In 1991, the world witnessed the debut of a super-fast, super cool dude with an attitude to match. The beginning of his career was brilliant, and while the high point was early and quick, his consistency and quality for the better part of two decades led him to be remembered as an all-time great.
Surprisingly, I’m not referring to Sonic the Hedgehog (although it is a fun comp), but Cleveland’s answer to Ken Griffey Jr.—Kenny Lofton. Lofton was one of the greatest centerfielders to ever play in Major League Baseball. Some people (probably not anyone reading this now) don’t seem to agree with this sentiment…for some reason. So, for the next ten minutes or so, allow me to gush about Lofton and lay out why he deserves to be enshrined amongst baseball’s elites in Cooperstown.
Right off the bat, there’s several things that jump out, some more obvious than others: lots of stolen bases, lots of base hits, lots of walks. He could hit for average, get on base at a high clip, and run into a dinger or dozen. If it feels like you’ve seen this picture before, there’s a reason why:
Do you see the second name on that list? That’s Hall of Famer and saber-community darling Tim Raines, who per Baseball Reference’s Similarity Score metric, is the second most similar player to Lofton. If you look at an overlay of Raines’ and Lofton’s career WAR via FanGraphs, the comparison is even more striking:
Why am I bringing this up? Simply to note that Lofton and Raines had extremely similar careers, but Lofton never got the same chance at Baseball Immortality that Raines did. Raines stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot for a full ten years and was elected in his final year of eligibility, never falling below the threshold of necessary votes to stay on the ballot. Lofton received less than five percent of the electorate’s vote in his first and only year on the ballot. Since then, the Veteran’s Committee has been far too busy electing your dad’s favorite players—I mean, “all time greats of the game,” Jack Morris and Harold Baines—to give Lofton a second thought.
There are several reasons why Lofton has struggled to gain any kind of traction in a push for the Hall of Fame and why he had so little support in his only go-around on the ballot. He fell shy of 3000 hits (and it wasn’t close). He didn’t bat .300 for his career. He didn’t hit 500 home runs, or even 400, 300, or 200. He moved around a lot in the latter half of his career, when he retired in 2007 he had played for a total of 11 different teams. He was selected to six All Star Games and won four Gold Gloves, but outside of that never won any other major awards. Narratively speaking, he doesn’t have a lot of moments that are remembered by the public.
All that being said, I’m going to flip each one of these reasons on its head to explain why Lofton should be seen as a shoo-in Hall of Famer.
Lofton finished his career with 2428 hits. It’s pretty easy to explain away why he didn’t get to 3000 (or at least get closer): he was hurt frequently and was more of a role-player in his later seasons (he only played in 150+ games twice in his career). Like with a lot of other guys who fell short of certain statistical mile-markers, you can also blame the 1994-1995 Player’s Strike. When the 1994 season ended abruptly, Lofton had a league-leading 160 hits (and we’ll revisit this season later). Give him the remainder of that season and he probably would’ve finished the year with well over 200. If the 1995 season then would’ve also started on time, maybe he gets to 2500 hits, which might’ve helped him with a certain class of voter.
Now Lofton didn’t hit .300, but he did hit .299, so you can basically throw out his batting average (hint: you should’ve to begin with because it’s an overly simplified stat without proper context). The number you want to pay attention to is his career on-base percentage, an excellent .372. During his early peak years in Cleveland, he had four seasons where it was over .400. Lofton always had a good eye at the plate and would regularly draw somewhere around 65-80 walks a season, topping out at 87 in 1998. He also never struck out more than 84 times in a season, which seems even more impressive in today’s high-strikeout environment.
Lofton finished his career with 130 home runs—a modest total at best. That wasn’t his game though, Lofton was a speed-demon (another reason why the Sonic the Hedgehog comp works so well). In 782 attempts, Lofton stole 622 bases—a 79% success rate, which is very good. He was also a guy who was fast enough (and had good enough bat control) to bunt for a single, which is one of only three occasions I find it acceptable to bunt. Good for you, Kenny.
After reaching free agency in 2001, Lofton would leave Cleveland and go on to play for eight different teams before returning to Cleveland in 2007. Why did he move around so much? Don’t only bad players who no one wants play for so many different teams? Not quite: Lofton kept getting picked up by contenders because they wanted his bat and glove for the playoffs. A quick run-down:
- In 2002 after signing with the White Sox, he was traded to the Giants and helped them to an inspired World Series run; more on that later.
- In 2003 after signing with the Pirates, he was traded to the Cubs and was on the field for the now-infamous (and in my opinion, overrated) Steve Bartman Incident during Game 6 of the NLCS. Maybe if Lofton had been in left field instead of Moises Alou that foul ball would’ve been caught.
- In 2004 Lofton signed on with the Yankees as a part-time player. He ended up being a part of their slaughtering of Boston during the first three games of that year’s ALCS.
- In 2005 he was traded from the Yankees to the Phillies, I like to think to re-create some nineties magic with Jim Thome. Overall that particular Phillies team largely underachieved, but Lofton had arguably his best personal season since the turn of the millennium.
- In 2006 Lofton signed with the Dodgers, again as a part-timer, they made it to the playoffs but were swept by the Mets in the NLDS.
