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:
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:
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:
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.