The Case for the Hall: Andruw Jones

The problem with the Hall of Fame ballot this year is that 13 of the players up for election have garnered more than 60 career WAR. I suppose that is not a problem in and of itself, but there is a problem in this: writers are only permitted to select ten players each election cycle for election to the Hall of Fame, and some of them do not even do that. The argument that Hall of Fame voting should not be restricted to ten players is a discussion for another time. Here’s today’s topic: despite the loaded ballot, 10-time Gold Glove winner and the best defensive outfielder of all-time, Andruw Jones, deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

Let’s play our favorite Hall of Fame comparison game:

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I think it’s pretty easy to tell which one is Andruw Jones if you know anything about his career. He’s the one in the middle. Player A is Andre Dawson, elected to the Hall of Fame in 2010 after nine years on the ballot. His numbers are a lot more similar to Jones’ than Player C. That’s because Player C is Cal Ripken, who had one of the longest careers of any baseball player to ever live.

I know the comparison game is not perfect—it’s clear that Ripken was a more valuable player than Jones because he played in nearly 1000 more games though he was actually a marginally worse hitter. Dawson was clearly a better hitter though he played worse defense. I’m not here to tell you that Jones should be in because these other two guys to whom he measures up in some form or another are in, but to tell you that Jones probably gets too much flak for his batting numbers when, in reality, they would likely not even be in the bottom tier of Hall of Fame hitters. That is not to say that I’m advocating for the Hall to just get bigger and bigger and that we should only be looking for baseline guys, but Jones’ defense more than makes up for his perceived lack of offense.

Let’s start with an overview of Jones’ career.

At just 19 years old in 1996, Andruw Jones, a native of Curaçao, took the baseball world by storm by becoming the youngest player to hit a homer in a World Series game—and he hit two. Jones triple-slashed .400/.500/.750 in that World Series against the Yankees, though the Braves fell in 6 games.

After that season, Jones made crushing baseballs and playing great defense his day job. He didn’t win the Rookie of the Year award in 1997 but it wasn’t for lack of trying—at just 20 years old, Jones triple-slashed .231/.329/.416 with 18 HR, 20 SB, and 2.5 defensive WAR alone (for reference, just 11 players posted a dWAR of 2 or greater in 2018, and only four of those were 2.5). Admittedly, the batting average and OBP leave something to be desired, but Jones displayed a power-speed combination that, combined with his stellar defense, made him one of the most fun players to watch in all of Major League Baseball.

And then, starting with his age-21 season, Jones reeled off nine consecutive seasons of 25 or more HR and at least 154 games played. He fell below the 30-HR mark just twice in those nine seasons (seasons of 26 and 29 HR) and below the 90-RBI mark just once (84 RBI in 1999). He had at least 1.1 dWAR in each season from 1998 to 2006, eclipsing 2.0 dWAR on six separate occasions and eclipsing 3.0 dWAR thrice. In 2005, he even finished second in MVP voting on the heels of a 51 HR, 128 RBI season.

His 61.0 fWAR entering his age-30 season placed him 9th among all hitters entering their age-30 season since World War II (he is now 11th on that list, thanks to Mike Trout and Albert Pujols). In short, Jones was an absolute monster. So what happened?

Well, he fell off a cliff. The tale of Andruw Jones’ teens and twenties is a tale of triumph. The same cannot be said for the tale of his thirties. And for those of you who love to see longevity in their Hall of Fame players, then perhaps Jones isn’t the candidate for you. But that’s why I’m here—to convince you that Jones should be in despite the fact that he really only played 11 productive seasons.

To give credit where due, Jones’ 2007 season was not abysmal. He posted 3.3 fWAR (3.4 rWAR), smacked 26 long balls and drove in 94 RBI, but he only triple-slashed .222/.311/.413, certainly nothing to write home about. Most of his value in that season came from his defense; according to Baseball Reference, Jones produced 2.2 dWAR and just 1.2 oWAR in 2007.

And after that, things really got ugly. Over the next five seasons, Jones bounced around between four teams, triple-slashed just .210/.316/.424, knocked just 66 HR and played a paltry 435 games. Over the last five seasons of his career, he was worth just 1.7 rWAR, only slightly better than replacement level. Jones produced just 6 fWAR at age 30 or later. To put that in perspective, Lorenzo Cain, who played his age-32 season in 2018 for the Milwaukee Brewers, posted 5.7 fWAR last season alone, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.

