This is the Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players — an imaginary sports museum devoted solely to the unsung and underrated. The players honored here probably won’t make their sports’ Halls of Fame, but they made an important mark on their games nonetheless.
That was certainly true of today’s subject, longtime Atlanta Braves center fielder Andruw Jones, who produced some huge moments with both his bat and (especially) his glove over a 17-year MLB career. Jones seemed like a future Hall of Famer from the moment he hit two home runs in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series at age 19 — making him the youngest player to ever go deep in the Fall Classic:
|Category||Value||Rank at Pos.|
|Black Ink Test||10||36|
|Gray Ink Test||47||69|
|Years on ballot||3||—|
But Jones’s path to Cooperstown somehow got sidetracked along the way. Whether we look at his traditional qualifications or his ballot history, Jones now has little chance of making the Hall, his hopes mainly resting on advanced defensive metrics that engender as much skepticism as they do awe.
It didn’t have to be like this. In fact, few players have ever started their careers off on a better foot than Jones did. According to wins above replacement,1 only 24 position players since 1901 were better through their age-30 seasons than Jones, whose resume by then already included four 7-WAR seasons — the same number as Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Robinson and Joe DiMaggio. Of those 24 batters ahead of Jones, the only non-Hall of Famers are either not yet eligible (Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez) or disgraced for using performance-enhancing drugs (Barry Bonds). Meanwhile, Jones also started in 982 team victories from 1996 to 2007, third-most in baseball behind only Braves teammate Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter.
Then Jones signed a two-year, $36 million free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers … and everything fell apart. In truth, Jones’s play had already begun to slip in 2007, when he hit just .222 (45 points below his previous career average) and belted his fewest home runs in eight years (26, after hitting 92 total over the previous two seasons). But at least his defense was still Gold Glove-worthy and his WAR (3.2) still respectable in his final Braves campaign. Not so once he donned Dodger blue: In 2008, Jones hit .158 in just 75 games with only three homers and -1.4 WAR as he grappled with injuries and poor play. L.A. released him after only one season, and he bounced around from the Rangers to the White Sox and finally the Yankees over the next four years before retiring in 2016.
It was a stunning fall from grace: After generating 62.6 WAR through his age-30 season, Jones mustered just 2.2 from age 31 onward — meaning 96.6 percent of Jones’s value was already in the books by age 30. Among position players since 1901 with at least 50 career WAR, nobody else produced a larger share of their total wins during the 30-and-under portion of their careers.
|Player||Total||Thru Age 30||After Age 30||Share Thru 30|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||80.7||75.0||5.6||93.0|
Most players — even great ones — decline as they age into their 30s, but essentially no one as good as Jones fell off a cliff so quickly and thoroughly as he did.
What happened? Although billed as a five-tool prospect, Jones was never the best contact hitter, with a batting average (.263) 8 points below league average even during his Atlanta years. But his ability to avoid strikeouts and get hits on balls in play — the two cornerstones of a good batting average — went from subpar to downright terrible after he left the Braves. At the same time, Jones’s speed and base-running skills, which once saw him swipe 92 bases in a four-year span, badly deteriorated as he gained weight, battled injuries and morphed into a bulky slugger. For the same reasons, his defense, which once saw him make the impossible look routine, had become mediocre at best. Forget five tools; late-career Jones was a one-tool player on a good day.
|Category||Thru Age 30||After Age 30|
|Hits on balls in play||31st||
|Hitting for power||85th||
Even so, Jones’s early-career work was still stellar enough to warrant Cooperstown consideration. He ranks 12th among all primary center fielders since 1901 in lifetime WAR and 11th in JAWS (an average of career and peak wins above replacement).2 Though the latter figure (55.8) isn’t quite up to the Hall of Fame average for the position (62.8), it’s close enough for conversation. And there has been plenty of conversation about Jones’s merits — if little actual traction among the baseball writers. In the last ballot (Jones’s third appearance), he garnered 19.4 percent of the vote, well behind where the average Hall-bound player at this stage of his candidacy. (Based on the regression we ran here, a player with 19.4 percent support through three ballots has less than a 1 percent chance of getting to the required 75 percent threshold within his next seven tries.)
