Braves One Year Wonder*: Kenny Lofton

* I’d say Braves One Year Wonder, Kenny Lofton, was about as good as he could have been, given the caveat that an asterisk is obviously needed.

Braves One Year Wonder, Kenny Lofton

Anyway, I’m sure some of you who might question the precise choice of “W” word at the top of the article, but my chips have been on the table for a while, as I wrote a Keltner List for him a few years back. Here’s what I concluded:

Lofton was one of the best center fielders of his era, a dynamic leadoff hitter who was a vital cog in numerous pennant races. If he weren’t such a jerk, he would be remembered fondly by fans of the Giants and Cubs, whom he helped to achieve some of their greatest recent success. …

Through Mac’s influence, I’ve become more of a big-Hall guy, and so I wouldn’t have much of a problem with seeing Lofton in the Hall. He was a really, really good player for a very long time. There are a lot of borderline-type players I’d rather in there first, though, especially Andruw Jones and Scott Rolen.

Lofton will be eligible in 2013. I’d vote for him. I guess.

The numbers say that Kenny Lofton had a really good year in 1997, but I bet that’s not how you remember it. He was probably behind the eight ball with Atlanta fans from the beginning because John Schuerholz traded David Justice and Marquis Grissom to get him, and then his teammates and manager clearly didn’t like him either. It was kind of a salary dump for the famously tight-fisted Schuerholz, honestly.

So this is going to be the rare Wonder that still requires a Why We Hate Him. So let’s start there, and then we can talk about why he was good anyway.

Braves One Year Wonder, Kenny Lofton: Why We Hate Him

The Braves were famous for having a sort of cantankerously old-school approach to the game at least a decade before bloggers criticized Brian McCann for being the Fun Police. Lofton, well, didn’t fit in. Murray Chass (no hep cat himself) describes it here:

His Atlanta teammates particularly noticed the way he played center and the way he ran the bases. His reputation for both in the A.L. had been impeccable. But as one member of the Braves said, “He was awful” and “he was overrated.”

In the outfield, team members said, Lofton often failed to get a good jump on fly balls, and too often when he reached balls, he did not hold them or, in baseball parlance, he fought them. On the bases, he tried to score when he shouldn’t have and didn’t try to score when he should have.

In 1996, Lofton was successful stealing bases 75 of 92 times, an 82 percent success ratio. Last year, he was safe only 27 of 47 times, a 57 percent rate. No one in the major leagues was thrown out as many times. He did not endear himself to the team or to a new set of umpires by constantly complaining about umpires’ out calls on his attempted steals and on called strikes. Lofton did suffer from a groin injury and missed six weeks around midseason, but even then he was disgruntled about the team’s medical staff. And he did not win any friends when he was spotted dunking basketballs when he was supposedly hurt.

The Braves didn’t use the stolen base as a weapon as much as other teams; from 1996 to 1997, Lofton’s stolen bases declined from 75 to 27, which seems eye-popping, but when Marquis Grissom came to Atlanta, his stolen base counts diminished from 53 and 36 (his last two years in Montreal) to 29 and 28 — and the 36-steal game came in 1994, so he was on pace to steal more than 50. Bobby didn’t run.

He apparently first hurt his groin in June, then he eventually missed most of July, and only played 122 games total. His teammates were so underwhelmed by his contributions that even the stoic Tom Glavine was willing to call a lampshade a lampshade: “Kenny’s still a fine outfielder,” said Glavine in an October Sports Illustrated story. “He’s made some great plays. He’s also maybe not made some plays that people have seen him make in the past.”

Oh, yeah, and David Justice was great in 1997: .329/.418/.596, 33 HR, 101 RBI, in 139 games.

Then he was mediocre in 1998, pretty good in 1999, great in 2000, and done as a productive player after that. Grissom, too, was never again the player he had been; he was league-average in 1997, and spent the rest of his career just barely above roughly replacement level.

Justice had always had trouble staying healthy — he only cleared 650 plate appearances once in his career, his brilliant 1993 season — and Braves fans really didn’t miss Grissom at all, especially thanks to Jones. But the loss of Justice was even more keenly felt given how much thump remained in his bat for a couple more years.

Why He Was Actually Good

For what it’s worth, Kenny Lofton was very good in 1997, and his numbers were right in line with his very high established standards:

SeasonTeamGPATriple SlashwRC+WAR
1994Cleveland112523.349/.412/.5361426.6
1995Cleveland118529.310/.362/.4531093.8
1996Cleveland154736.317/.372/.4461074.6
1997Atlanta122564.333/.409/.4281255.2
1998Cleveland154698.282/.371/.4131065.6

He scuffled in September, hitting .244/.376/.280 for the month to pull his average down from the .350 mark where it was on August 31. But the Braves were in first place pretty much all year, alone at the top of the division every day from April 14th on, and while the Marlins got as close as 2.5 games back on September 3, a four-game Braves winning streak and three-game Marlins losing streak pretty much sealed the division with three weeks left to go.

