Going Deep: Andruw Jones’ Cooperstown Candidacy
Major League Baseball has been overtaken by an influx of youth over the past decade; the current generation of dominant players is headlined by Mike Trout, a transcendent talent already ticketed for Cooperstown at just 27-year-old, with many others beginning to accumulate legendary resumes as they enter their primes. Not too long ago, Andruw Jones was the teenage superstar at the forefront of the Atlanta Braves’ historic NL East dominance. Jones was thrust into the spotlight as a 19-year-old prodigy when he clobbered two homers in the 1996 World Series. Jones, a native of Curacao, proceeded to establish himself as a kingpin to the Braves formula that was crucial in the securing of 10 straight division titles, bringing the scarcely possessed combination of elite offensive production and historically great defensive prowess to the table throughout his tenure in Atlanta. However, Jones’ dominance as a staple among the game’s greatest players for an entire decade has been diluted by the loud noise and debate revolving around what has indisputably become the game’s most controversial era, the Performance-Enhancing Drug era, as he enters his second year on the ballot.
Looking at the mainstays on the Braves squad during their reign as titans of the NL East, all of Jones’ counterparts, 3B Chipper Jones, SPs Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine, and even Manager Bobby Cox have all been enshrined amongst the all-time greats in Cooperstown. Even taking into account the rapid collapse of Jones’ skill-set, which commenced immediately following his departure for the Dodgers in 2008, the lack of support and attention that his Hall of Fame candidacy has generated has been blasphemous. Although Jones experienced an extended limp towards retirement, his incredible peak merits serious discussion regarding his case for Cooperstown. While atypical in nature, Andruw Jones possesses an incredibly fascinating and potentially groundbreaking Hall of Fame case, which has been partially tuned out by an underappreciated skill-set, unfortunate timing, and performing on a team flooded with legends.
Though they didn’t possess comparable HOF cases, it’s noteworthy that Andruw Jones received just 7.3 % of the vote last year, barely sufficient to keep him on the ballot, while his partner-in-crime Chipper Jones received a whopping 97.2 % of the vote, despite the fact that they had equally valuable primes, with Andruw posting a 46.5 7-Year Peak WAR, while Chipper registered a 46.8 7-Year Peak WAR. Much of this discrepancy in Hall of Fame support should be attributed to the fact that once their career paths diverged when Andruw left the Braves in 2008, Chipper compiled a quality 17.3 WAR over the final five seasons of his career, leading to the polishing of his reputation as one of the game’s greatest 3B ever, while Andruw’s career perished, as he accumulated just a 1.7 WAR over his last five seasons. Chipper was undoubtedly deserving of his strong backing as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but Andruw’s mere appearance on the ballot was largely unnoticed. While the threshold for being inducted into the Hall of Fame varies amongst voters, it can be loosely generalized that hitters need to compile anywhere from seven to ten seasons of roughly elite production, in addition to providing legitimate value in the other seasons. Jones certainly fails to meet the standards for career longevity, but was his unbelievable tenure in Atlanta enough to surmount this clear loophole in his case for the Hall of Fame? Does Jones differentiate himself enough from other comparable players at his position and defensive stalwarts to warrant induction into baseball’s most exclusive club?
In the years spanning 1998-2006, Andruw Jones posted the 3rd highest WAR among all position players, only trailing known PED-users Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. However, more than 40 % of Jones’ value should be attributed to his defensive exploits, which boast enough sabermetric backing to firmly entrench him in the conversation for the best defensive Outfielder of all-time. Jones might end up being victimized by being in the wrong place at the wrong time; his extensive display of defensive brilliance barely precedes the engine starting on the wave of sabermetric innovation in the baseball industry. While Jones roamed the outfield as the game’s most valuable defender for nearly a decade, this timing, unfortunately, coincided with the Steroid Era. During his career, hulking home-run slugging machines like Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire snatched all of the headlines. Jones’ skill-set didn’t completely deviate from the typical characteristics of a superstar during this time: he still managed to clobber 434 HR in his career, highlighted by an MLB-leading 51 in 2005, but it failed to do justice to his total performance that the majority of the media, executives, and fans were solely enamored with the ball leaving the yard.
One of the first things many BBWAA voters will search for in their analysis of Hall of Fame candidates is their hardware collection. Jones’ resounding scarcity of offensive awards was the result of many other players exploiting the previous lack of an established punishment and policy regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs; as an honorable, clean player during this dark area of turmoil and scandal within the game, it’d be ludicrous to penalize Jones for the deceit of many of his peers. From 1997-2007, 11 of the 33 Silver Sluggers handed out to National League Outfielders were awarded to known steroid-users Bonds and Sosa. To discount the offensive accomplishments of Jones’ and his non-juicing counterparts due to their lack of hardware would be a disgrace; had the league purged the users of PEDs during this era, Jones’ offensive proficiency would’ve been far more celebrated and remembered within the game. There’s little doubt that the prime of his career was incredible enough to meet the lofty standards for Cooperstown, but prolonged adequacy is the kryptonite to Jones’ case.
