Hall monitor: The case for Andruw Jones

I first saw Andruw Jones play baseball all the way back in 1996. I happened to be near Durham at the time, visiting a friend, and we headed out to the almost-new Durham Bulls Athletic Park to take in a game.

My friend wanted to see the Park for the first time. I wanted to see Andruw Jones.

Later, I remember telling people about the sound of the ball coming off Jones’ bat in batting practice, and the way he glided effortlessly in center field. To be honest, I doubt I really saw any of that; I was a dumb kid who wanted to know something about baseball that my friends hadn’t discovered yet. A baseball hipster. I cringe at the thought.

A few months later, I was still a dumb kid, away at college and watching Game 1 of the World Series. As most of you will remember, the 19-year-old Jones burst his way into the national consciousness that night by hammering two homers and driving in five runs. It was the opening act for one of the most interesting careers of his generation.

Nearly two decades later, Jones is still playing baseball. In 2013, Jones hit .243/.391/.454 with 26 homers, 94 RBI, and 105 walks for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan. (Also plying their trade with the Japan Series champion Rakuten: former big-leaguers Casey McGehee, Kazuo Matsui, and Takashi Saito.)

Unfortunately, and for a number of very good reasons, Jones’ career in the big leagues is almost certainly over. He’ll be 37 next spring, with off-field issues in the recent past, and it’s hard to see any team giving him another chance. Which means that this is as good a time as any to assess Andruw Jones’ case for the Hall of Fame. He’s probably a better candidate than you think.

Before we explore this, we should probably acknowledge something: I fear there is almost no chance that Andruw Jones ever gets elected to the Hall of Fame. He has a reputation as a player who wasn’t committed (or was lazy, depending upon who you ask), based mostly on his struggles with weight. Voters will remember a 31-year-old Jones signing a big contract with the Dodgers, showing up to camp out of shape, and proceeding to play as poorly as anyone in the big leagues. Voters will also remember those last five injury-plagued seasons at the end of his career.

And that will be a shame. Jones did more than enough before his career fizzled out to be a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate.

Five-time All-Star. Ten Gold Gloves. For his career, Jones accumulated 67.8 wins above replacement (FanGraphs version). That’s a higher number than was posted by Barry Larkin, Paul Molitor, Ozzie Smith, Willie McCovey, Robin Yount, Tony Gwynn, and a number of other Hall of Famers. Jones’ WAR total ranks ninth all-time among center fielders; every player ahead of him on that list is already in the Hall of Fame.

Jones’ 434 homers is the fourth-best total for any player in history who played at least 50% of their games in center field, behind such luminaries as Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mickey Mantle. Let’s not kid ourselves, however; though he was good, if flawed, as a hitter, Andruw Jones’ Hall of Fame case relies on his brilliant defense.

Jones was the best defensive player of his generation, and there’s a good case to be made that he’s the best defensive center fielder of all time. If you watched him play, you remember him reaching balls that no other center fielder could get. Jones always brought to mind a compliment that had been directed at Joe DiMaggio a half-century earlier. DiMaggio purportedly never had to dive for a ball. He just glided over to it. That’s the way Jones was.

Okay, that’s enough anecdotal evidence. I already mentioned the ten Gold Gloves; that’s an imperfect measure to be sure, but Mays was the only center fielder to win more (though Griffey also won ten). Let’s dig deeper, and take a look at some defensive metrics. Here are the top five center fielders in baseball history, judged by defensive WAR:

1. Andruw Jones 24.2 dWAR
2. Paul Blair 18.5
3. Willie Mays 17.9
4. Devon White 16.1
5. Jim Piersall 15.2

It should be noted that Junior Griffey, who is most cited as the best defensive center fielder of his era, comes in at 94th on that list. While Griffey was a brilliant center fielder early in his career, his defense was frankly disastrous near the end.

Next up, defensive runs saved, which is a measure of how many runs a player saved over and above what an average player would have saved. Here is the list of the top five center fielders of all-time by DRS:

1. Andruw Jones 236 DRS
2. Willie Mays 183
3. Jim Piersall 175
4. Paul Blair 174
5. Devon White 135

There is a pretty significant gap between Jones and the runners-up on both these lists. If we expand our view, and look at the all-time leaders in defensive runs saved for any position (not just center field), Jones looks like a defensive legend:

1. Brooks Robinson 292 DRS
2. Mark Belanger 240
3. Ozzie Smith 239
4. Andruw Jones 236
5. Roberto Clemente 204

Wow. Just, wow. Certainly, there are flaws with these metrics, but a picture is beginning to emerge of Jones as one of the great defenders in history.