So you couldn’t quite say he choked down the stretch since there wasn’t much of a stretch run, and indeed his hot September bat was decisive in multiple stretch runs for other teams he played on, especially 2002 in San Francisco, 2003 in Pittsburgh, and 2007 in Cleveland.

I wrote this in the Keltner, and I still find this staggering: from 1948 to 2012 (when I wrote it), Cleveland went to the playoffs eight times, and Lofton was a key contributor on all but two of those teams: 1954, when Willie Mays made the Catch, and 1997, when he was on the Braves.

On fivethirtyeight.com, Neil Paine argues that “the only thing keeping us from really appreciating Lofton is that he wore so many different uniforms late in his career.” And there’s no question that he was a serious journeyman, which points to the longevity of his skills, but also suggests his ability to wear out his welcome.

Still, as Paine points out: “Only one player as good as Lofton by JAWS ever switched teams as many times as he did during his career: none other than Henderson, the leadoff god himself. (Both changed jerseys 12 times.)”

I Don’t Want to Write About the 1997 Playoffs

So I’m not going to. Lofton was terrible in October, hitting .175/.214/.250 in 40 at-bats in nine games against the Astros and Marlins. Then he was a free agent, and there was no chance he was coming back to Atlanta — a 20-year-old Andruw Jones had been playing right field for much of the year, but he stepped into center field for the six weeks that Lofton was out, and the job was clearly his.

Believe it or not, but Lofton and Jones have virtually indistinguishable career WAR. Per Fangraphs, Andruw was worth 67.0 WAR and Lofton was worth 62.4; per bb-ref, Andruw was worth 62.7 WAR and Lofton was worth 68.4. If you think Andruw should be in the Hall of Fame (and I do), you should probably be willing to support Kenny’s candidacy (and I am).

At the end of the day, the Lofton trade was a lot like the Adam Wainwright-for-J.D. Drew trade.

It wasn’t a trade we liked, but it’s hard to say that it didn’t work out.

Thanks for reading on Braves One Year Wonder, Kenny Lofton. If you enjoyed this piece, check out our full list of Wankers and Wonders here.

21 thoughts on “Braves One Year Wonder*: Kenny Lofton”

  1. JC’d

    Tdsays:

    April 20, 2020 at 12:00 am

    Looking back on it, the Braves seemed to be loaded with several one year wonder pitchers. That was the frustration of those years. You think you had a great pitcher and the next year he crashed down to earth. I don’t think poor scouting or even poor coaching could explain that. I never thought McWilliams or McMurtry would stand the test of time but for some reason I was sure they had a stud in Matula that would have several good years. He didn’t work out any better in the long term than the other guys.

  2. Big Dsays:

    Surprise appearance by Skip Caray in the 2nd episode of the Jordan doc tonight! Hearing his voice always takes me back.

  3. Watched The Last Dance last night, and was reminded of my junior year at UNC, when MJ broke his foot, he came back to Chapel Hill and was always hanging out in Woolen Gym shooting hoops, even with his cast.

    Makes me appreciate my good fortune in getting to see him play live for two years.

  4. I guess I was sucked into the anti Kenny bias, but I never would have figured he finished over 5 WAR from what I remembered. I remembered his year as being to most of his immediately preceding and following career, much like Reggie Sanders. That would be “I was pretty good, went to Atlanta to suck, and then went back to being pretty good.” I guess my way of stating the Lofton version would be more like “I was superb for several years, went to Atlanta and half assed, and then became superb again.”

    And yes, other than the bullpen, to this point the money had flowed. From this trade forward, the Braves were not committed to a World Series payroll. And, in October 1996, Ted had swapped stock with Time Warner. Since then, the Braves have spent 23 plus years owned by semi conglomerate media companies.

  5. Yeah, it’s kinda amazing how quickly that narrative took hold. The dude hit .333 with an OBP over .400 out of the leadoff spot! He clearly didn’t bond with his teammates or his manager, but the bat was absolutely as advertised.

  6. An interesting thought is that this trade was a trickle down of sorts that likely led the Braves to trade Jermaine Dye too early to grab Michael Tucker, as the Braves needed a left-handed bat in the lineup in 1997. If they had kept Justice (traded Grissom in separate deal)and let Andruw be the everyday CFer in ’97, they could’ve ran a Klesko/Dye, Andruw, Justice trio.

    And let’s not forget that this trade brought in Keith Lockhart, who had a fairly productive 1997, but stayed with the team for 5 more excruciating seasons.

  7. You’re not alone, Ryan — when I was writing this piece I noticed a number of people made the connection to the Dye trade, including Bill Shanks over at SI.

    Schuerholz didn’t believe he could afford to keep Justice as well as the big three pitching staff. Ultimately, like Cliff points out, once the team started acting cheap, they made more than a few different self-defeating moves that were unjustifiable in baseball terms. (Like, say, trading Kevin Millwood for Johnny Estrada after Greg Maddux accepted the qualifying offer.)

