History frustrates us because it never changes. Once a game has gone final, the stats settle into permanence like solidifying concrete. Outside a brief window when a hit can change into an error or vice versa, the game of baseball continues its unstoppable march forward, existing at all times in the past, present, and future simultaneously. Arguing about the past feels as effective as an old man yelling at a cloud, but as time passes those decisions of yesteryear sometimes appear more vulnerable to a modern criticism.
Sitting here in the future we scoff at stories of pre-SABRmetric stats deciding major awards, like frontier doctors using leeches and brandy to treat their patients. Those fools. If only they had known. On the 25th anniversary of one of the more egregious cases in Cleveland baseball history, let us ask the question: should Kenny Lofton have been the 1992 American League Rookie of the Year?
The 1992 Major League Baseball season does not occupy a significant position in Indians lore. The Atlanta Braves won their second straight pennant. The Toronto Blue Jays won the AL flag and World Series. The Rockford Peaches came one relay throw short of a league title (wait that was A League of Their Own, my bad). The Indians finished 76-86, 20 games behind East Champion Toronto as a member of the AL East (yeah, that long ago). Youngsters like Sandy Alomar Jr, Carlos Baerga, and Jim Thome got their licks in, developing their craft for the years to come. One of the club’s brightest spots wore No. 7 and patrolled center field.
Cleveland acquired Kenny Lofton from Houston after the 1991 season in exchange for pitcher Willie Blair and catcher Ed Taubensee (Super fun fact: Taubensee would later hoist Lofton after the latter scored the game winner of The Impossible Return in 2001). Houston called up Lofton in mid-September 1991 and he played 20 games for the Astros hitting .203/.253/.216 with a double and two stolen bases. Not remarkable, but at 24 years old there was still optimism that Lofton could grow into a solid player. It just wouldn’t be in Houston. The Stros already had Luis Gonzalez, 23; Steve Finley, 26; and Tuffy Rhodes, 22 in the outfield so there was no room for Kenny. Cleveland needed an outfielder and could spare a battery. On December 10 1991, Lofton got word that Cleveland had acquired him.
Before diving into Lofton’s rookie season let’s look over the year’s award winner: Milwaukee Brewers shortstop Pat Listach. The 1992 Brewers went 92-70 and finished four games behind the Blue Jays in the AL East. A 24-year-old rookie, Listach helped motor the Brewers offense. His back-of-the-card numbers were solid: .290 batting average, a dinger, 47 RBI. The numbers were more than respectable for a 24-year-old rook. Listach played all but three games at shortstop where he boasted a .966 fielding percentage with 24 errors. Listach lit up the bath paths with 54 stolen bases (second in the AL) and even finished 18th in the AL MVP vote with 8.0 points, good for a 2% share. For reference: Oakland pitcher Dennis Eckersley won the MVP with 306.0 points. So, looking beyond the basic stats, does Kenny or Listach have a more compelling case to the modern fan?
If a voter in 1992 would only consider a player’s basic statistics (and they did), then an argument could be made for either player. Listach had the edge on batting average, RBI, hits, and doubles. Lofton belted more homers, scored more runs, drew more walks, struck out less, stole more bases, committed fewer errors, and earned a higher fielding percentage (though defensively Lofton had roughly 300 fewer chances as he patrolled center field). Based there, the vote could go either way. Does the inclusion of more nuanced statistics change the tone?
If we consider next level statistics Kenny Lofton quickly separates himself. He threw down a higher OPS, OPS+, wRC+ and perhaps most importantly WAR. It’s difficult to sum up a player’s entire season in one statistic, but WAR is as close as we have. Baseball-Reference gives Lofton a full 2.2 more wins above replacement than the actual award winner. Considering these more modern criteria, Lofton could reasonably dispute the result.
Ultimately Listach received 122 vote points, including 20 first place votes, and an 87% share. Kenny Lofton finished second with 85 vote points, 7 first of which were first place votes, and a 61% share. Seattle pitcher Dave Fleming finished third with 23 vote points and Milwaukee pitcher Cal Eldred came in fourth with 22 vote points. Lofton certainly received ample consideration in the vote, but perhaps Milwaukee’s winning record and strong showing influenced his position.
Listach stuck with Milwaukee until 1996 though he would never play more than 101 games in any subsequent season. He joined Houston for 52 games of the 1997 season before eventually hanging up his cleats. Lofton played for eleven different teams over 17 years, though his best were undeniably played in Cleveland both in the 90s and his 2007 return (Skinner!).
So, who cares, right? What is the point of exhuming this quarter century old award and examining it again? Because sometimes baseball mirrors life; it’s different now than how it used to be. The voters of 1992 did the best they could with the information they had. They were neither right nor wrong1 as there was no objectively correct answer. Now, however, sports fans and reporters value different statistics. The tools we use to examine and dissect the game have evolved and so too has our sense of which statistics matter. Baseball fans are different than those from 25, 50, or a 100 years ago. The beauty of the game is that in any one of those years it’s still ninety feet to first. We may look back in 2042 and think how silly the folks of 2017 were for not imagining a pitcher could throw 125 miles per hour, did not appreciate the value of mascot hilarity, or were simply trapped in their own era. I don’t know if Kenny Lofton still longs for that elusive trophy, but in this writer’s opinion he should have won it.