The PitcherList staff is splitting up and debating some of the many candidates on the 2021 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot. After debating Jeff Kent last week, dynasty manager Andy Patton is back and going up against staff writer Lucas Spence, debating the Hall of Fame candidacy of center fielder Andruw Jones.
We’ll start with the affirmative:
Pro Andruw Jones and the Hall of Fame
Recency bias is such a strong, pervasive part of how we as humans analyze everything: movies, TV, pop culture, politicians, and of course athletes. The world of professional sports is very much part of our “what have you done for me lately?” culture, which is how a guy like David Dahl gets cut after one bad “season” (24 games) despite being a high-level performer in his career previously.
It also strongly, strongly impacts how players are perceived when Hall of Fame balloting comes around. The Hall’s rule that players must wait five years before reaching the ballot does help allow the BBWAA voters a chance to be more introspective about a player’s entire career and their overall impact on the game, but for players who had their peak early in their career it tends to make their recent performance, which still took place 5-10 years ago, much easier to recall than their dominant early career performance, which in some cases happened well over 20 years prior to their arrival on the ballot.
That is the exact case for former Braves center fielder Andruw Jones, who had one of the most dominant stretches of play from an outfielder in my lifetime, but who is unfortunately remembered far more for how far off a cliff his career fell when he reached his 30’s back in the 2008 season.
Jones is now entering his fourth year on the Hall of Fame ballot, having received voting totals of 7.3%, 7.5%, and 19.4% in his first three tries. A 55% jump in the next seven years will be an extremely difficult task, no doubt, although there is some precedence for it happening (Larry Walker got just 10.2% of the vote in his fourth year, and he ended up going in six years later).
For Jones to make that leap, the voters will have to start looking past the final few years of his career and instead focus on the player he was from 1996-2007, a decade that is among the greatest in baseball history, at least according to bWAR.
Jones racked up a Fangraphs WAR of 64.3 from ages 19-30, all spent with the Atlanta Braves. A WAR of 60 is generally considered at least borderline Hall of Famer territory, and Jones topped that during those 11 seasons. His 64.5 fWAR is the 15th highest mark by an outfielder at the age of 30 in MLB history, putting him ahead of some extremely talented players including Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline, Duke Snider, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson and Manny Ramirez.
Jones managed to rack up such a high WAR thanks to his proficiency on both defense and offense. During that time, he mashed 368 home runs with 1,117 RBI, 138 steals, 330 doubles and a .263/.342/.497 slash line, along with a 114 wRC+. He was a five-time All-Star, a Silver Slugger Award winner and, most importantly, a 10 time(!) Gold Glove Winner in center field.
Jones’ defense in center field is absolutely legendary. Ken Griffey, Jim Edmonds and Torii Hunter are the names most often associated with modern center field defense, but Jones was better than all of them, and has legitimate claim to being the best defensive center fielder of all-time. Gold Gloves are certainly not an accurate measurement of defensive success – although his 10 rank only behind Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, and tied with Ichiro Suzuki, Al Kaline and Griffey. However, dWAR gives Jones credit for 22.4 defensive wins above replacement – which is 22nd all-time and first among center fielders.
So, by that metric Jones is in fact the best defensive center fielder of all-time and – through the first 11 years of his career – put up Hall of Fame caliber numbers by both fWAR and bWAR.
Yes, it would have been nice to see him age gracefully in his 30’s, which likely would have vaulted him up over 80 career WAR and easily into Cooperstown, but I don’t think his fall was so disastrous that it should keep him out of the Hall.
From 2008-2012, Jones played just 435 games (about 87 per season) with the Dodgers, Rangers, White Sox, and Yankees. He hit 63 home runs during that time (about 13 per year) with a .210/.316/.424 slash line. Is that bad? Sure, but is it absolutely horrible? Not really. In fact, his 95 OPS+ suggests he was barely below average with the stick, and he was still worth 1.7 bWAR during that time – 3.3 bWAR from 2009-2012, which excludes his disastrous 2008 campaign with Los Angeles.
