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Tuesday, September 10
 
Kent's monster year ranks among best ever

By Michael Wolverton
Special to ESPN.com

What's Jeff Kent got to do to get some respect?

The man is eighth in the National League in homers, second in doubles, seventh in slugging percentage, 22nd in OBP, and 11th in OPS. He's doing all this while playing one of the most demanding positions on the diamond, while calling the biggest pitchers' park in the majors home, and while his team is in the thick of a tight playoff race. No middle infielder in the NL -- for that matter, no infielder in the NL -- comes close to matching Kent's offensive production this season.

Jeff Kent
Second Base
San Francisco Giants
Profile
2002 SEASON STATISTICS
GM HR RBI R OPS AVG
136 33 101 93 955 .323

Yet in a survey of recent columns in leading publications breaking down the NL MVP race, we find barely even a mention of Kent. That'd be fine if all those columns were about how Barry Bonds is really the only candidate, and there's no point in discussing anyone else. But these columnists see lots of legitimate candidates for the award, including Lance Berkman, Albert Pujols, John Smoltz, Eric Gagne, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, and even Gary Sheffield. They just don't see Kent.

It's not hard to explain Kent's relative invisibility this year. When you have a teammate who's somehow managed to follow up the Greatest Season of All Time (TM) with an even better season, you're bound to be overshadowed. In addition, Kent got off to a slow start this year, missing the first few games after his infamous spring training "truck washing" accident, and hitting poorly for the first couple of months after that. He hasn't had All-Star and MVP buzz building about him the entire season. Finally, Kent's offensive explosion roughly coincided with his being moved in front of Bonds in the lineup, so some may be inclined to write off his performance at the plate as a product of Bonds' protection.

But whatever the reasons, the people who aren't paying close attention to Kent's year are missing an awfully good show. On the surface, his numbers look a lot like they did two years ago when he won the MVP. Given that league-wide offense is down from two years ago, is it possible he's having an even better season this year?

Let's look at how Kent's 2002 hitting stacks up against other second basemen's seasons from the recent past. To do this, we'll use a variant of Pete Palmer's Batting Wins statistic to measure overall hitting production. Palmer's formula adjusts for the hitter-friendliness of the league and the park where the hitter played, so it's amenable to comparing players across eras. The only change we'll make: where Palmer compares players to a league average hitter, we'll compare them to a replacement-level hitter. The result, Batting Wins Above Replacement (BWAR), represents the number of extra wins a hitter would be worth to his team over what a replacement-level hitter is worth.

Here are the top 10 seasons by second basemen since 1970. Kent's numbers for this season are projected to a full 162 games.

Player           Year    BWAR
Jeff Kent        2000     9.3
Joe Morgan       1976     8.7
Joe Morgan       1975     8.5
JEFF KENT        2002     8.3
Craig Biggio     1997     7.9
Edgardo Alfonzo  2000     7.5
Joe Morgan       1973     7.5
Bret Boone       2001     7.5
Chuck Knoblauch  1996     7.4
Joe Morgan       1974     7.3

Kent's not likely to exceed his 2000 MVP season -- mostly because he isn't walking as much now as that year -- but he is still on track to have one of the best recent offensive seasons by a second baseman. His 2002 stands to be better than the best years of Biggio, Sandberg or Alomar at the plate, and that should be enough to at least get him as much attention in those MVP columns as Sosa, Pujols, and company.

It's important to stress that this is only measuring batting, not baserunning or fielding. If we were to add in basestealing value, it would move Morgan's seasons up the list a bit, and Kent's down a bit. In particular, Morgan's 1976 and 1975 would claim the top two spots on the list over Kent's 2000.

And where does Kent's current season fit in historically? Here are the all-time best batting seasons by second basemen:

Player           Year    BWAR
Rogers Hornsby   1924    12.3
Rogers Hornsby   1922    12.2
Rogers Hornsby   1925    10.9
Rogers Hornsby   1921    10.5
Rogers Hornsby   1929    10.4
Rogers Hornsby   1928    10.3
Jeff Kent        2000     9.3
Rogers Hornsby   1920     9.2
Rogers Hornsby   1927     9.1
Nap Lajoie       1910     8.8
Joe Morgan       1976     8.7
Joe Morgan       1975     8.5
JEFF KENT        2002     8.3
Nap Lajoie       1901     8.0
Craig Biggio     1997     7.9

I don't think Jeff Kent is going to displace Rogers Hornsby as the all-time best-hitting second baseman any time soon. But aside from Hornsby's dominance, this list shows that Kent is having a season that stacks up very well historically. There are only a handful of second basemen who have hit as well in a season as Kent is hitting this year.

Is he only the second-best player on his team? Sure. But he also has a good case as the second-best player in the league this year.

You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. Michael Wolverton can be reached at mjw@baseballprospectus.com. Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.







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