Does Kenny Lofton Belong in the Hall of Fame?
By Bob Toth
If you are a fan of the Cleveland Indians, chances are you have vivid memories of Kenny Lofton mesmerizing fans and players alike with his incredible speed.
When the ball was hit anywhere in the general direction of Lofton, a part of you believed he would find a way to track it down, whether it was at a full sprint, flying through the air, or scaling the outfield walls. At the plate, if he put the ball on the ground in the infield, there was a fair chance he could beat it out to first base. Once he reached base, he would electrify his teammates and the fans by moving himself quickly into scoring position with a stolen base, setting the table for easy RBI opportunities for the lucky batters hitting behind him in the lineup.
Lofton was a special kind of player, and for that and his longevity in the league, he was honored this week by being named as a candidate on the 2013 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.
Lofton made his career in Cleveland, but some people forget that he made a pit stop prior to his patrol of center field for the Indians in 1992 and beyond. A 17th round pick by Houston in 1988, his professional career started slowly as he transitioned to baseball after devoting the bulk of his collegiate career to basketball. As his time in the minors increased, he began to display his trademark speed and improved in the field and at the plate.
Despite the promise he had shown in their farm system and during his September call up in 1991, the Astros had a young, established outfield that Lofton might not have cracked, including Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez. Rather than hold on to him, he was packaged with infielder Dave Rohde and shipped to the Indians on December 10th, 1991, in exchange for pitcher Willie Blair and catcher Ed Taubensee.
From there, his career took off.
Lofton was the Indians’ starting center fielder in 1992. He batted .285 and led the American League with 66 stolen bases. He finished second in the voting for AL Rookie of the Year, losing surprisingly to Milwaukee shortstop Pat Listach. He led the league in outfield assists by a center fielder (14) and range factor per game (3.04) and was fourth in putouts (420). He was tied for fourth in wins above replacement (WAR) amongst position players (6.3). Offensively, he was fifth in triples (8) and seventh in singles (136).
Lofton improved at the plate in 1993, increasing his batting average 40 points. In exactly the same number of games played and with just six more plate appearances, he added 21 more hits, 13 more doubles, 13 more walks, and scored 20 more runs. He again was amongst the top players in the game in many statistics, including fourth in batting average (.325), eighth in on-base percentage (.408), fifth in defensive WAR (2.1), third in position player WAR and fifth overall (7.3), fifth in hits (185), and first in singles (148). He led baseball with 70 stolen bases.
The strike-shortened 1994 season was arguably Lofton’s best offensively as a major leaguer. He batted .349 and led the AL in several stats when the season ended. His 7.1 WAR was third-best overall and best in the AL. He finished fourth in the American League MVP race behind Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey, Jr., and teammate Albert Belle.
In 1995, Lofton continued to succeed at the plate and in the field. He led the majors in triples (13) and led the AL in stolen bases for the third straight year (54). His highlight moment of the season occurred in the ALCS, when late in game six he showcased for the world his speed after reaching base against AL Cy Young winner Randy Johnson with an infield bunt single, stealing second, and scoring on a two-base passed ball that evaded Seattle Mariners’ catcher Dan Wilson.
Lofton’s success and string of six consecutive All-Star game appearances seemed to coincide with the resurgence of the Cleveland Indians. His success followed him out of town in 1997, when in the final year of his contract, he was dealt before the season to the Atlanta Braves with reliever Alan Embree for outfielders Marquis Grissom and David Justice. The club had feared he would leave town, a la Belle the previous offseason, and the team would have nothing to show for him. His play earned him his only All-Star nod in the National League, thanks to a .333 batting average in 122 games, but most of his offensive numbers took a hit. Most noticeably, his stolen bases number plummeted, swiping just 27 and leading the league with 20 times being caught. He struggled through a groin injury, missing 16 games from the middle of June through July 5th before re-aggravating the injury after one game back. It forced him to miss the All-Star game in Cleveland and another 19 games after the break.
Despite his trade, Lofton’s heart remained in Cleveland. After the 1997 season, he signed as a free agent, playing four more years for the organization. He made the final two All-Star appearances of his career in 1998 and 1999. His stolen base numbers began to decline, his offensive production tapered slightly (except his home run and runs batted in production), and after the 2001 season, he signed a one-year free agent contract with the division rival Chicago White Sox.
