|Name:||Kenneth Lofton||Position:||Center Field|
|Tribe Time:||1992-96, 1998-01, 2007||Number:||7|
|All-Star Games||5 Time All-Star (1994-96, 1998-99)||DOB:||May 31, 1967|
|Accolades:||4 Gold Gloves (1993-96), Top 5 MVP (1994), Top 15 MVP (1993, 1996)|
|Best Season (1996)||154||662||132||210||35||4||14||67||61||82||75||17||82%||.372||.446||.317||.818|
|Post Season Career||50||201||34||50||6||2||5||22||25||38||23||2||92%||.317||.373||.249||.690|
One of the most popular players in Indians history, Kenny Lofton made a huge impact on the team in many different facets, rewriting the stolen base record books, making highlight film defensive plays still watched today and helping carry the team to the post-season on an annual basis.
A star college basketball player at the University of Arizona, Lofton was initially drafted by Houston in 1988, then made his Major League debut for the Astros in 1991. He didn’t stand out that year, however, and was traded to Cleveland at the end of that season for Eddie Taubensee and Willie Blair in one of the most lopsided trades in Indians history. This would also be the beginning of a string of incredibly one sided trades that would ultimately bring David Justice to Cleveland, then Jake Westbrook and finally Corey Kluber.
While Lofton only had 20 Major League games under his belt and little proof he could hit there, he began the 1992 season as the Indians starting center fielder and would ultimately play 148 games, batting .285 and setting a new single season steal record with 66, surpassing Miguel Dilone‘s 61 from 1980. He was only caught 12 times that year and this would set off five straight seasons where he would lead the American League in steals. Despite an MLB rookie best 6.6 WAR, he lost to Pat Listach of Milwaukee, finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting.
Despite winning just 76 games in 1992, the Indians had the base for future success in the place and Lofton was one of the final pieces added. In 1993, they would maintain the same record, but Lofton would improve significantly. Not only did he win his first of four consecutive Gold Gloves, but he finished in the top 15 in MVP voting and set a new Indians stolen base record with 70, again in 148 games. To this point, only 29 hitters in Indians history had stolen 66 bases in their careers and Lofton that and more in each of his first two seasons. The career record was held by Terry Turner with just 254 and it would only take four seasons and five games to surpass that mark, ultimately stealing 452 in his ten year career.
While Lofton had many great season in Cleveland, the argument as to which was his best should consider only 1994 and 1996. Unfortunately, the strike shortened the 1994 season and left many things open ended, including what very well would have been the Indians first post-season appearance since 1954. Despite playing in only 112 games, Lofton still stole 60 bases and lead the league with 160 hits. For the first time in his career, Lofton showed some power, hitting 12 home runs and slugging .536, the only season in his long career above .500.
For his efforts, Lofton was selected for his first All-Star Game, won his second Gold Glove and came in fourth in MVP voting, behind his teammate Albert Belle and losing to Frank Thomas despite leading all Major Leaguers with a 7.2 WAR.
In the 1995 season, the Indians finally broke through to the post-season and it was largely thanks to Lofton hitting at the top of the line-up. Again with the season shortened by the strike, he played just 118 games, but hit .310 while leading the league with 13 triples and stealing 54 bases. While he struggled in the first round against Boston, Lofton’s ALCS against Seattle was one of the greatest post-season series in Indians history as he batted .458 with two triples, five steals (he was never caught) and four runs scored. He would add six more steals (caught once) in the World Series loss to Atlanta despite only reaching base eight times.
The 1996 season for Lofton would be the closest representation of what could have happened if the 1994 season had been played to completion. He set a new career best with 14 home runs, stole 75 bases and hit .317. The 75 steals would set a new Indians record that stands to this day and he was caught just 17 times. He would finish 11th in the AL MVP voting for this season, losing to Juan Gonzalez of Texas (Belle came in 3rd), but playing in his third straight All-Star game. In his second straight post-season run, Lofton wasn’t great, but still stole five bases in the ALDS against Baltimore. Prior to Lofton, the career record in play-off steals for the Indians was one, held by four players. To this day, only two players had more than four steals in the post-season for the Tribe, Lofton and Omar Vizquel (both ended their careers tied at 23) and Lofton beat that number in three of his first four post-season series.