All told, Jones had a 62.7 bWAR (67 fWAR) with a 46.4 seven year peak and a JAWS score of 54.6. The average Hall of Fame center fielder has marks of 71.3, 44.7 and 58, respectively, but those numbers are inflated by the presence of Mays, Mantle, and Griffey. There’s little doubt that Jones is right on par with the majority of Hall of Famers at his position, and his decade of dominance and elite fielding at a premium position should be enough to get him in – especially as long as Omar Vizquel is getting more support, as he was only a slightly better fielder and a vastly inferior hitter.
Against Andruw Jones and the Hall of Fame
Whether you realize it or not, there is a very common expression that you’ve likely heard throughout your lifetime that was initially coined at the United States Supreme Court in 1964 by Justice Potter Stewart. While discussing the topic of how to define exactly what an “obscenity” is, Justice Stewart astutely and simply stated, “I know it when I see it.”
This expression perfectly encapsulates exactly how I feel in regard to the MLB Hall of Fame voting process. In a sport that has always embraced statistics as a tool during debate and uses them as a measuring post from generation to generation, any article or discussion about the candidacy of a player for the Hall of Fame each year is bound to be littered with statistical comparisons, data analysis, and endless rankings showing where the nominee stacks up next to all the players that have come before him. While I will surely sprinkle in a few numbers and comparative models below for the sake of argument, I prefer to simply refer back to Justice Stewart when I consider a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. When I consider whether or not a player is a Hall of Famer, I remind myself that “I know it when I see it”.
In the case of Andruw Jones, I simply don’t see it.
Was Andruw Jones a good major league player? Of course he was.
A transcendent defensive center fielder? Absolutely – one of the very best.
An above-average hitter? Sure, I suppose.
Will he one day be inducted into the Atlanta Braves organizational Hall of Fame? He certainly will and deservedly so.
But was he one of the truly greatest players in baseball history? Nah, I don’t believe he was.
Poll any group of baseball fan friends outside of Atlanta on this very topic and you’ll surely get a mixed bag of responses and shoulder shrugs, which makes Jones’ Hall of Fame candidacy so intriguing and equally flimsy. Jones certainly seemed to be on a Hall of Fame trajectory during the first half of his 17-year career after initially bursting on to the scene in the 1996 World Series against the Yankees, no doubt about that. The problem is that the latter half of his career was a bit of a debacle. Like any golfer will tell you, it takes more than a superb front nine to play an excellent round of golf. You have to play great golf for the full eighteen holes. And make no mistake – when discussing the Hall of Fame, we are talking about excellency. Sustained excellency. The absolute best of the best.
Jones debuted at the age of 19 and essentially all of his great years came during his tenure in Atlanta. However, Jones spent the final five seasons of his career bouncing around from the Dodgers to the Rangers to the White Sox to the Yankees. He signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers that turned into an unmitigated disaster. Jones shockingly failed to even reach the 20-homer mark in any of his five seasons after leaving Atlanta, and it’s worth noting that he barely hit above the Mendoza line (.210) during those five seasons on the proverbial back nine of his career.
Most alarming in regard to his candidacy is that Jones sports a surprisingly paltry .254 career batting average, which would be among the lowest marks ever by a position player previously to be inducted into the HOF. While the 3,000-hit club has always been an elite club in baseball history that often guarantees immortality, Jones failed to even reach the 2,000-hit plateau. In addition, his other rate stats overall are quite unimpressive as well. Highlighted by a weak .337 OBP and pedestrian .823 OPS, there are very few offensive statistics in Jones’ profile that scream Hall of Famer or generational talent. Not once did Jones ever lead the league in any major offensive category (surely Barry Bonds played a role there admittedly), and he managed just one single Silver Slugger Award during his long career as well. Jones never won an MVP award and only once finished higher than 8th in the National League MVP voting (in 2005 when he finished as the runner-up to Albert Pujols).
