Claim to Fame: Kent played for six teams over 17 seasons in the Major Leagues, bringing a big bat and a bad attitude with him on every stop. With the Mets, Kent was criticized for his refusal of hazing rituals and short-temper. In San Francisco he repeatedly butted heads with Barry Bonds (although Barry would almost certainly win any head-butting competition), famously exchanging shoves with the leftfielder in 2002. This after Kent had broken his wrist popping wheelies on a motorcycle and lied about it, much to the displeasure of the Giants organization. Years later, with the Dodgers, Kent’s criticisms of LA’s young players caused James Loney to announce that “Jeff Kent is not our leader,” before, in a separate incident, the second baseman opined that legendary Dodgers play-by-play man Vin Scully “talks too much.” Milton Bradley would accuse Kent of not knowing “how to deal with African-American people,” and a $15,000 donation to backers of California’s ban on gay marriage suggests that in addition to being an alleged racist, Kent wasn’t too fond of gay people.
But, as Yahoo! Sports’s David Brown wrote upon Kent’s retirement in January 2009, “The consensus on Jeff Kent seems to be, ‘That jerk sure could hit!’ ” Arguably the best offensive second baseman since Rogers Hornsby, Kent hit more career home runs than anyone ever at that position. And among second basemen with at least 9,000 plate appearances there, he’s second all-time in slugging percentage, third in OPS, eighth in wOBA, and sixth in wRC+ (frustratingly, I can’t find a way on baseball-reference.com to organize by position, so these are fangraphs.com stats; wRC+ is essentially equivalent to OPS+).
Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Kent last played in 2008, meaning he will be eligible for BBWAA Hall of Fame voting in 2013.
Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Kent’s career WAR of 59.4 puts him right along the Hall of Fame fault line. Many players below that figure have been inducted, but a handful above it still wait for a call. Lou Whitaker, Willie Randolph, and Bobby Grich are the only non-Hall of Fame second basemen to have contributed more WAR than Kent, while Bobby Doerr, Johnny Evers, Nellie Fox, Billy Herman, Tony Lazzeri, Bill Mazeroski, Bid McPhee, Joe Gordon, and Red Schoendienst are all in Cooperstown with fewer WAR.
Yet Kent’s body of work might be better than all 12 of those fellow-second basemen. His 2000 National League MVP award is one of only nine BBWAA MVPs ever awarded to a second basemen, and of those listed above, either in the Hall or out of it, only Fox owns one (although Evers won the Chalmers Award in 1914, the equivalent of an MVP). Offensively, Kent has few peers among the borderline HOF group; of the aforemention dozen, only Grich tops Kent in OPS+, and only Grich and Lazzeri lead Kent in wRC+. And for those who look to peak performance to gauge Hall of Fame-worthiness, behold Kent’s five-year stretch between 1998 and 2002, when he averaged 29 home runs and 5.7 WAR while posting a .307/.378/.548 slash line and a 142 OPS+.
Because voters too often cast their votes based on counting stats, expect many to note Kent’s 377 home runs from a second baseman and induct him on the second or third ballot. Just know that when they do, he’ll deserve it, curmudgeon or not.