Heading into the 1997 season, Lofton had just one year left of team control and, unlike many of his teammates including Charles Nagy, Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez, had been unwilling to sign a multi-year extension. Wanting to get value before losing him to free agency, John Hart traded Lofton to Atlanta in another incredible deal, bringing back the villain from the 1995 World Series, David Justice, as well as Lofton’s replacement, Marquis Grissom.
Grissom would be a solid replacement for Lofton both offensively and defensively, although Justice would be the true value in the deal as he’d ultimately replace Belle in the line-up, playing four years for the Indians as left fielder and DH. Lofton would make the NL All-Star team in 1997 and visit the play-offs, but it was the Marlins who would face the Indians in the World Series this time. Once he hit free agency at the end of the year, Lofton was quick to come back to Cleveland, signing a four year, $30.6M deal.
Lofton’s stolen base numbers fell in Atlanta to 27 in 47 chances, but he would take 54 again with the Indians in 1998. This would be the final season of 50 or more in his career and give him six of the Indians top seven single season stolen base totals ever with Dilone’s 1981 sandwiched in the middle. Again, he added 12 home runs and more than 30 doubles to earn his fifth straight All-Star appearance. He would have an incredible ALDS against Boston with two home runs and two steals while batting .375, but hit pooly in the ALCS as the Tribe fell to New York.
Lofton had one more great year in him for 1999 as he hit .301, made his sixth and final All-Star game and held a 5.6 WAR, his eighth straight year being worth at least four wins. This is not to say Lofton was still not a solid player after his age 32 season, although there was a significant drop off. In 2000, the team was on a downturn and Lofton did have high points of 30 steals and a career best 15 home runs, but he missed both the All-Star game and the play-offs for the first time since 1993. He would make an appearance in the latter in 2001, although he played poorly in the Indians five game loss to Seattle.
A free agent for the second time, Lofton signed with the White Sox, but he would finish the year in San Francisco after a trade, playing in the post-season again and losing the World Series for a second time. Incredibly, Lofton always managed to find his way into the post-season during the twilight of his career, playing for the Cubs in 2003, the Yankees in 2004, the Dodgers in 2006 and coming back to Cleveland in 2007.
Despite being 39 year olds in 2006, Lofton had quite the resurgence in LA, stealing 32 bases and only getting caught five times. He also batted over .300 for one last time and walked more than he struck out for the first time since 2000, although his walk and strike out numbers were always close. After this run with the Dodgers, he signed with Texas and was traded to Cleveland just before the deadline for Max Ramirez (who was himself required for Bob Wickman). This time, Lofton wasn’t the centerpiece of the outfield, but a role player, often playing in left field next to Grady Sizemore and hitting in the bottom third of the line-up rather than lead-off.
This would be the last post-season appearance for Lofton as he retired as an Indian after the 2007 season. In it, he knocked in four runs in the ALDS against New York, then stole a base and hit two doubles against the Red Sox in the ALCS.
Playing for the Indians for a decade, Lofton has certainly left his marks on the record books. He is in the top ten in career at bats and hits and the top five in runs scored. He is also second all time in stolen base percentage behind only Roberto Alomar, who only spent three years with the team. In all of MLB history he ranks 15th in career steals and 61st in career runs scored with a career WAR of 68.2. Of the players listed as his most similar on Baseball-Reference, four of the top eight are Hall of Famers including the recently inducted Tim Raines and another soon-to-be Hall of Famer, Ichiro Suzuki, is included in the top ten as well.
Despite all these accolades, Lofton was overlooked when it came to Hall of Fame voting, receiving just 3.2% as he was knocked off the ballot after just a single season. He has been been enshrined in the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame, however, and will always be remembered as one of the greatest centerfielders in Indians history.