Hundreds of Twitter comedians have surely made the same joke time and again that Andruw “wasn’t even the best Jones on his own team” (and well, they would be right). And I am here to argue that he certainly was not one of the greatest outfielders in baseball history either, which is what the Hall of Fame is all about. Per Baseball Reference, the ten batters with Similarity Scores (a Bill James measuring tool) comparable to Jones include:
- Dale Murphy
- Edwin Encarnacion
- Jose Canseco
- Joe Carter
- Jim Edmonds
- Alfonso Soriano
- Mark Teixeira
- Gil Hodges
- Duke Snider
- Curtis Granderson
Only one – one! – of those players (Snider) is a Hall of Famer currently. And while we are discussing Baseball Reference, Jones additionally sports a 62.7 career WAR and 54.6 JAWS score (a means of measuring a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness created by Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus). By comparison, the average Hall of Fame center fielder registers at 71.3 and 58.0 in those metrics respectively, which again suggests that Jones falls short by simple positional comparison. While many will point to Jones’ 434 career home runs as a beacon of hope for his HOF candidacy, it is important to remember that the value of the home run has been diluted over the past twenty years, as offensive power numbers throughout the sport have boomed. Keep in mind that players such as Adam Dunn (462), Jason Giambi (440), and Paul Konerko (439) amassed more home runs than Jones and failed to even make the HOF ballot. The 400 club isn’t what is used to be.
As mentioned above, there is no denying Jones’ defensive prowess. He was an exceptional defensive player, evidenced by his 10 Gold Gloves which contributed to his 5 All-Star appearances. In this way his career is somewhat reminiscent of Omar Vizquel, another current HOF nominee, whose defensive performance and accomplishments far outweigh his offensive contributions. 2021 will be Jones’ fourth year on the Hall of Fame ballot. Hall of Fame induction requires 75% of the votes whereas 5% is required to simply remain on the ballot. In his first season of eligibility in 2018, he received a meager 31 votes (7.3%). In 2019, he received 32 votes (7.5%) in his second year on the ballot, barely remaining eligible to stay on. And in 2020, Jones made a modest jump to 77 votes (19.4%) although that number still falls well shy of the 70% threshold needed.
I certainly am not the first and will not be the last person to bring up the Andruw Jones versus Jim Edmonds comparison, but it’s a very important talking point in this debate due to how eerily comparable the two outfielders’ careers were (note that Edmonds was listed above when referencing the Similarity Scores for Jones). The resemblance between their two careers is striking (see below):
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Both were solid, yet unspectacular, offensive players known much more for than strong defense and web gems more so than their offensive production. Edmonds, however, clearly outperformed Jones in essentially all major offensive categories aside from home runs and RBI. Edmonds himself notably fell off the HOF ballot after just one season after garnering only 2.5% of the votes. For even more detail on this particular comparison as well as this debate at large, you can check out these extremely well-written and in-depth articles by Seth Carter at Tomahawk Take and Chris Bodig at Cooperstown Cred as they offer even more insight and background on the perplexing HOF candidacy of Jones.
Andruw Jones was a terrific baseball player during his tenure in Atlanta and will rightfully be remembered as an iconic player for that organization. He’s one of the best defensive outfielders the game has ever seen, as noted by his impressive 24.4 dWAR (although there has been much debate regarding how flawed certain defensive metrics are without much historical perspective when compared to players of past generations). He played a vital role for the Atlanta Braves’ success of the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially providing defensive support behind their great pitching staff. I’ll also readily admit that it’s possible that Jones one day gets elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame through the veterans committee (a la Harold Baines). However, when you consider his modest contributions as an offensive player and stack them up side-by-side against previous outfielders who themselves have fallen short in their quest to enter the Hall of Fame, it becomes very difficult to make an argument that Jones is more deserving than they were. It reminds me of how a legal precedent in a court room can set the course for how similar cases in the future are evaluated by a judge. In this case, the Hall of Fame’s complete dismissal of Edmonds is a striking blow to the Hall of Fame candidacy for Andruw Jones.
I truly believe Jones was an exceptional ballplayer who left an important legacy on the Braves organization. But if you’re asking me to review his candidacy and determine whether or not Andruw Jones is a Hall of Famer – one of the truly great players in the history of baseball – when compared to similar players that have come before him? I’ll again channel my inner Justice Stewart and simply say that in this case, I just don’t see it.
Alex Menendez/Icon Sportswire/adapted by Quincey Dong