Kenny Lofton, Hall of Famer?

Indians fans have quite a few reasons to look forward to next year’s Hall of Fame ballot. In addition to returning candidate Jack Morris, there are quite a few former Cleveland players who could be eligible for Cooperstown in 2013.

Longtime Indian Julio Franco could be on the ballot for the first time next year. Former Tribe closers Bob Wickman and Jose Mesa will both be eligible for consideration, as will fellow reliever Roberto Hernandez. Steve Kline and Jaret Wright probably won’t be on the ballot, but hey, you never know. And while he’s nowhere close to worthy of Cooperstown, Sandy Alomar might get a vote or two from a nostalgic BBWAA voter.

But there’s one former Tribe player who will actually be a serious candidate for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame: Kenny Lofton.

Lofton almost certainly won’t get in on his first year on the ballot. As part of a first-year class that includes Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Craig Biggio, Sammy Sosa, and Mike Piazza, he’ll be lost in the shuffle on a ballot that already includes this year’s close finishers Morris, Jeff Bagwell, and Tim Raines.

But what about the long-term? Is he worthy of Cooperstown? And, more importantly: Will he get in?

Lofton was the consummate leadoff man and the archetypal speedy center fielder. He hit .299 over the course of his 17-year career, averaging 118 runs and 48 steals per 162 games. He also flashed some incredible leather in center field, with a career Total Zone ranking of 8 runs above average per 150 games.

His overall career counting stats are pretty impressive, too. With 622 steals he ranks 15th on the all-time list, and with a success rate of 80 percent he didn’t waste many outs on the basepaths. His 1,528 runs scored and 2,428 hits might not scream “Hall of Famer,” but they’re certainly not a drag on his candidacy. Especially when you consider that he retired on top—he was still an above-average player when he retired after 2007.

He wasn’t just a good contact hitter. He also had great plate discipline: his career walk rate was over 10 percent, and his walk/strikeout ratio was an impressive 0.93. He even showed decent power for a leadoff man with 629 extra-base hits and a .423 slugging percentage.

A more sabermetrically based approach makes Lofton look even better. Even after adjusting for the inflated offensive environment he finished his career with a 114 wRC+. FanGraphs has him at 66.3 wins above replacement, ahead of names like Luis Aparicio, George Sisler, Ryne Sandberg, and Andre Dawson. Baseball-Reference gives him 65.3 WAR, good for 80th all-time and better than legends like Willie McCovey, Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, and Shoeless Joe Jackson. And Adam Darowski has Lofton at 95.6 wWAR, well over the threshold for induction.

Then there was his glove—and what a glove it was. At 115 runs above average, Total Zone has Lofton as the fifth-best defensive center fielder of all time, and the 14th-best outfielder. But of course, anyone who actually saw him play doesn’t need those numbers. You just needed to watch him run down an impossible fly ball or throw out an unsuspecting runner at the plate.

Accolades? He’s got plenty. Lofton won four Gold Gloves (though he deserved a lot more than that) and made six All-Star teams. He got MVP votes in four different seasons, including a top-four finish in the strike-shortened 1994 season.

Peak performance? He definitely had a great prime, putting up over 20 WAR in a three-year span from 1992-94. In ’94, the best year of his career, he hit .349 with a .946 OPS (153 wRC+) and 60 steals in just 112 games before the strike. With 7.7 WAR, Baseball-Reference had him as the best player in baseball that year.

Consistency? He’s got that too. Discounting his 20-game debut with the Astros in 1991, he was never a below-replacement level player. He was an above-average hitter in 14 of 16 seasons and his wRC+ never dipped below 89. He had six seasons with over 5.0 fWAR, nine seasons over 4.0, and 13 years over 2.0.

Playoff heroics? Check. Lofton never won a World Series ring, but his teams reached the playoffs 11 times in his 17 years and he appeared in 20 different series. His 34 postseason steals—he swiped a record 11 bases in the 1995 playoffs alone—are the most in MLB history, plus he ranks fourth in runs (65) and fifth in hits (97).

Intangibles? He’s got them in spades. He was a team leader and a fan favorite. In an era when everyone was swinging for the fences, he did the little things and played the game the old fashioned way. It’s cliché, but like it or not it’s what the voters care about. And if nothing else, it sure made him fun to watch.

Finally, there’s the issue of steroids—or lack thereof. I’ve never heard anyone connect Lofton to steroids. He’s vehemently denied ever using them and there’s no reason to doubt that. Given that Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Palmeiro, Sosa, and (probably) Piazza all used performance-enhancing drugs, Lofton will be one of the best clean players on the ballot.

So is Lofton a worthy Hall of Famer? I say: absolutely. Between his golden glove, great speed, and consistent strike zone control, he had a great prime and was good enough for long enough that he’s worthy of enshrinement. I admit that I’m biased (Kenny was one of my childhood heroes, and is still one of my favorite players of all time), but I think any fan would have to admit he’s got a pretty strong case. He’d have my vote for sure.

Will he get in? Nothing about the upcoming ballots will be easy to predict—the upcoming first-year candidate class has to be both one of the best and one of the most controversial in voting history. But I think he’ll get in eventually: his great stats combined with his fun style of play, postseason experience, and refusal to juice will hold strong appeal for BBWAA voters. And I, for one, can’t wait to see the Indians cap adorning his plaque.

Is Kenny Lofton a Hall of Famer?

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