And in spite of all of that, Jones still belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Let’s revisit Jones’ defensive numbers. Not only was Jones a good defender, as some people who were lucky enough to watch Jones in his twenties may remember, but he was elite. He may very well have been the greatest defensive outfielder of all-time; I only vaguely remember watching him play (I am, unfortunately, too young to recall any specifics about Jones’ career) otherwise I would be able to give you a firsthand account.

Thankfully, statistics can do a pretty good job at letting us know how Jones stacked up to other outfielders.  According to Fangraphs’ Defensive Runs Above Average stat (DEF), which attempts to measure a player’s value relative to others at his position and relative to other positions, Jones’ DEF is 278.8, first among all outfielders to ever play the game of baseball. Jones’ DEF is eons ahead of second place Willie Mays’ DEF, which is a mere 100 runs lower at 170.1. The gap between Jones’ 278.8 DEF and Mays’ 170.1 DEF is larger than the gap between Mays’ DEF and 27th-placed Chet Lemon’s 63.3 DEF. And Baseball Reference agrees with Fangraphs—they credit Jones with 234.7 runs saved from fielding, first among all outfielders ever. And keep in mind, DEF and runs saved from fielding are counting stats, which means that, generally speaking, if you’re a good ballplayer, those stats are going to increase the longer you’ve played.

Jones’ UZR/150, which is a rate stat instead of a counting stat, if that’s your cup of tea, is right in line with all of the above;  he’s first among all outfielders with a career UZR/150 of 17.4 Fangraphs dictates that anything above 15.0 UZR in a single season is “Gold Glove Caliber,” and Jones managed to maintain a 17.4 UZR/150 for his career. In case you’d like to read that in non-baseball jargon, here you go: that’s nuts.

So Jones measures up to Hall of Fame standards on defense. What about the offense?

That’s a tougher argument to make. His offense alone would not get him, but the fact that he put up respectable offensive numbers while also being the greatest defensive outfielder to ever live is not insignificant.

Of the hitters currently on the ballot with 60 or more WAR, Jones has, objectively speaking, the worst numbers. His .254 career batting average would put him above only Ray Schalk among current Hall of Famers. Just three current members of Cooperstown have a career batting average below .260 and one of them is Harmon Killebrew, who launched 573 career homers (the other is Rabbit Maranville, who probably should not be in the Hall of Fame).

Still, though, Jones’ peak was nothing short of exceptional. Jones’ JAWS, which takes a player’s seven-year peak WAR and averages it with their career WAR, is 54.7, which is slightly below the Hall of Fame centerfielder average of 57.9. His seven-year peak WAR, however, is 46.5, which is about 2.0 WAR above the average centerfielder’s peak. I’ve said time and time again that WAR is not an exact science, but it’s clear that Jones measures up to the other Hall of Fame members at his peak, and was slightly below average for his career. That’s not unexpected considering that WAR is a counting stat and, again, Jones really only played 11 meaningful seasons.

The great Bill James created a statistic, called “Hall of Fame Monitor” that is supposed to evaluate a player’s chances of making it to Cooperstown, with a score of 100 representing a good shot of getting in. I must note that the Hall of Fame Monitor does not take defense into account, which is crucial when considering Jones’ catch.

Andruw Jones’ score is a 109, which means he should get in. The problem is that his 109 isn’t anywhere near the score of 130 needed for a “virtual cinch.” Players have gotten in with worse scores, but players with better scores, like Dave Parker (125), Dale Murphy (116), and Andres Galarraga (114), have all been denied entry. There are a handful of other players as well, but keep in mind, that none of those players played defense as well as Jones did. Because nobody really played defense as well as Jones did.

At the end of the day, I think it’s pretty evident that Jones deserves a place in Cooperstown. The problem is that there are at least 13 or 14 candidates on this ballot that are deserving of a spot, and if you only get 10 spots, it’s hard to fit Jones onto your ballot. As of publishing, with 151 known public ballots (36.7% of the electorate, thanks @NotMrTibbs on Twitter) Jones is polling at 7.3%, which is the exact percentage of the vote he garnered last year. Staying on the ballot is good news—there should be more holdovers coming off the ballot in the coming three seasons as Mussina, Schilling, Edgar, Walker, Bonds, and Clemens all get in and McGriff falls off the ballot. Once the voting opens up a little more, Jones will be able to make a more solid push for Cooperstown.  Until then, though, he’s probably best off hoping that he just gets the 5% needed to stay on the ballot—an unfortunate reality for the greatest defensive outfielder to ever live.

(Image Credit: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

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