If you’re a baseball fan of a certain age or one with a strong sense of the sport’s history, the title of this piece may seem patently bizarre. If your a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox or New York Yankees and only saw Andruw Jones play when he toiled for your hometown team, the phrase “best defensive center fielder ever” might seem as absurd as a statement that the earth is flat. To fans of those teams, putting the name Andruw Jones and the phrase “Hall of Fame candidate” into the same sentence might seem equally laughable. And yet, a candidate he is; he’s on the BBWAA (Baseball Writers Association of America) ballot for the first time, with the vote results scheduled to be released this Wednesday.

For 11 seasons, Andruw Jones roamed center field for the great teams of the Atlanta Braves and earned respect throughout the game as a defensive wizard. He was rewarded with 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards (1998-2007). For the first 5 and the final of those 10 Gold Glove campaigns, Jones led the National League in putouts for center fielders. By the Wins Above Replacement component that relates to fielding, he was the best overall defensive player in the N.L. for six years in a row (1997-2002).

Better than Mays and Clemente?

The Sporting News

Based on the advanced metrics available on Baseball Reference and Fan Graphs, Jones is the best defensive center fielder in the history of baseball. Using the Baseball Reference numbers, he saved 235.7 runs defensively over his career. That’s 51.2 “runs” better than the great Willie Mays and 30.9 better than right fielder Roberto Clemente. With 12 Gold Gloves each, the Say Hey Kid and the “Great One” have long been considered the best defensive glove-men ever among outfielders.

If you accept the premise that Andruw Jones is in fact the best defensive outfielder in the history of the game and add in the fact that he hit 434 career home runs, those are two big building blocks on the foundation of a Hall of Fame resume. And yet, hardly anyone is buying it. According to Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker, Jones has only earned 13 votes out of the first 202 publicly revealed. 13 out of 202 translates to 6.4%, meaning he is perilously close to falling below the 5% minimum threshold required to appear on future BBWAA ballots.

In this piece we’ll take an in-depth look at the brewing controversy, joined by sabermetric pioneer Bill James, about the relevance and reliability of Jones’ defensive metrics. We’ll also examine the significance of his offensive contributions and discuss the impact of the last five seasons of his career, in which he did not bear any resemblance to the player that is a Cooperstown candidate today.

Cooperstown Cred: Andruw Jones

  • Career: 434 HR, 1,289 RBI, 111 OPS+
  • 10-time Gold Glove Award winner (tied for 3rd most for any outfielder behind Clemente and Mays)
  • 5th most HR for CF all-time (Mays, Griffey, Mantle, Beltran) (min 50% starts in CF)
  • Finished 2nd in 1995 MVP voting (51 HR, 128 RBI, 136 OPS+, Gold Glove)
  • 5-time All-Star
  • 62.8 career WAR (Wins Above Replacement)

(Cover Photo: Baseball Essential)

Career Highlights

Andruw Rudolf Jones was born on April 23, 1977 in Willemstad, Curacao. The tiny island nation of Curacao, a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, is just 37 miles off the northern coast of Venezuela and about 70 miles east of Aruba. It’s the birthplace of a total of 15 Major League players since 1989. Hensley Meulens of the New York Yankees was the first; Jones, who debuted in 1996, was just the third. Today, there are five, including Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen and Los Angeles Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

Jones signed with the Atlanta Braves in June 1993, shortly after his 16th birthday. By the beginning of the 1996 season, the five-tool player was ranked as the #1 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. Jones rocketed through the Braves minor league system in ’96, climbing from A-ball to AA to AAA before making his MLB debut on August 15th, 1996. Although he only hit .217 in 113 plate appearances, he impressed manager Bobby Cox enough to make the Braves post-season roster.

The 1996 Post-Season

The 1996 Atlanta Braves, who were the defending World Series champions, were loaded. The Braves had a Hall of Fame troika of ace starters in Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, a Gold Glove center fielder (Marquis Grissom), slugger Fred McGriff at 1st base and budding superstar Chipper Jones at 3rd. Chipper, in his second season, finished 4th in the N.L. MVP voting; he is a first-ballot lock for the Hall of Fame this week. The ’96 edition of the Braves also had All-Stars at catcher (Javy Lopez) and shortstop (Jeff Blauser).

