, one of three players acquired from Cleveland in the Williams deal. With 29 homers and 121 RBIs, Kent had a career year. ... With a year in San Francisco under their belts, Kent and [JT] Snow should do even better in '98."
And he did. Even considering the expanded offense that year, Kent's '98 campaign was better all-around, with him posting a line of .297/.359/.555 with 31 HRs, 128 RBIs, 94 Rs and a 142 OPS+. His season was not overlooked. From the 1999 TSN:
"After Craig Biggio, Kent may be the best offensive second baseman in baseball. After hitting 29 homers with 121 RBIs in 1997, he proved it was no fluke by increasing his numbers to 31 and 128, a remarkable inprovement considering he missed a month because of a knee injury."
The Athlon preview guide that year was no less complimentary:
"Kent will make errors, but those can be overlooked because he has become the most dangerous second baseman in baseball. In two seasons, Kent has averaged 30 homers and 124 RBIs."
His numbers went down some in 1999, but he still managed to hit 23 HRs with 101 RBIs while batting .290/.366/.511 and a 124 OPS+. As Athlon points out, "[in 1999, Kent] joined Charlie Gehringer and Bobby Doerr as the only second basemen in major league history to record three straight 100-RBI seasons." And he did this while missing 24 games due to an injured foot. TSN identified Kent as a "key player" who "must stay healthy because he offers the most protection for Bonds."

Kent did stay healthy in the year 2000, and it netted him the National League Most Valuable Player Award. His numbers were very impressive: .334/.424/.596 with 114 Rs, 33 HRs, 125 RBIs, and a 162 OPS+. Bonds also had a terrific year that year (49 HRs and a 188 OPS+), but the writers felt Kent was more MVP-worthy (they finished 1-2 in the voting, with Kent receiving 22 first-place votes). By this time, Kent had secured himself as one of the best second-basemen in baseball. In the 2001 TSN:
"Kent has emerged as one of the best hitters in the game. As a bonus, he has gotten much better on defense as his range has improved, which is rare for a player getting older."
And the Athlon:
"Jeff Kent, the NL MVP, hit 33 homers and drove in 125 runs, marking the fourth straight season he's topped 100 RBI. No second baseman has been as prolific as Kent during a four-year-span. His 475 RBIs during that stretch are the most for any player at his position."
Kent's 2001 campaign was down statistically from his MVP season the year before, but he still performed rather well. He rebounded strongly in 2002, hitting .313/.368/.565 with 37 HRs, 108 RBIs, and a 147 OPS+, and helped lead the team to the World Series for the first time since 1989. Kent did his part in the Series, slugging .621 in the 7 games, but it wasn't enough, as the Giants lost to the Angels.

Shortly after the Series ended, Kent was granted his free agency and soon signed a two-year contract with the Astros. And though he was 35 and not known for his sparkling defense, the Astros accomodated him by moving their star second-baseman, Craig Biggio, to centerfield. He has since played the last four years of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and though he is no longer the offensive player he once was, he has performed more than capably (for example, 2008 was the only season that his OPS+ was below 119).

With his retirement announcement last week, Kent has brought his career back into the national conversation, which is a good thing. Though his personality has never been considered his strong suit - just ask Barry Bonds or Vin Scully - he has still been one of the most valuable second basemen in baseball over the last ten years, and should definitely warrant Hall of Fame consideration.

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