In a way, Jones has been underrated throughout the process. He was nearly the best player on a team that was nearly the best in baseball for more than a decade. Among players who were in Atlanta for its streak of 14 consecutive division titles (1991 through 2005), only Chipper Jones (84.9), John Smoltz (75.6) and Greg Maddux (70.7) had more WAR than Andruw Jones (62.6). (He was actually clear of Tom Glavine, the final member of the franchise’s fabled Big Three pitchers, who had 61.4 WAR.) Yet Jones was still frequently overshadowed by the other Hall of Famers in his midst. It didn’t help either that Atlanta’s streak ended in 2006, when Jones was still putting up star numbers but without the same supporting cast. Jones’s career WAR in Atlanta would have been enough to rank first on 28 of MLB’s 30 teams over that span … yet it wasn’t even enough to lead his own ballclub — even among guys named “Jones”!
And then there’s the big debate about Jones’s defense. Nobody is doubting that Jones was an incredible defender — his 10 Gold Gloves speak for themselves — but the question is how incredible, compared with his historical counterparts. According to the defensive-runs estimates that go into WAR, Jones is not only on the short list of best fielders ever across all positions, but he is also the single greatest defensive outfielder in baseball history by no small margin:
|1||Ozzie Smith||SS||+388||1||Andruw Jones||+265|
|2||Brooks Robinson||3B||+358||2||Willie Mays||+168|
|3||Mark Belanger||SS||+349||3||Paul Blair||+163|
|4||Cal Ripken Jr.||SS||+325||4||Devon White||+156|
|5||Ivan Rodriguez||C||+307||5||Jim Piersall||+147|
|6||Yadier Molina||C||+306||6||Kenny Lofton||+145|
|7||Luis Aparicio||SS||+303||7||Mike Cameron||+118|
|8||Joe Tinker||SS||+293||8||Lorenzo Cain||+110|
|9||Rabbit Maranville||SS||+285||9||Jesse Barfield||+109|
|10||Omar Vizquel||SS||+275||10||Kevin Kiermaier||+102|
|11||Andruw Jones||CF||+265||11||Lance Johnson||+101|
|12||Pee Wee Reese||SS||+246||12||Brian Jordan||+100|
|13||Adrian Beltre||3B||+239||13||Garry Maddox||+95|
|14||Art Fletcher||SS||+238||14||Curt Flood||+95|
|15||Bob Boone||C||+237||15||Roberto Clemente||+94|
Similar to how fellow HoPDG member Todd Helton had stats that were too good to believe, Jones’s defensive metrics have crossed the line from “impressive” to “suspicious.” Bill James has argued that Jones’s numbers are inflated relative to the best fielders of earlier eras (like, say, Willie Mays) because the defensive data from Jones’s era is much better — and therefore we can have more confidence in it, making the ranges between the best and worst fielders wider for modern players.
Since so much of Jones’s Hall of Fame case relies on his tremendously high defensive value, you essentially need to believe he was worth 10 more wins than Mays (or any other outfielder) with the glove to get him over the Cooperstown hump. That’s, um, a big ask. “I believe that Andruw Jones was a fine defensive center fielder,” James wrote in 2018. “But I don’t necessarily believe that he was twice as good a center fielder as Willie Mays. I’m a little skeptical.”
But that’s the nature of any purely analytical framework — especially one based on an ever-evolving data set — that measures player contributions over time. For instance, the ranges for RAPTOR, our NBA player rating metric, are wider during the current era (in which player-tracking data is available) than for the simpler historical version that uses only box score data. That results in modern players like Steph Curry having higher per-possession ratings than Larry Bird, which feels odd. But the truth is that we can be more confident about what Curry added to his team relative to Bird, if all we’re using are the available statistics to compare them.
Like Andruw Jones vs. Willie Mays, we simply have more reliable data on the best players of modern times than the players from many decades ago — and because of this, we should be more confident that the best modern players are truly great. (Along the same lines, metrics developed using StatCast should be even better, and more reliable, than the state-of-the-art metrics during Jones’s career.) As a sanity check, when Tom Tango looked at the ranges on fielding metrics by measuring team runs allowed with and without each fielder, he found that Jones’s reputation was not overblown by any means. Through 2008, his teams had recorded the equivalent of about 40 more outs per season with him than without, based on a variety of factors.
Besides, you can’t tell me these catches don’t belong in the same family tree as Mays’s most famous and improbable snag:
In the end, Jones will probably not make the Hall of Fame, and it’s debatable as to whether he even should. His midcareer nosedive will be held against him, and the greatness of Jones’s teammates — plus the fact that he joined them a half-decade into their quasi-dynasty — meant he was always going to be a bit overlooked. But during his era, Jones was an underrated offensive threat capable of, at varying times, hitting 50 homers, drawing 80 walks and stealing nearly 30 bases. And nobody was more fun to watch patrol center field. Cooperstown or not, that all makes Jones a fitting member of the Hall of Pretty Damn Good Players.
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