It’s safe to say that Andruw Jones has been one of the most disappointing baseball players in recent memory. Just five years ago, Jones was in the middle of a fantastic season wherein he hit 51 homers with a .922 OPS (despite a .240 BABIP) and was worth 8.3 WAR. As recently as 2007, he slammed 26 long balls while driving in 94 and accumulating 3.8 WAR.
Then disaster struck. In 2008, after signing a two-year, $36 million with the Dodgers, Jones absolutely tanked, hitting just .158 with three homers and a .505 OPS; he struck out in more than a third of his at-bats and his once prodigious power disappeared, as evidenced by his Michael Bourn-esque .091 ISO.
In the 160 games Jones has played with the Rangers and White Sox in 2009-10, he’s regained some of his lost power, bashing 32 homers with a .244 ISO in just under 600 plate appearances. However, those numbers don’t seem particularly special for a guy who’s spent the majority of his time at first base and DH, especially when combined with a putrid .209 batting average. No one’s mistaking him for an All-Star.
And yet, there is no doubt that Andruw Jones belongs in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
For starters, let’s not be too hasty and dismiss his earlier offensive accomplishments. In 12 years with the Braves, he averaged 33 homers and 98 RBI per 162 games with an .824 OPS. He hit the 20/20 club three times, including his 31/27 season in 1998.
His 403 career homers put him 46th all-time — ahead of current Cooperstown residents Al Kaline (399), Jim Rice (382), Ralph Kiner (369), and Albert Pujols (okay, so he’s not in the Hall of Fame yet, but I’m sure they’re already planning out his plaque). And while 31 was a tad on the young side for a complete collapse, don’t forget that he had established himself as a key part of the Braves’ outfield before he was old enough to drink. But all of that is just icing on the cake.
Forget everything he did at the plate, on the basepaths, or in the dugout; if for no other reason, Andruw Jones deserves to be enshrined because of what he did in center field. Jones isn’t just one of the best defensive outfielders of his generation — he’s arguably the best-fielding outfielder of all time, and surely ranks among the top glovesmen in baseball history at any position.
Jones won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1998-2007. Even opening it up to players who were honored in multiple, nonconsecutive years, that beats Ichiro (nine), Torii Hunter (nine), Andre Dawson (eight), Jim Edmonds (eight), Larry Walker (seven), and Kenny Lofton (four). The only outfielders who have ever done better are Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente (12 apiece), but I’m sure you’ll join me in condoning Jones for not quite living up to their lofty standard.
Of course, you could argue that Gold Gloves are a popularity contest, and aren’t necessarily the best way to determine the game’s best defenders (see “Kemp, Matt” and “Jeter, Derek” last year). It’s true, they don’t accurately describe Jones’ accomplishments — they don’t do them justice.
According to TotalZone (used for seasons from 1954-2001) and Ultimate Zone Rating (2002-now), Jones has saved 274.3 runs in his career with his glove. Two-hundred seventy-four point-three runs. That’s about 28-wins worth of value for his career without taking into account anything he’s done with his bat.
If that number isn’t terribly impressive to you, perhaps you should consider the context: it’s the best score of any outfielder in baseball history, and a look at the Top 10 shows that it’s not particularly close:
These statistics are far from perfect, and there’s definitely an argument to be made that the older numbers are particularly flawed. But even if we can’t use it to compare players of different eras (could the margin of error really be more than 70 runs?), we can see just how amazing Jones has been by comparing him to his contemporaries. If you noticed that the only other names of those 10 who played at the same time as Jones were Bonds (whose days as a serviceable fielder were numbered by the time Jones made his debut) and the woefully unappreciated Jordan, you can probably see where this is going.
Darin Erstad (146.6)? Ichiro (120.2)? Carl Crawford (119.8)? Lofton (114.5)? Mike Cameron (110.7)? Walker (86.0)? Edmonds (57.5)? None of them even come close. In fact, Jones’ score is better than any two of those names’ combined.
It’s not just outfielders, either. Jones’ TZR/UZR is the second best of all-time, behind only Brooks Robinson. Compare his 274.3 runs saved with Cal Ripken Jr.’s 181.0, Ivan Rodriguez’ 156.0, Luis Aparicio’s 149.0, and Omar Vizquel’s 136.4. He even beats true defensive legends like Joe Tinker (180.0), Honus Wagner (85.0), and the amazing Ozzie Smith (239.0). If you can go toe-to-toe with the “Wizard of Oz” in the field, you barely need a pulse offensively to deserve a place in Cooperstown.
Jones hasn’t had time to slowly build up his score by being a consistently solid fielder; instead, he grabbed the bull by the horns and has enjoyed some of the best individual defensive seasons in baseball history.
In 1998 — at age 21 — he was worth 35 runs in the field, which at the time was tied for the second-best defensive performance since tracking began in 1950. In 1999, he promptly went out and beat that, earning 36 TZR. All told, he appears on the Top 80 list for single-season Total Zone Rating five times. And that’s not including UZR, which has been kinder to him than TZR since 2003.
Will the BBWAA vote him in when his time comes? Probably not. Even assuming the voters have learned how to use the newfangled defensive metrics by then (far from a sure thing, given that a majority of NL Cy Young voters implicitly declared wins to be the most important pitching statistic last year), there are too many reasons for them to doubt his candidacy.
While TZR and UZR make sense and are great tools for getting a general idea of a player’s defensive prowess, they’re too inconsistent for fans to take as the word of God (though, in my opinion, a 70-run lead is more than enough to cancel out the margin of error). Aside from that, you’ve just got a free-swinging, power-hitting outfielder (a dime a dozen over the last 20 years) who fell off a cliff right before his 32nd birthday. He’d have to return to his younger form and maintain it for at least a few more years in order to have a realistic shot at Cooperstown.
But, as the Beatles once sang, “all you need is glove” (unless I heard that wrong), and that’s what Ozzie Smith proved when he got more than 90 percent of the vote for the Hall of Fame in 2002. Combine phenomenal defense with a solid bat (remember those 403 homers?) and there’s no question Andruw Jones deserves a spot in Cooperstown.
Lewie Pollis is a freshman at Brown University studying political science. He also contributes to BleacherReport.com, ManCaveSports.org, and Green Pages, the quarterly publication of the U.S. Green Party.