- In 2007 after originally signing with Texas, Lofton returned home to Cleveland for one last stroll in the sun and led a fun group of players to Game 7 of the ALCS. He retired after that season.
Kenny Lofton didn’t win Rookie of the Year—but he should have. In 1992 he finished second in the award voting to…
Who the hell is Pat Listach? Apparently he had a bWAR of 4.5 in 1992 (for comparison’s sake, Lofton’s was 6.6). His career bWAR is…4.4. I think I’ve made my point.
Kenny Lofton also never won an MVP—but he should have…at least arguably anyway. Returning to 1994, Lofton had a league-leading 7.2 bWAR when the strike hit—better than Ken Griffey, Jr (6.9), David Cone (6.6), or eventual award winner Frank Thomas (6.4). Lofton hit a career-best .349/.412/.536 and was on his way to a Troutian type of season, but with less homers and more steals. Had Cleveland made it into the playoffs that season (they were the leading wild card team at the time of the strike) after a four decade lay-off, voters might have handed the award to Lofton, who was viewed as the catalyst of the Cleveland offense. Alas, it wasn’t to be (and to be fair, it’s not like Frank Thomas was bad either—we’re talking about increments of WAR here), and he finished fourth in the MVP voting that year. The last season he received MVP votes in was 1997.
Now the idea that Lofton never had any signature moments is, quite frankly, bullshit. He had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of history a lot of the time (also see above), which might explain why outside of certain fanbases his career largely isn’t remembered. Let’s revisit his stint with the Giants in 2002, shall we?
Did you know that Kenny Lofton won the pennant for the Giants in 2002? I sure didn’t (until recently that is). Why is this not talked about more? I have a theory, and it’s three-fold:
- It wasn’t a home run. How many times have you seen textbook-remember-that-guy Travis Ishikawa’s walk-off winner from 2014?
- It was on the west coast, i.e. not Boston or New York. See Boone, Aaron.
- The Giants did not win the World Series. While not always the case (again, see Boone, Aaron), Pennant Winners often are not as well remembered as World Series Winners.
However, there are so many other great moments from Lofton’s career. We begin with a summer day in 1996 that has become legend in Cleveland:
He made many other great catches during his time in Cleveland, this is just the one that is best-known.
A year previously during the ALCS against the Mariners, Lofton was a force in Game 6, highlighted by his scoring of the go-ahead run to win the pennant (he had previously gotten on base via bunt single because he was just that fast):
To prove I wasn’t lying on that previous fact, here’s a few more absurd catches from his tenure in Cleveland:
Lofton had some fun All Star Game moments too:
And because I don’t want to be a total homer, here’s some of his finer moments with other clubs:
There’s something else I want to mention about Kenny Lofton: he was cool (again, the Sonic comp is spot-on). He’s the only baseball player I can remember from my childhood who had a prominent shoe beside Griffey. I mean, check out this Taco Bell commercial from 1998:
The dude was just dripping with swag.
I’ll extrapolate on why Kenny means so much to me personally, why he’s my guy: the first MLB game I ever attended took place on September 10, 1996. The first thing I saw my hometown Cleveland team do? I saw Kenny Lofton hit a leadoff home run. I was sold. The crazy part is that as I said earlier, that wasn’t Lofton’s game. As I got older, I started to watch all of the other things he did: his patience at the plate, his excellent bat control, his slickness in the outfield, his blazing speed on the base paths. He was the ideal ballplayer in my mind’s eye. He could do everything and then some.
When Kenny came back to Cleveland in 2007, it was special. He was happy to be back too. As Cleveland rolled to their first division title in six years and made a legitimate push for a World Series title, Kenny was there every step of the way and in the middle of all of the action. A World Series title in his final season, back with his most beloved team, would’ve made a great story. Thanks to Taylor Swift and Joel Skinner, the story we ended up getting was quite different. The ride was fun while it lasted though.
Finally, here are some cold, hard numbers: Kenny had a career bWAR of 68.3 (average HOFers typically fall in the 55-60 range). His career wRC+ was 109. Outside of his 20 game career debut with the Astros in 1991 (wRC+ of 37), he only had two other seasons where it was below 100, in 2000 (90) and 2004 (96). He is fifteenth all time in career stolen bases. He led the AL in stolen bases for five consecutive seasons, topping out at 75 in 1996. According to Jay Jaffe’s JAWS leaderboards, Lofton is the 10th best centerfielder…ever. He is bookended by Carlos Beltran, Andruw Jones, and multiple Hall of Famers:
One more note about the postseason too: much like a certain New York shortstop, he is also all over the postseason career leaderboards. Most notably, he is first in career stolen bases in the postseason. These accumulated stats are largely a product of his frequent postseason appearances, but it’s still fun to bring up.
Ultimately, Lofton should be a Hall of Famer because of his all-around game. He was best known for his skill on the base paths and in the outfield, but he was no slouch at the plate either. This was a truly an elite player. To hammer this home, I want to leave you with one more highlight, arguably the greatest game in Lofton’s career. It truly shows how he could take over a game from atop the lineup, how many different ways he could beat you; causing chaos on the base paths and putting on a show in the batter’s box. As I mentioned before, home runs weren’t really a part of Lofton’s game. Nonetheless, on this particular day—and on 129 other occasions during his career—he managed to put his bat on the ball and drive it to just the right part of the ballpark:
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