To see Andruw Jones in his prime chasing down a baseball in the outfield would make a kid believe that superheroes exist. Out of the corner of your eye, you might even glimpse a cape flapping in the wind as he shot through the air. At the crack of the bat, Jones’ preternatural instincts would kick in, and he would be off like a bolt of lightning, tracking the ball down and often making the extraordinary look ordinary. No ball was ever out of reach. Seeing him, a magician at his craft, was worth the price of admission.
Jones is arguably the greatest defensive center-fielder of all time, and one of the best defensive players baseball has ever seen, period. Despite that, and despite the fact that he also hit with power, Jones is unlikely to ever garner enshrinement in Cooperstown though he should.
He has been on the Hall of Fame ballot for two years now, just barely gaining enough votes to stay on the ballot in both seasons, surpassing only 7 percent of the vote in those two years, a far cry from the requisite 75 percent needed to receive the elusive call.
At his peak, the Curacao native was not merely a good baseball player; he was one of the game’s very best. In a 10-year span from 1998-2007, Jones was third in all of baseball in Wins Above Replacement, a stat utilized to measure how much better a particular player is in comparison to a replacement level player. Only Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez ranked higher on that list.
During that incredible 10-year run, Jones won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves, manning centerfield for the Atlanta Braves in the midst of a dominant run of success for the franchise. Jones led baseball in defensive WAR four times, and led the league in in Total Zone Runs six consecutive seasons (Total Zone Runs is described by Baseball Reference as the number of runs above or below average that the player was worth based on number of plays made.)
Total Zone Runs is the best argument for Jones as a Hall of Fame player; his 252 is the second best in the history of the game – ahead of defensive savants such as Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays by wide margins.
Atlanta’s dominant pitchers during that era, headlined by Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz, all credited Jones’ defensive ability as playing a huge role in their successes. Maddux commented one time that Jones would save a starter at least 10 runs per year. Glavine took it one step further, being unafraid to flirt with hyperbole as he made the Hall of Fame case for his ex-teammate:
“With all due respect to Willie Mays, who I never saw play, I can’t imagine there was a better center-fielder in the history of the game,” Glavine said. “He was as good as it gets out there, and he had the offense to go with it. I certainly think he deserves stronger consideration than what he’s gotten, and hopefully over time people will come to appreciate that a little bit more.”
Jones’ detractors have plenty of merit. His decline was rapid and steep. He’s only a career .254 hitter. He also didn’t reach the benchmark Hall of Fame plateaus like 500 home runs or 3,000 hits.
The first 12 years of Jones’ career in Atlanta had the obvious makings of a future Hall of Fame lock. Once he reached his 30th birthday and departed the Braves, it was as if Jones’ powers were zapped from him in some pseudo real-life Space Jam crossover.
Over the final five years of his career with the Dodgers, Rangers, White Sox, and Yankees, Jones managed only 66 home runs. Two years before the beginning of his decline, Jones led the MLB with 51 homers in 2005.
His 434 career home runs, however, still rank him 47th all time. Of all the players who have hit more than 400 home runs, the only eligible players who are not in the Hall of Fame and haven’t been linked to PED usage are Darrell Evans, Dave Kingman, and Fred McGriff. Jones’ 62.2 career WAR is higher than all three.
It seems criminal that one of, if not the very best defensive player in the history of baseball isn’t in the Hall of Fame. It seems particularly more so when you consider his 10-year peak as one of the game’s best overall players and his 400+ home runs.
The hill for Jones to make the Hall is likely too steep with very little momentum helping to push him up it. His defensive heroics are overshadowed by an ugly end to his career. And that’s a shame, because at the peak of his powers Jones was superhuman with the glove and the bat, and left little doubt as to his place among the all-time greats. H&A
All photos courtesy Atlanta Braves.
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