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When Tools Go Right: The Career of Kenny Lofton

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Kenny Lofton
Kenny Lofton
Elsa, Getty Images

When Tools Go Right: Kenny Lofton

We've looked recently at some "tools bust" prospects like Delmon Young and Ruben Rivera. It is time to switch gears and look at an outstanding success story from the tools players category: Kenny Lofton.

Kenny Lofton was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 17th round in 1988, out of the University of Arizona. He was best-known as a basketball player in college, where he was the starting point guard for the Wildcats. He is one of only two men to play in the college basketball Final Four and the MLB World Series, the other being former pitcher Tim Stoddard.

With just a handful of college baseball games under his belt, Lofton was considered very raw as a baseball player, but promising due to his blazing speed and superior overall athleticism. His pro debut was not particularly successful: he hit .214/.286/.273 in 48 games for Auburn in the New York-Penn League. He stole 26 bases in 30 attempts, but the lack of power combined with a high strikeout rate (51 in 48 games) was a poor combination and did not auger well for his future. His defense was rough, though the tools were there. At this point he'd have rated as a Grade C prospect and a long shot, although "with higher potential" would be an appropriate modifier.

Lofton returned to Auburn in 1989, hitting .263/.336/.309 with 26 steals in 34 games. The Astros saw signs of progress, so he was promoted to Low-A Asheville in August, where he hit .329/.421/.390 in 22 games. Overall, at the two levels he hit .292/.372/.344 with 40 steals in 51 attempts, 26 walks and 40 strikeouts in 192 at-bats. He was clearly making progress developing a feel for baseball and good leadoff skills. Lack of power was an issue, but no one expected that from him at that point. I would probably have stayed with a Grade C given the small sample sizes involved, perhaps a Grade C+.

Lofton took a huge step forward in 1990, hitting .331/.407/.395 with 62 steals for Osceola in the High-A Florida State League. He drew 61 walks in 556 plate appearances, reduced his strikeout rate, and continued to refine his defensive skills in the outfield. Baseball America rated him the Number Five prospect in the FSL.

The main concern here was that he was already 23 and thus a bit old for the league, but given his lack of amateur experience, it was reasonable to cut him some slack. A similar prospect nowadays would probably get a strong B- or maybe a B from me.

In 1991 he jumped directly to Tucson in the Pacific Coast League, skipping Double-A. He hit .308/.367/.417 with 30 steals and 52 walks for Tucson, with 19 doubles and 17 triples. His walk rate dropped, and his stolen base success ratio was unimpressive (23 caught stealing). Considering that he had skipped Double-A, it was a very good season, but Tucson and the PCL were a friendly environment.

He played in 20 games for the Astros and hit just .203/.253/.216 in 74 at-bats. Nowadays, I would view a similar player as likely becoming a valuable fourth outfielder due to their speed and defense, but I'd worry about him hitting enough to play regularly. I'd probably give out another Grade B-.

The Astros traded Lofton and a minor league pitcher named Dave Rohde to the Cleveland Indians for pitcher Willie Blair and catcher Eddie Taubensee. Loften opened 1992 in the Cleveland lineup, and his rookie year was very successful: .285/.362/.365 with 66 steals to lead the American League. His defense was terrific and he finished with a WAR of 6.3, OPS+107, finishing second in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

Lofton followed up with a .325/.408/.408, 70-steal, 7.3 WAR campaign in 1993, and it just got better from there. He made contact, controlled the strike zone reasonably well, and developed enough power to keep the pitchers honest, hitting double-digit homers seven times in his career. Even considering the robust offensive context in which he was playing in the late 90s and early 00s, that was pretty shocking considering his early lack of pop. His OPS+ was better than league average for 11 years in a row. He made six All Star teams.

As good as his hitting was, his outfield was genuinely spectacular, at least if you believe TZ and UZR: he finished +114.5 runs on defense alone in his career, boosting his WAR to 66.2 combined with an overall offensive line of .299/.372/.423, OPS+107, wRC+110.

Comparable Players to Kenny Lofton, by Bill James Sim Score

Jimmy Ryan (Excellent player from the 19th century)
Tim Raines (I think he belongs in the hall)
Harry Hooper (HoF)
George Van Haltren (Excellent player from the 19th century)
Ken Griffey Sr (he wasn't as good as his kid, but he was very good)
Max Carey (HoF)
Brett Butler
Fred Clarke (HoF)
Ichiro Suzuki
Wally Moses

Lofton's 66.2 career WAR ranks him 14th All-Time among center fielders, in a range with Duke Snider (71.8), Richie Ashburn (67.7), Max Carey (66.1), and 19th century Billy Hamilton (65.6).

Lofton is close to a best-case example of a pure athlete with little experience figuring out how to play baseball. In the minors, Lofton always showed good speed and athleticism, but he didn't know how to play baseball at first. His on-base abilities took a bit of time to develop, and he never showed much long-drive power in the minors. But he thrived once he turned his attention to baseball full-time in 1990. Looking at him in 1988 or 1989, you'd never think he could become the player he did.

"I remember how raw he was, and I've never seen anybody develop into that type of player that fast. He went from a guy who could hardly get the ball past the infield to a guy who could hit the ball consistently. He always had speed, but he got lousy jumps and didn't run the bases well. He didn't read the ball well off the bat, and he didn't read pitchers well. But once he got it all down, he just took off. He has turned into a dominant player."---Phil Garner, 1995