Over the final six years of his career, Lofton would play for a total of nine teams, including a return trip to Cleveland from the Texas Rangers at the trade deadline in 2007 as a 40-year-old. His numbers remained steady throughout the rest of his career, but they never quite reached the level they had during his first five-year span with the Tribe from 1992 to 1996.
Lofton had a strange knack for finding himself in the playoffs. After his first appearance there with the Indians in 1995, he failed to reach the postseason just two times over the rest of his career (2000 with Cleveland, 2005 with Philadelphia). His final postseason appearance would mark his final games in a major league uniform, conveniently as a member of the Indians’ 2007 squad that fell just one game short of the World Series.
He batted .247 lifetime in 95 postseason games (20 different series) with 34 stolen bases and 34 RBI. He made appearances in 11 division series, seven championship series, and two World Series. He never won the elusive World Series ring.
On August 7th, 2010, Lofton was honored for his years in Cleveland with his induction into the Cleveland Indians’ Hall of Fame.
But does Lofton have what it takes to make the Hall in Cooperstown?
Lofton ended his playing time a .299 career hitter with a .372 on-base percentage. He accumulated a total of 2,428 hits, 112th best in the history of the game. Of the 111 players above him, 42 are either active, have not reached five years since retiring for Hall eligibility, or have not been voted in.
Defensively, he won four straight Gold Glove awards from 1993 through 1996, despite the consistent competition of Kirby Puckett (who had won the award six times in seven years prior to Lofton dethroning him), Jim Edmonds, and Bernie Williams. Defensive excellence has rarely been a compelling factor in pushing a player into Hall of Fame status.
He will always be remembered as one of the elite base stealers of his generation. His 622 career thefts rank 15th all-time in the statistic. But just eight of the 14 players above him on that list have Hall of Fame credentials.
Will Lofton be amongst the newest members of the Baseball Hall of Fame when announced on January 9th, 2013?
My guess is no, at least not yet.
Lofton certainly holds the better odds out of the five first-time Cleveland Indians up for consideration (Sandy Alomar, Jr; Julio Franco; Roberto Hernandez; and Jose Mesa being the others). While I expect Lofton’s play and success to garner enough votes to return to the ballot for 2014, another player on this year’s ballot likely holds the key to Lofton’s admittance.
Outfielder Tim “Rock” Raines, a player Lofton has been compared to, spent his 23-year major league career with six teams (Expos, White Sox, Yankees, A’s, Orioles, and Marlins). He batted leadoff for the majority of his career and was a consistent threat on the base paths, ranking fifth on the all-time stolen base list with 808. He led the NL in stolen bases from 1981 through 1984 and had six straight seasons (1981 to 1986) where he stole 70 bases or more.
Raines’s .294 career batting average, .385 on-base percentage, and 2,605 hits are all quite comparable to Lofton’s numbers. Like Lofton, he posted a career-best WAR of 7.3 (in 1985). He made the All-Star team seven consecutive years for Montreal from 1981 to 1987 (compared to Lofton’s six). He too finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, in 1981. Even their career WAR numbers are within a win and a half (Raines – 66.2; Lofton – 64.9).
Jeopardizing Lofton’s chances is that Raines is on his sixth appearance on the ballot. Last season, he received 48.7% of the votes returned, well short of the 75% needed to achieve induction, but more than enough to be put on the ballot again this year.
Playing through the Steroid Era may have a positive impact on both of their chances, especially this year and the years that follow. This ballot marks the first appearances for Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa. Along with Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, the reputations of a handful of this year’s 37 recognized players are notably tainted by the use of performance enhancing drugs.
Speedsters such as Lofton and Raines may see a boost in their votes due to the pure athletic prowess that they exhibited night in and night out. Could seeing so many names that elicit negative feelings for the damage caused to the integrity of the game of baseball sway voters to pull for the guys who played the game unscathed and correctly in an era of cheating?
Fans of Lofton pulling for his enshrinement will certainly have to hope so.
Lofton’s name will come up in discussion and he will likely see votes from the same people pulling for Raines. Until Raines can crack through the barrier that has prevented his induction, it is unlikely that Lofton’s Hall of Fame dreams come true. At least for now.
If nothing else, now is a great time to reflect back on having had the opportunity to watch one of the elite and gifted athletes in the game grace the green pasture in center field in the city of Cleveland. Lofton was an igniter who was determined, motivated, and had an immense passion for the game of baseball.
He might not become a Hall of Famer in Cooperstown, but he will always be a Hall of Famer in Cleveland.
Photo: AP Photo / Jay LaPrete