* 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:
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).
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.