  8. It’s pretty incredible that from 1997 onward, the Braves got exactly 1 season out of Kenny Lofton, David Justice, Marquis Grissom, and Jermaine Dye. Sheesh. There would be 11 seasons between those 4 from 1997 onward in which they would produce at least 3 WAR, and the Braves would get one of them.

  9. I don’t like Kenny Lofton. Didn’t then. Don’t now. Hope he’s enjoying his days, however.

    Nice writing, young man.

  10. @10 I had begun listing the players thinking that Grissom probably had one more good year. And then I didn’t take him out. Very clumsy of me.

    People weren’t doing it back then, but it’d be fun to see the salary/WAR breakdown of the Lofton for Grissom/Justice trade. In fact, I will do it, and I will use B-Ref because I’m lazy and it gives me WAR and salary on the same page:

    Lofton – 1YR, $4.8M, 5.0 bWAR
    Alan Embree – 1.5YR, $600K, 0.6 bWAR
    (Embree was traded for Russ Springer, who also provided 0.6 bWAR for $400K)

    Total: ~$6M, 6.2 bWAR

    Grissom – 1 YR, $4.8M, 1.9 bWAR
    Justice – 2 YR, $12.8M, 6.1 bWAR

    Total: $17.6M, 8 bWAR

    But it gets difficult because Marquis Grissom was traded for what appears to be one year left of control for 3 guys who didn’t do much (Ron Villone being the best piece), and Justice was traded with an unknown amount of control (I don’t feel like looking it up) for Zack Day, Ricky Ledee, and Jake Westbrook. So whatever value you got for those guys (likely with minimal salary obligations), you have to add onto the top for the Grissom/Justice side. It’s tough with these things because, like, where does it end? How far down do you follow what Westbrook did for very little money? That goes in to what Cleveland acquired when they acquired Justice.

    The Embree/Lofton (and Springer) side is pretty clean since Lofton left after one year as a FA and Embree was traded for someone who left the next year as a FA (Springer), and he didn’t make much money.

  11. Seeing how expensive the team was getting in the late 90’s, and you felt the best thing for you to do was trade one of the big 3 pitchers, which one would you have traded? You have to choose one of them.

  12. Going back to the McWilliams/McMurtry article, in their rookie years McWilliams, Matula, and McMurtry had K/9 numbers of 3.8, 3.5, and 4.2, respectively, so it probably wasn’t reasonable to expect them to be longtime high-quality starters. Not that any of us were aware of that in those days. McWilliams actually got his K/9 up over 7 in his good year-and-a-half with Pittsburgh before fading.

  13. Great job, Alex. Like so many others here I had forgotten what a good year Lofton had for the Braves. In fact, it was one of the best of his long career!

    And that’s saying something; It was an excellent career. I agree that Lofton deserves serious consideration for the HOF. Part of his problem is that he followed by a decade or so the two best leadoff hitters of all time. Hard to measure up to them.

  14. I remember being underwhelmed by Lofton’s routes to fly balls, but then he was sandwiched between Grissom (who was recognized as one of the best defensive CF of his era) and Andruw so I was spoiled.

  15. Kenny Lofton stands out as one of the all-time great successes in translating tools to skills. Like Matt Kemp, if I recall correctly, Lofton was a truly excellent basketball player who made the decision to commit to baseball relatively late. (He went to the University of Arizona on a basketball scholarship!) So he was an extraordinarily good athlete who happened to translate his athleticism to baseball — clearly in his speed, which contributed to both his baserunning and his defense, and may have allowed him to run around less-than-ideal outfield routes to still go out and grab the ball.

    What I don’t think he ever got sufficient credit for was just how good he was at controlling the strike zone. Lofton didn’t just hit for a high average, he retired with nearly as many walks as strikeouts and had a walk rate above 10%. That shows that he had a really great understanding of the strike zone despite coming to the sport relatively raw, compared to kids who spent their entire childhoods on traveling baseball teams. Everyone remembers the famous tools busts, from Brad Komminsk to Bubba Starling, but not as many people remember the toolsheds who turned into stars.

    UPDATE: In this Players Tribune piece, Lofton talks about how he always played baseball as a kid, and I’m sure he did. But he was clearly also always playing basketball, and basketball seems to have been his first love — so he surely didn’t spend the same amount of time practicing baseball compared to single-sport kids.

  16. Yeah, Lofton wasn’t just a guy who played basketball. He was a top sub on a final four team and then a starter the next year on a sweet sixteen team.

    Here’s a crazy fact: only two guys have ever played in the Final Four and in the World Series, and they both attended the same high school (although many years apart). Who knows the other one? (And no cheating)

  17. Hey there, another quick update. The German football/soccer “Bundesliga” will start playing again as of May 9th in empty stadiums. Players and associates will get tested regularly. Of course, the testing situation is in a much better state in Germany compared to other countries incl. the States. Still, interesting to see and if other leagues and sports will follow.

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