On this team, Andruw Jones did not start any of the three games in the N.L. Division Series against the Dodgers, being used instead as a defensive replacement in left field for Ryan Klesko, a big home-run hitter but not especially proficient with the leather. The left-handed hitting Klesko had struggled against southpaw hurlers during the regular season (hitting .230 with just 3 home runs in 151 PA) so Cox gave the Curacao Kid a start in left field in Game 3 of the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals and southpaw Donovan Osborne.

Jones went 0 for 2 in Game 3 but, with Osborne on the hill again in Game 7, he got another start. In this time, his bat came to life, delivering a run-scoring single in the bottom of the first inning, part of a 6-run opening frame that essentially clinched the series. Later in the game, which the Braves would win 15-0, Jones hit his first post-season home run.

The team whose home fans practiced the Tomahawk Chop had rallied from being down 3 games to 1 against the Redbirds and thus came into the World Series with momentum. Their Fall Classic opponent was the New York Yankees, appearing in their first Series since 1981.

With a lefty starter (Andy Pettitte) toeing the rubber for the Bronx Bombers in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium, Jones drew another start in left field. In the top of the second inning, the 19-year-old Jones hit a two-run home run into the left field stands to give the Braves a 2-0 lead. In the next inning, with Brian Boehringer now on the mound, Jones hit a three-run blast to give Atlanta a 5-0 lead and essentially put the game away. You can watch both home runs by clicking here.

As the series unfolded, of course, the Yankees would come back from being down 2 games to none and win the Series in 6 games. Despite the disappointing outcome, a budding star was born in Andruw Jones.

Household Name at 19 Year of Age

Breslanta

Although Andruw Jones had emerged as a household name, the Braves didn’t instantly create a starting spot for him. In spring training of 1997, the Braves traded Grissom and right fielder David Justice to the Cleveland Indians but they brought back a Gold Glove All-Star center fielder, Kenny Lofton.

With Klesko in left, Lofton in center and newly acquired Michael Tucker in right, Jones, still shy of his 20th birthday on opening day, was not an instant starter; he was in the starting lineup in only 27 of the team’s first 67 contests. A mid-summer injury to Lofton gave Jones a chance to flash his leather in center field. Overall, in his official rookie year, Jones hit .231 with 18 home runs, 70 runs batted in and 20 stolen bases. He finished 5th in the rookie of the year voting, behind Scott Rolen (also a first-timer on the 2018 BBWAA ballot) and just ahead of Vladimir Guerrero, who will undoubtedly be announced as a Hall of Famer on Wednesday.

Ten Golden Years at Turner Field

With Lofton returning to Cleveland after the ’97 season via free agency, Jones became a full-time starter in 1998 and responded with a .271 average along with 31 HR, 90 RBI, 27 steals (in just 31 attempts) and his first of 10 consecutive Gold Gloves. With Jones playing all 162 games in 1999, his Braves returned to the Fall Classic to face the Yankees. Jones, however, did not have the same impact as he had in ’96; he went 1 for 13, with the team hitting just .200 as a whole. The Braves were swept in 4 games and, although they would join the post-season party for another five consecutive seasons, they have never returned to the World Series.

Jones made his first All-Star squad in 2000, hitting a career-high .303 with 36 HR, 104 RBI and a 126 park-adjusted OPS+. He would hit 30+ home runs in each of the next three seasons while averaging 105 RBI and 99 runs scored.

After somewhat of an off-year in 2004, Jones had a career-best offensive campaign in 2005; he set career highs with a MLB-leading 51 home runs, 128 RBI and a 136 OPS+ while winning his 9th Gold Glove. For this, he finished second (barely) in the N.L. MVP voting to Albert Pujols. Jones followed that year up with 41 HR, 129 RBI and a 126 OPS+ in 2006.

Although he would win his 10th and final Gold Glove in 2007, that season was the beginning of the precipitous decline phase of Andruw Jones’ career. Bothered by a hyper-extended left elbow and two sore knees, he hit just .222 and his power numbers slumped to 26 taters and 94 RBI, with an OPS+ of 87, which is below the league average of 100.

From Gold Glover to Part-Time Player

At the end of the 2007 season, Andruw Jones, still just 30 years old, had already won 10 Gold Gloves and already hit 368 home runs with 1,117 RBI. In the entire history of baseball, only eight players have hit more than 368 long-balls through their age 30 seasons. The eight: Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jimmie Foxx, Pujols, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson and Mel Ott.

