A baseball player’s career is more than just a record of his accomplishments and failures. It’s more than just wins and losses or an accumulation of stats. More than anything, a baseball player’s career is a legacy, and for the truly great ones, a lasting legacy.
Ask any Braves fan about Andruw Jones, and you’re sure to hear all about his legacy. Ask his peers, and you’ll hear how he was the best center fielder of his generation, the type of player that even players already enshrined in the Hall of Fame wanted to avoid hitting the ball at during games. Many staff members here felt Jones is deserving, as you can see from the entirety of the voting. You can read Jake Greenberg’s argument in favor of Jones’ candidacy here. Jones is perhaps best known for winning 10 consecutive Gold Gloves in center field from 1998-2007. No one will argue his defensive prowess in the outfield for most of his career, nor how dangerous he could be with the bat. For all the home runs he robbed over the wall in center, Jones belted 434 dingers of his own, tied for 44th on the all-time list and behind only Willie Mays (660), Ken Griffey Jr. (630) and Mickey Mantle (536) among center fielders. He was as much a signature part of those great Braves teams of the 1990s as Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux.
That being said, his .254 career batting average leaves much to be desired. In fact, his .823 career OPS would actually be among the worst of Hall of Fame center fielders, with only five having a lower career OPS than Jones (a group that mostly includes a handful of guys who played in the 1920s, and Andre Dawson). With the exception of Dawson, most of the players on that list played decades before Jones, but Dawson still put up his numbers, most of which are comparable to Jones, in an era that was nowhere near as prolific in terms of offense as the Steroid Era in which Jones played. This is not to suggest Jones used banned substances as much as it is to highlight that Dawson’s case might have been stronger due to the context of the era in which he played and the numbers he put up in that era.
A deeper look at Jones’ final numbers, including advanced metrics, brings his case under even more scrutiny. He finished his career with a WAR of 62.8, yet the average WAR of all 18 center fielders in the Hall of Fame is 70.4, with even Dawson, arguably his best comp, having a better case with 64.5 WAR. More importantly, the question that needs to be asked is how good was Jones and for how long?
Players often benefit from longevity, allowing them to compile stats even when they’re a shell of the great player they once were, piling up home runs, RBI, and more well into their 30s. As it stands, 30 marked the beginning of the end for Jones. He posted a 3.0 WAR as a hitter after averaging 5.8 WAR across the previous 10 years, and he would go on to post only a 1.7 WAR combined over the last five years of his career. His 116 OPS+ before turning 30 dwindled to a 92 OPS+ after 30. The bottom fell out when Jones turned 31, playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he put up a -1.6 WAR. He would follow that up with 0.3, 1.9, 0.9, and 0.2 across injury-marred seasons with three more teams, mostly as a part-time DH/outfielder.
It bears worth noting that 92 of his 434 home runs were hit during this forgettable period of Jones’ career, where it could be argued he was no better than a replacement-level player, earning plate appearances and playing time on reputation alone. He seemingly traded his athleticism for girth and power and became a liability in the field. Only twice in those final five years of his career did Jones ever hit better than .225, and he hit below .200 twice during that span. Despite his late-career struggles, he was given 2,047 more plate appearances from ages 30-35 to pad his stat total when perhaps far more deserving and younger talent was deprived of opportunity. It’s not far-fetched to suggest that he held on nearly five years longer than he should have been allowed, and the type of player that he was for nearly 30% of his career should not be ignored when evaluating his Hall of Fame case. For a player like Jones who keeps playing longer than perhaps he should, adding to his stats as he builds his case for the Hall, he ultimately fell short of many of the benchmarks required of such a career. Over 17 seasons, Jones failed to hit 500 homers or 2,000 hits, and he is well outside the top 100 all-time in runs scored and RBI.
We haven’t even discussed the value of character when it comes to Jones’ eligibility, as he was arrested for domestic violence in 2012. The Hall of Fame is full of unsavory characters though, so it’s debatable how much the alleged incident should factor into a decision of Jones’ worthiness for baseball’s greatest honor.
Finally, there is the question of just how much better Jones was than his peers. The “Black-Ink Test” (named so because league-leading numbers are typically represented with Boldface type on Baseball Reference) is a test written in Bill James’s The Politics of Glory, to measure how often a player led the league in a variety of “important” stats, earning points for how often they lead the league in certain categories. As a hitter, Jones scores 10 points (250th), whereas the average HOFer has accrued 27 points. I’m old enough to remember Jones in his prime when his skills as a “Five-Tool Player” led many to believe he was a Hall of Famer in the making. His 2005 season, in which he hit .263/.347/.575 with 51 home runs and 128 RBI, is responsible for most of those 10 Black-Ink Test points, but I would argue his 2000 season (.303/.366/.541 with 36 home runs, 104 RBI and 24 SB) is his best season, the one where he rates as a true “Five-Tool Player” and visions of Cooperstown were evoked. Unfortunately, that’s the only season in his career where he truly flashed all five of those tools.
If peak value is to be a deciding factor, then Andruw Jones, Hall of Famer, has more merit to it but perhaps not as much as you’d think. If the entirety of his career is to be considered, reserving a place for Jones in the great Hall of “Very Good” may be more appropriate.