Jones quickly became a household name due to his role on a dominant team, offensive exploits, and defensive reputation, which is supported by the fact that he was the recipient of ten straight Gold Glove awards. Jones was in his prime right before statistical innovation flooded the industry with advanced metrics. He fails to meet some of the typical benchmarks for being elected, with a meager .254 career batting average, and a relatively high 20.2 % strikeout rate. However, the tools used for evaluating players within the game have progressed over the last dozen years, and the standards for Hall of Fame induction should evolve to become consistent with them. While batting average was once one of the primary indicators of offensive performance, mathematical evidence has shown the increased importance of metrics like on-base percentage and slugging percentage, which led to the development of all-encompassing statistics like weighted on-base average (wOBA) and weighted runs created plus (wRC+). In terms of wOBA, Jones posted a career .352 mark, which would rank him around the 25th percentile among Hall of Famers to play three or more seasons after 1960. In terms of wRC+, which compares a player’s total offensive output (wRC) to the league average for that season (standardized at 100), he was above-average at 111, despite the fact that he played in the most offense-heavy era in baseball history.
Looking at realistic comparisons to other player’s cases for Hall of Fame induction, three of the most similar players were Kirby Puckett, Omar Vizquel, and Kenny Lofton. In terms of offensive pedigree, Puckett, who was inducted in 2001 after receiving 82.1 % of the vote upon being on the ballot for his first-time, had comparable numbers. Puckett’s .366 wOBA stacks up similarly to Jones, and he was a first-ballot inductee, despite having an extremely short career. If playing only 12 seasons didn’t hinder Puckett’s candidacy, the dominant 12 season tenure that Jones had with Atlanta should be sufficient evidence for serious Hall of Fame consideration. It shouldn’t be taken for granted that the late Puckett is a World Series hero and two-time champion, which certainly boosted his support. Despite appearing in the postseason 11 times and appearing in two World Series, Jones never won a championship. In addition, Puckett was the guy on the championship Twins teams, while Jones was surrounded by a handful of Hall of Famers, limiting his attention.
While Puckett’s peak offensive performance stacks up within the realm of Jones, the latter possesses an elite defensive reputation. If the technology and tools for measuring defensive performance that are available now were present during Jones’ prime, his outlook would be severely altered. At this point, he’s merely fighting to stay on the ballot, after receiving just 7.3 % of the vote last year (at least 5 % is required to remain on the ballot). Today, fans, media members, and executives have the luxury of using publicly available data from Statcast, Fangraphs, and Baseball-Reference that have enabled the quantification of defensive performance. Jones did receive a whopping ten Gold Glove awards, but these fail to convey just how incredible he was defensively.
Jones ranks 21st all-time with a 24.5 career Defensive WAR, which registers him in 1st place among outfielders, in addition to landing 2nd among OF in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). In the same way that Ozzie Smith is celebrated today as the best defensive shortstop ever, Jones should be recognized as a historically impactful defensive outfielder. Upon digging through Hall of Fame data in my research, I found it perplexing that fellow defensive wizard Vizquel received significantly more votes than Jones in 2018, at 37.0 %. Vizquel boasts an incredible career Defensive WAR of 29.5 but is objectively inferior to Jones offensively. For his career, Vizquel carries a significantly below league-average wRC+ of 83, while he only posted league-average seasons in this metric twice in his entire career. It’s inexplicable that Vizquel is receiving more support than Jones from BBWAA voters, given the similar defensive pedigrees of the two and large offensive discrepancy. There’s no legitimate statistical argument to be made for voting in favor of Vizquel while neglecting Jones on the ballot.
The only CF with a higher career WAR than Jones who failed to reach the Hall was Lofton, who posted a remarkable career 68.3 WAR, including a 15.5 Defensive WAR. Jones compiled a better overall WAR than Lofton throughout the seven best seasons of his career, but they are remarkably even in their overall career value. Somehow, Lofton only received 3.2 % of the vote in his lone turn on the ballot, resulting from a candidacy crawling with many of the same points at issue as with Jones’.
I believe that a large part of the underwhelming support for Jones should be attributed to perception. Although being apart of an elite team that constantly made runs at World Series titles helps his case, Jones’ accomplishments were under-appreciated due to the presence of four other Hall of Fame players on the roster during his peak. In addition, perception tends to favor recent memories, and Jones ended his career on an unfortunate note after showing up to Spring Training out-of-shape in 2008, before performing mediocre at best for the remaining duration of his career. This isn’t the Andruw Jones who should be remembered; his legacy should focus on the teenage sensation that transitioned into one of the best players of all-time on both sides of the ball. Jones is facing an uphill climb as he seeks induction into the Hall of Fame, and it will likely take several years of convincing voters of his worthiness to achieve this, but it’s essential for Jones to remain on the ballot. As the current crop of defensive metrics are improved and new ones become public, Jones’ defensive dominance will only become more apparent, and his stretch with the Braves, alone, lends credence to his worthiness for Hall of Fame votes. I hope that the candidacy of Jones will be taken more seriously as more statistically-based articles that contain evidence of his Cooperstown-worthiness are released.
(Mitch Stringer/Icon Sportswire)