Now let’s put it all together by taking a look at Jay Jaffe’s JAWS rankings for center fielders. JAWS is a quick and dirty way to evaluate a player’s Hall of Fame credentials by comparing him to players who have already been inducted at his fielding position. Basically, it averages a player’s career WAR and peak WAR.

Jones is ranked tenth among players at his position; while his career WAR is slightly below the average of the 18 center fielders who have been inducted, his peak WAR is well above the Hall of Fame average. Importantly, there are no eligible center fielders ahead of Jones in the JAWS rankings who haven’t been inducted (though Carlos Beltran and Kenny Lofton are going to have great cases, in their own right, once they become eligible).

In some ways, Jones’ Hall of Fame case is similar to Ozzie Smith’s. Both were elite defenders at premium defensive positions, though Smith had a longer career as an effective shortstop than Jones had as a center fielder. However, Jones was, obviously, a much better offensive player. During the ten seasons from 1998 to 2007, Jones hit .266/.344/.503, while averaging 34 homers, 103 RBI, and 97 runs scored per year. Over that span, Jones averaged 6.1 WAR per 650 plate appearances. All while playing, perhaps, the greatest defense we’ve ever seen from a center fielder.

Maybe Jones could have extended his career by a couple of years if he had dedicated himself to a fitness regimen. I don’t know whether that’s a legitimate criticism or not. I never set foot in the Braves clubhouse, and I don’t know how hard Jones worked. For all we know, he was the hardest worker on the club. But if Jones had just been able to coax a couple more effective seasons out of his career, this article likely wouldn’t have been necessary.

Certainly, the standards for the Hall of Fame have become skewed lately by the continuing effort on the part of the voters to make a mess of the process. Perhaps I’m wrong, but once he becomes eligible, I’m afraid the baseball writers will have forgotten that decade-long period of brilliance we saw from Andruw Jones. That will be unfortunate.

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Comments

  1. aweb said...

    Kenny Lofton was a one and done on the HoF ballot (18 votes). Unfortunate, but he’s been eligible and overlooked already.

  2. Carl said...

    You define the issue very well.  However, I just don’t trust dWar as a stat.  Frankly, I remember Andruw Jones as a very good, but not historically great CFer.  Looking @ range stats, he was just slightly above average, and 1 or 2 very good years in assists, but he never even led the league even once.

  3. Dr. Doom said...

    @Carl-

    I just have a lot of trouble seeing “assists” being the most important stat for outfielders.  I’d much rather have a guy making putouts than assists, especially in center.  And Jones had wonderful range, particularly as a young player.  He’s actually a lot like Bernie Williams (though Jones was a much better player):  both were strong defensively as young players, and their offense blossomed as their defense faded.  If either had ever put the package together at the same time, they would have had arguments as a great player (Williams) or as an all-time great (Jones).  I see Andruw as a HOF-player.

    Quick Andruw Jones story.  I was at a Braves-Brewers game in Milwaukee on August 28, 2005.  Andruw was late in the best offensive season of his career.  With Chris Capuano pitching and the Crew up 1-0, Andruw came to bat with 2-men on.  Cappy fell behind in the count 3-1.  I looked at my dad, with whom I was sitting on the first base side, and I said, “Oh man.  With the year this guy’s having, you REALLY don’t want to fall behind.  Next pitch has gotta be a fastball up the middle, and then it’s bye-bye baseball.”  Next pitch:  fastball, meat of the plate.  Jones destroyed the pitch to left-center.  3-1 Braves.  There was a six-year-old (or so) kid sitting in front of me.  His dad was teaching him to keep score; you know, it was clearly one of those first-time-at-the-ballpark things.  He turned around and looked at me, with his jaw on the floor.  The kind of look that says, “How did he know?”  It gives me great pleasure to think back to that moment.  As a postscript, Andruw added another homer later in the game, just for good measure.  It was a solo shot.  My Brewers went home 5-2 losers that day.  But I got one of my favorite baseball memories of all-time.  I still have the scorecard.  Good day.

  4. Ian R. said...

    aweb is right: Lofton has already hit the ballot, and he dropped off after one year. That’s pretty unfortunate, and a super-crowded ballot is likely at least somewhat to blame.

    I find it fascinating how dissimilar and yet similar Jones and Lofton are. The former’s case is built on power and fantastic defense, the latter’s on speed and on-base skills. Jones had a terrific peak; Lofton had a more valuable career. Add it all up, though, and they’re both qualified Hall of Famers who will probably wait a long time to get in, if they make it at all.

  5. aweb said...

