Kenny Lofton may never be a Baseball Hall of Famer, but he was one heck of a player. He played mostly for the Cleveland Indians, but actually began with the Houston Astros. Lofton also had one year with the Atlanta Braves before returning to Cleveland, and played for many other teams later in his career, as well. Lofton would compile 68.1 Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is a total higher than a good deal of Hall of Fame outfielders, including Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield. Granted, much of that WAR total comes from simply playing almost 17 seasons in the Big Leagues. But, Lofton was a fairly consistent player. Even in his age 40 season, he was still quite productive. Had the opportunities arisen, he probably could have played one or two more seasons at the Major League level.
Lofton didn’t reach 3000 career hits, which is a magic number that often promises Hall of Fame enshrinement; he had a very respectable total of 2428 career hits. However, Lofton walked quite a bit (career .372 on-base percentage) and stole a ton of bases (622 career SB). It’s fair to say that his ability to get on-base and stretch his base hits and walks into extra bases with his legs probably make up for that counting statistic deficiency.
One interesting thing to note about Kenny Lofton is that after 1999, he was never again voted to be an All-Star for the yearly midsummer festivities. Yet, Lofton continued to play at an All-Star level for many years; this was despite suffering various injuries and not hitting above a .300 batting average for the most part any more. So, while Lofton’s OBP and isolated power levels (slugging percentage minus batting average) remained rather constant, his speed steadily diminished. Because of the drop in batting average and stolen base totals, Lofton’s overall value became less and less clear to many teams.
Lofton only put up two truly All-Star caliber full campaigns after 1999 (he had 3-plus WAR seasons in 2000 and 2005). Still, he was still worth almost 2 WAR – the same as an average full-time position player – in those seasons, despite not playing full seasons. True, he wasn’t quite the defensive player in center field for the second half of his career, but he was still useful. Lofton wasn’t a complete defensive negative by advanced statistical measures until 2006 and 2007. Even then, his bat was still valuable and he could still steal 20-30 bases.
Kenny Lofton is one of the best examples of a player that had a crazy early peak and simply hung around for another five to seven years. Despite his slow and steady decline, he still added considerable value to his ball-clubs. He really bounced around after leaving Cleveland after the 2001 season – although he’d return to the Tribe at the end of the 2007 season to help the Indians in their playoff run.
Before rejoining the Indians at the end, Lofton played for the San Francisco Giants, Chicago White Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Texas Rangers. On all of those teams, Lofton was still a starting-caliber player until at least 2005, yet he wasn’t considered one. If he’d been given more playing time, it’s likely Lofton would’ve gathered enough additional career value to have a clear shot at the Hall of Fame.
Certainly, Kenny Lofton was one of the best and most consistent ballplayers that I ever watched growing up. If it were up to me, he’d be in the Hall of Fame. Somehow, the likable and often dazzling Lofton became one of the most underrated baseball players of his generation.