Any player/Any era: Kenny Lofton

What he did: Kenny Lofton finished his career with 1,528 runs, the 33rd most by a lefty in MLB History. In 2000, his run scoring was at its zenith as he scored a run in 18 consecutive games, tied for the seventh longest streak since 1893.

While a player needs someone to knock him in to score, the player does have to get on base. Lofton’s career .372 OBP is ahead of Roberto Alomar, Bobby Grich, Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro, George Brett, and a whole host of other players.

Of course, once Lofton got on base, he knew what to do. He stole 622 bases, the 15th most in MLB history and almost halfway to Rickey Henderson. He also was efficient, posting a 79.5% success rate, just behind Ozzie Smith and in the top 30 in MLB history. As a rookie, Lofton stole 66 bases, the fifth most prolific rookie season in MLB history.

Lofton played for 11 teams, although the Indians were the only club he played for more than one season with. He hit a HR for every team except the Houston Astros. Only seven players in MLB history have hit HRs for nine different teams. Todd Zeile leads the way, hitting HRs it for 11 teams, while Rickey Henderson (and others) did it for nine squads.

In 2007, his final season, a 40-year-old Lofton batted .296/.367/.414 with 23 steals in 30 chances. In fact, his age 37-40 seasons produced a .303/.367/.409 line with 84 SBs and 18 CS.

When his Hall of Fame candidacy comes up, there will be a heated debate over whether he belongs. While it might not be a no-brainer, the Hall will be a better place with players like Lofton in it.

In addition to the steals of home and other acts of brilliance, I’ll remember that Lofton was the first batter in Oriole Park at Camden Yards history. He led off with a short fly to right. Rick Sutcliffe pitched a complete game shut-out for the win. Same Horn and Leo Gomez scored for the Orioles with Chris Hoiles and Billy Ripken knocking them in. Charles Nagy went eight strong for the Indians.

Era he would have thrived in: It’s hard to imagine Lofton not thriving in any particular era. That said, starting Lofton’s career more recently would have helped him get the recognition he deserves. Lofton wasn’t just another Otis Nixon or Juan Pierre, he would be the closest we have in the modern game to Tim Raines. For reasons you’ll see, Lofton probably belongs on the Boston Red Sox of this era.

Why: With Lofton’s ability to get on base and steal efficiently, he would fit perfectly into the “modern” game of baseball. Lofton would fit nowhere better than on the Boston Red Sox. If you normalize Lofton’s numbers to the 2008 Red Sox, you get a .312/.386/.442 line with 692 steals.

Those numbers would compare incredibly favorably to Raines and would create this modern Tim Raines dynamic. As Raines continues to fight or writers continue to fight for for inclusion in the Hall of Fame, Lofton would be the perfect reminder of how great Raines was.

Beginning in 2002, it wouldn’t be that difficult to get Lofton significant at bats, with him moving Trot Nixon to the bench predominantly, but also Coco Crisp, Gabe Kapler and others. It would reunite Lofton with Manny Ramirez and let Lofton bat ahead of Manny, Ortiz, Nomar, etc. In short, he’d score a bazillion runs and be appreciated for all his hustle and brilliance.

9 Replies to “Any player/Any era: Kenny Lofton”

  1. I live in Arizona, and am a huge University of Arizona fan. What is truely amazing about Kenny Lofton was that he went to Arizona to play basketball, played for four years, and was an above average player for Lute Olson. I believe Lofton only played baseball his senior year at Arizona, after he had completed his final year of basketball.

    For him to accomplish what he did in the Major Leagues and to be considered for the Hall of Fame, well it’s amazing!!! I don’t think anyone would have ever dreamt that during Kenny’s basketball days at the U of A, but good for Kenny!!!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tom. Lofton truly is one of those athletes that kind of transcends sports and eras. He should have got a lot more credit during his career.

  3. Albert:
    Lofton was an amazing player. I especially like his nearly flat career arc: he was very productive throughout his long career. I agree that he would be a valuable addition to the Red Sox teams of the past decade. He would elevate those teams, especially if he could replace Trot Nixon or Coco Crisp, as you suggest.
    A look at the home-away splits of the past ten years shows that the Red Sox at home are very different from the Red Sox on the road. They are more productive offensively at home, especially in that they hit many more doubles, but they also hit fewer home runs and attempt fewer stolen bases at home. In my view, Lofton could easily adapt to the dual role of hitting singles and stealing bases on the road and hitting doubles (and with his speed perhaps also a lot of triples) at Fenway.

  4. I had not thought of Lofton as a Hall of Famer until I mulled over the statistics you cited. Those are impressive.


  5. In addition to his offensive stats, Lofton was an excellent fielder too, which should help his chances to get in the HOF

  6. Brendan – Agree with your assessment of how Lofton could fit on the Red Sox. I also think they’d make exceptions for someone as prolific as him. It’s worth stealing bases if you’re going to do it at a near 80% success rate.

    Benjamin- Thanks for the comment. The more I look at Lofton, the more shocked I am at how dominant he was without many really calling him dominant.

    Alvy- great point that I didnt touch on – Lofton had a very good defensive reputation and played a premium position for awhile.

  7. While Lofton’s career is indeed an impressive one, I don’t think he’s a guy, unfortunately, who most baseball writers think of when they think of a Hall of Famer. The fact that his career arc, as someone mentioned above, is relatively flat means that he was very consistent for his career but unfortunately it also means that he doesn’t have a well-defined peak in his career. If Lofton did have a peak, it was in his first three or four years with the Indians. Peak value seems to have gotten a lot of love here in recent years, especially from sabermeticians, but to me consistency over the long haul is a more impressive feat.

    Lofton also had a reputation for being a bit of a problem in the clubhouse. Although this may have not been the main reason for his many trades over his career, it had to at least be a contributing factor. I don’t know the specifics of any one incident, however, so all that could just be hearsay.

    Lofton came to my Braves in 1997, hit .333, but had a strange year otherwise. He was successful on only 27 of 47 steals that year, and he was gone after his 1-year free agent contract expired.

    The comparison to Raines is an apt one. Both players managed to stay productive late into their careers but were clearly not as good as they were in the start of their career. The more average seasons you put up at the end of your career, the less people remember how great you were in your prime. Look at Tim Raines-I think this is exactly what happened to him, and what will happen to Andruw Jones as he continues to pile on seasons that are mere whispers of who he used to be.

  8. bstar:
    My comment about Lofton’s flat career arc was meant only as a compliment. Like you, I am somewhat puzzled by all the buzz about peak value. Lofton’s later years were anything but average. Look at his 2005 season, which I suspect compares well to just about any Hall of Famer’s age 38 year.

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