    From watching everyday, I know that Devon White was great enough to be a top-5 all-time CF – he also played the “glide, never dive” style. For a few years in Toronto, any ball hit well, in the air towards CF at all, was seemingly an automatic out. It took years of watching lesser players to recalibrate my brain to reasonable expectations for CF defense. I have no problem at all thinking White was one of the best 2 players (Alomar) on those championship teams, despite being an average hitter on teams loaded with great players.

    Jones, from what I saw during his younger days (which was limited, I admit), was likely at least as good. Jones played shallow, took away a lot of singles, and was still good enough to take away most of the XBHs too. White was incredibly good, but he couldn’t do that. And Jones was seemingly that good for 11 years, almost unheard of for elite OF defense.

  6. Carl said...

    DrDoom, – great story.

    I looked up his defensive stats on BR and found:

    in 1997 his RF/G was below league average (2.05 to 2.12) but interesting that when broken down below CF and RF his RF range was atrociious and his CF range was above average.
    in 1998 until 2004 his RF/9 was above average every year by (.19, .51, .16, .20, .37, .12, .09) but from 2005 until the end of his career in 2012 was below average. 
    This makes me think his 2005, 2006 and 2007 GGs were likely undeserved, and most folks remember his incredible 1999 fielding season w/o remembering the lesser years.  Given his career RF/G in CF was .08 better than league average, I feel his defense was/is greatly over-valued.  Over 150 games, I interpret that his defense in CF was worth about 12 hits better than average.

  7. jpomrenke said...

    Which range factor are you looking at, Carl? From that same B-R page:

    1997 – led all NL OFs in RF/9
    1999 – led all NL OFs in RF/9
    1999 – led all NL OFs in RF/G
    2000 – led all NL CFs in RF/G
    2001 – led all NL OFs in RF/G

    Range Factor, of course, is putouts + assists / innings played * 9. 

    It’s pretty well documented that runners stopped trying to take extra bases on Jones early in his career (especially after his 20-assist season in 1998, which by the way is the most assists by any center fielder since Willie Mays had 22 in 1955.) So I’m not sure how much I trust range factor to give me an accurate portrayal of Jones’ defense. His assist totals don’t reflect how great of an arm he had.

    That said, Jones’ putout numbers are pretty spectacular, too — correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe he, Garry Maddox, Willie Mays and Richie Ashburn are the only center fielders in the live-ball era to have 400+ putouts in at least five consecutive seasons.

    I just don’t see how anyone can look at Jones’ defense in any way (traditional stats, advanced stats, eye test) and not conclude that he was one of the greatest defensive players in history.

  8. squires8 said...

    His 2005/2006 years with 51/41 HRs and then huge decline makes one think of PEDs, no?

    signed,

    Brady Anderson

  9. Pedro Cabeza said...

    This is purely anecdotal, but in his prime nobody played any portion of the OF nearly as well as
    Andruw Jones.  DiMaggio?  Nope.  Willie?  Not hardly.  Any body else you can think of?  I doubt it.

    Were he still alive today, Skip Caray would make a fine case for both of the Jones boys, Andruw and Chipper, to be in any Hall of Fame.  Big Hall, or Little Hall: both belong in it.

  10. Dr. Doom said...

    @littlelucas-

    First of all, you do realize that you say “enough of the numbers mumbo jumbo” and then proceed to cite 2 numbers in the next sentence, don’t you?  The point is to use GOOD numbers, not just well-known ones.  Second of all, there are a great number of Hall of Famers who hit .300 only once (like Mike Schmidt) or even less than once (like Bill Mazeroski or Harmon Killebrew).  That one fact is not enough to keep someone out.  This is very obvious to anyone who studies the issue.  The question is:  was his overall quality of play, that is offense and defense, not just batting average, of the same caliber as a Hall of Fame player?  I think so.  Simply citing a batting average is proof of nothing.

  11. Barney Coolio said...

    Is it possible that Jones will be on the HOF ballot while still playing in Japan? That would be awesome.  He will first be on the ballot in late 2017, when he will be 40.  Keep playing Andruw!

  12. John C said...

    Some people still think batting average is anything. Tell them about Riggs Stephenson and how he hit .336 over 14 years in the big leagues but never made the Hall of Fame, and they’d tell you what an injustice that is, but talk about a guy who didn’t hit .300 but was worth three of Riggs Stephenson, and forget about it…

  13. littlelucas said...

    Andruw Jones quite simply is not a HOFer!!!!!!!! Please enough of the numbers mumbo jumbo. Batted over .300 once and above .275 one other time. Crazy talk in my mind.

  14. littlelucas said...

