The 2018 Baseball Hall of Fame ballot is loaded with a plethora of talented players. Some may seem like more sure things than others, while there are other cases that are certain to inspire furious debate. Continuing a series, we’re exploring some of these non-locks who are making their first appearance on the ballot and dissect their cases piece by piece. Let’s continue with center fielder Andruw Jones.
Jones was just 19 when he burst on to the national stage as a 19-year-old in 1996 with the Atlanta Braves, hitting three post-season home runs and playing spectacular defense. He followed that up with a decade run as perhaps the best pound-for-pound defensive player in the game, while averaging .268, 34 home runs and 101 RBIs per season.
One must go back to his defense, particularly during the first decade of his career. Breathtaking, immortal and legendary are all words that aptly describe his abilities in the field without the fear of being too generous in the description. Based on metrics and the “eye test” he is a solid candidate when it comes to discussing the all-time greats. In fact, his 24.1 career dWAR is the best ever by an outfielder.
Jones peaked in 2005 with the Braves, slugging a league-leading 51 home runs and 128 RBIs to go along with a .263 batting average and his other-worldly glove work. He won a Gold Glove and finished second in MVP voting to Albert Pujols.
Through his age 30 season Jones appeared to be a superior candidate for the Hall. Then his career went off the rails. He played only five more years, for four different teams. His production dropped so significantly that he was only a part-time player during that time, providing below average production; even seeing his defense take a significant tumble—at least according to advanced metrics.
Overall, Jones ended up playing 17 major league seasons, hitting .254 with 434 home runs, 1,289 RBIS and 152 stolen bases. He had 1,933 hits and 1,204 runs scored. His 62.8 bWAR puts him in the same range as Hall of Fame outfielders Billy Williams (63.6) and Dave Winfield (63.8).
Although he never won a World Series, he played in an impressive 11 post seasons, hitting a combined .273 with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs in 76 games. He made five All Star Games and won 10 Gold Gloves, giving him a pleasingly cluttered mantel.
Other than being 47th all time in home runs and 105th in position player bWAR, he doesn’t have any stand-out stats offensively. Defensively is another story. He’s second in Total Zone Runs (1st as a center fielder); 25th in putouts; 34th in assists. Essentially, the advanced statistics back up his legend as a defender.
It would seem to be that placing Jones in the Hall based on his offensive numbers would be a non-starter. He had could handle a bat, but nothing that would make him a slam dunk. However, his defense was so world-class that largely whatever else he did in a game was gravy.
Shortstop Ozzie Smith, who played a more demanding position in the field, was a deserving first-ballot selection in 2002. The Wizard of Oz was transcendent with the glove and at his best was merely competent with his bat. It is okay to have players enshrined for their excellence on one side of the ball. Jones not only matches Smith in defensive impact, he also did quite a bit more offensively.
The true challenge to Jones’ candidacy was the shortness of his peak. He was done as an average player, let alone a stellar player, by the time he was 30. However, since he debuted at such a precocious age, he was able to produce a decade of outstanding play, which is a pretty nice run.
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