    Why not tell all the facts about Riggs Stephenson? He only played in over 100 games in a year 5 times in his career. I would in no way compare his career to Jones. Part time players do not deserve to be in the HOF. I quite simply think that the HOF should be reserved for elite players. Although Jones was a fine player I would not consider him an all time great. There are several HOFers (Mazeroski being one of them) that their selections could be questioned.

  15. Awalnoha said...

    I love Andruw Jones. I think he is the best defensive CF of his time playing and he was very good on offense for most of his career. This conversation begins and ends with his defense. On offense alone there is no way he is even considered for the HOF. I love his case because it is a good test case for traditional vs non-traditional stats.

    If looking at while he was playing then there is a very good argument for him. Best defensively and very good offensively.  His WAR gets him in in my opinion.

    But his career ended early, not because of injury, but because of his lack of commitment to the game.  If he stayed in shape and started for his 31-35 year old seasons and played good, not great defense and could contribute on offense then I would vote him in. It could raise his WAR by 8.

    If he ended his career by major injury then I vote him in, but he basically did not have the drive (if this is perception or reality it does not matter, perception is reality to hall of fame voters) and if there is one thing a HOFer must have above all else is the drive to be the best.  It was within his power to get him in and he did not do it so I say leave him out.

    If he gets in it is no crime, and it will mean the voters started looking at WAR and not just the standard numbers.  By his WAR he should get in. But I think you have to subtract some from him because of his lack of delivery on even more WAR and this should count against him.

  16. Jeff M. said...

    Look, I’m sorry, I’ll believe Jones was a very good center fielder for a while, but HOF, are you kidding me?  I saw him play very early, against the Yankees in ‘96, and while he covered a lot of ground, he got a terrible jump back then.  I assume that got much better.  Still, if you look from age 27 – 31, the heart of his career, his defensive win shares are 7.2, 5.8, 5, 7.5 and 2.4 Carlos Beltran, for the same ages, are 5.8, 7.3, 8.2, 6.6 and 6.5.  Beltran’s total offensive win shares for that period, about 122.  Jones, about 55.  So Beltran is more than twice the hitter, and better defensively to boot.How about Suzuki?  Total defensive WS, only 17.7, so about 11 less than Jones.  Total offensive WS, 110.  I could go on…

    • John Hale said...

      If you say that Andruw Jones ever got a bad jump, I’m not sure you were seeing things correctly. Suzuki is a shoe in HOF, so that’s a moot point. And Beltran was never half of the defender that Andruw Jones was. Jones is in the conversation with Mays and DiMagio, and no one else belongs in that discussion. Great thread, and I appreciate the article. I, too, have been making this argument for a long time and it’s usually laughed off, which is simply naive.

  17. Carl said...

    JPomrenke,

    Couple of points – While Garry Maddux had 4 seasons of 400+ putouts, and they were not consecutive. His 1977 season w “only” 385 POs kept him from 5 straight seasons.

    As far as they eye test, to me Torii Hunter and Devon White were both as good if not better CFer than Jones, and Hunter’s 2001 GG season w 460 POs and .57 RF/G greater than the league RF/G was pretty nice stats-wise.

    However, my major question/point would be how much was Andruw Jones’ defense worth?  He had an awesome defensive peak form 98-04, but giving the HoF because of a peak would be equivalent to awarding the HoF to someone w a nice peak but slightly better than value career (Jim Rice). Over the course of his career, I used some back of envelope figures that his defense would be worth 12 hits per season.  Would love to see more detailed analysis from someone else.

  18. Awalnoha said...

    Jeff M

    Basically we are arguing that he is not a HOFer but Beltran and his UZR are not even close. I just focused on UZR for simplicity so if they are off by 50% each way he is still better than Beltran, who I think is a good defensive player and a HOFer in my opinion.

    2002 2009 CF UZR

    Jones 15.7, 17.3, 24.4, 26.2, 12.8, 23.2, .3, no entry RF(.4)

    Beltran 7.1, 9.2, -.2, -2.9, 10.4, 2.9,12.5, -3.3,

  19. Paul G. said...

    Making the Hall of Fame based on defense is a tough row to hoe, especially since defensive metrics are still controversial.  The three main WAR metrics do not calculate defensive value the same, which leads to uncertainty, which leads to controversy, which leads to aging sports writers, who think an integral is something between hockey periods and went into journalism so they didn’t have to worry about carrying the 1, to declare superiority over all those eggheads who did not date enough in college.  Or to put it another way, mathematical uncertainly necessarily leads to subjectivity.

    That said, defense can push a candidate into the Hall of Fame, but it generally requires that the player be a borderline inductee with his bat (“Not only was he a great hitter but he occasionally tracked down a fly ball.  He could do it all!  He could even cut through a tin can, but why would he want to!”) or be the far and away greatest defensive player ever at the position (Bill Mazerowski + 30 years = HOF!) or to revolutionize the position (see Collins, Jimmy).  Andruw’s defensive stats are impressive and he may have been the greatest defender in center field ever, but outside of the stat world I don’t see a lot of enthusiasm for that lofty pedestal.  At best you can say he was the greatest center lawn fly catcher but not so far ahead of other defensive standouts that he, well, stands out.  It didn’t help that after his big contract he became a lumbering fatso doing his best Adam Dunn impression.

    And about that contract: It matters.  To sign a big contract and not be worth a penny of it, which Andruw was not and it was mostly of his own doings, is negatively impressive in the same way that hitting a clutch home run in the World Series is positively impressive.  He was to free agent signings as Ed Wood was to movies or “Chinese Democracy” was to music.  When you are so terrible that the team considers Juan Pierre to be a better option because, frankly, he is, and you are only 31-years-old, that is a dagger to a Hall of Fame candidacy.

    Pass.

  20. David P Stokes said...

    Ordinarily, I think Jones would be a likely but not certain HOFer based on his stats, but there’s going to be such a terrible logjam the next few years.  That’s going to really hurt someone like Jones who isn’t a lock.

  21. Skip said...

    Not a lot of mention here about the playoffs.  Not necessarily that he did OK in the playoffs (his slash line if 273/363/433 is similar to his Atlanta Braves years’ slash line of 263/342/497)… but just the fact that he was an integral part of so many successful teams.

    Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz are HOF worthy.  You have to believe that Andruw, while he was there, helped those guys… it has to feel good to pitch knowing that Andruw is behind you to clean up any mistakes.

    Or… does it go the other way?  Does Andruw’s defnsive statistics look better… because he had fewer hits (and fewer hard hit balls) due to the superstar pitching in front of him?

  22. said...

    I think what’s missed in all of this, especially in regard to the argument that he “let himself go,” or was “lazy,” as many accuse, is the fact that he started a minimum of 153 games for 11 years in a row. This is hardly heard of anymore in today’s game, and especially at a physically demanding position such as CF, and especially when you are often sacrificing your body to make diving plays as Andruw did. Even guys who are staples in lineups get days off every couple of weeks to rest, or they land on the DL at least once every couple of years for a hamm/quad/oblique, etc. Cox used to have to battle with him to get him out of the starting lineup, and many times over the years you would find out months after the fact that he had been playing large stretches of time through injuries that he would never complain about. After 11 years that will catch up to you. I think his body started to break down and fatigue but I don’t think it was all due to laziness, in fact I think it can be argued that it was quite the opposite.

    Also, why should we discount defense whatsoever in the conversation for HOF entry? I know that it’s more difficult to judge on paper due to the debate of metrics, etc., but we’re talking about the greatest amount of time spent on the baseball field. You spend a total of a few minutes per game in the batter’s box and 1.5 hours in the field. Furthermore, if you’re exceptional defensively, you’re saving runs, which is just as worthwhile as scoring or driving them in, and sometimes more so. Anyone who watched Andruw Jones play day after day knows that the guy was without equal as far as how he impacted the game. He absolutely changed the game with his reads, his jumps, his diving grabs, his arm. He absolutely and without a doubt deserved to win the MVP over Pujols in 2005, and he should have ended up with more rings had the Braves not crapped out of how many playoff series. It’s crazy to me to think that if he had played 2 more years and had a career batting average 25 points higher, but was less of a defensive force, people would probably give him more of a chance to get into the Hall. Crazy. I can’t find the quote, but I believe Willie Mays once said himself that Jones was the greatest he’s ever seen. If Ozzie Smith and Barry Larkin are in the HOF, Andruw Jones has to be.

  23. Alex Nates said...

    I certainly think that if Larry Doby and Duke Snider are in the HOF, Andruw Jones certainly deserves a nod. He gets traded from the braves and has a dismal beginning of the year with the dodgers for elbow surgery and everyone wrote him off. He hit 63 home runs in 966 abs as a bench player in 4 years. So if you can imagine what he would have done with more at bats he would be on the brink of 500 or already there. The guy played the best cf we have probably ever seen accompanied with Griffey just because of their ability to get to the ball and sacrificing their bodies if they had to. He certainly isn’t a first ballot hofer but I think he deserves consideration for that he did from the late 90′s to the mid 2000′s

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