If you had to wager, at this time in his career, whether Jones would be a Hall of Famer in the future, the logical wager would have been yes, in spite of his off-year in ’07. He was a premier defensive player at a premium defensive position. He could hit for power. And he was durable; in 11 seasons in Atlanta, he never played in fewer than 153 games.

True Blue L.A.

Jones was a free agent after 2007 and signed a two-year, $36 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. What happened next was something that nobody could predict. The contract was an utter disaster for the Dodgers. Jones showed up at training camp 15-to-25 pounds overweight and, in his one and only season in Dodger Blue, he hit .158 with 3 home runs and 14 RBI in just 238 plate appearances.

Among the 332 players with at least 225 plate appearances, his OPS+ of 35 was the second worst in all of Major League Baseball. He struck out 76 times in those 225 PA, 16 more times than his hits and walks combined.

In addition to his offensive woes, whether it’s by the eye test or the metrics, Jones’ defense fell off a cliff in that impossible to forget 2008 campaign. What made it worse, Jay Jaffe notes in his piece on si.com, was the perception that he didn’t care that he had such a terrible season in his first year with a new team and fan base.

The Dodgers bought out Jones’ contract and the former phenom bounced around from Texas to the south side of Chicago to the Bronx in his final four MLB seasons. As he was at the inception of his big league career, Jones was now a platoon player. He did provide respectable value with his bat in the first three of his final four years, averaging 16 HR and 41 RBI (in 294 PA per year) while posting a useful 114 OPS+.

The Curacao Kid’s final MLB campaign (in 2012 with the Yanks) was a disappointment; he hit just .197 with a 87 OPS+. Jones spent the final two years of his playing days playing for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Japan Pacific League. He managed 50 home runs in two years but hit just .232.

Ultimately, the comparison between the Atlanta years and those that followed is stark:

Courtesy Baseball Reference
Andruw JonesAgesWARHRRBISBAVGOBPSLGOPS+
1996-200719-3061.03681117138.263.342.497113
2008-201231-351.86617214.210.316.42495

Andruw Jones: the Offensive Resume

The cornerstone in any reasonable argument that advocates for a Cooperstown plaque for Andruw Jones starts with his defensive prowess. We’ll get to that next. But let’s first see to what degree his offensive contributions can buttress his resume.

He did hit 434 home runs in his career. That’s the 5th most for any center fielder (defined as starting a minimum of 50% of your games there). The players ahead of him on this list are Mays, Griffey, Mantle and the just-retired Carlos Beltran (who finished one ahead with 435).

It’s a nice list: Mays, Griffey, Mantle, Beltran, Jones.

It’s the only offensive list, however, on which Jones rates so high. As we go through some more categories, it doesn’t look quite so rosy:

  • 1,289 RBI (10th): behind 7 Hall of Famers, Beltran and Torii Hunter.
  • 1,204 runs (30th); behind 18 non-Hall of Famers, including Johnny Damon, who is also a first-timer on this ballot with 1,668 runs scored (best among CF not already in the Hall).
  • 1,933 hits (41st): behind 26 non-Hall of Famers, including Damon, who leads with 2,769 hits among non-Hall of Famers.

For rate stats, there are 112 players in history with at least 5,000 plate appearances and a minimum of 50% of games played in center field. Here’s where Jones ranks among those 112:

  • .254 AVG (104th): Larry Doby‘s .283 clip is the lowest all-time for a Hall of Famer.
  • .337 OBP (77th): Lloyd Waner .353 on-base% is the lowest for an enshrined CF.
  • .486 SLG (16th): this is better of course; he’s tied with Beltran. Still, there are five others not in the Hall with better (Jim Edmonds, Wally Berger, Ellis Burks and the still-active Matt Kemp and Andrew McCutchen).
  • 111 OPS+ (48th): this is bad. 33 center fielders not in the Hall have done better.

If you take oWAR (WAR for hitting and base-running only), Jones (at 39.3) ranks 43rd.

Jones vs Edmonds

Clearly, there is nothing about the profile of Andruw Jones as an offensive player that screams Hall of Fame. It’s true that 434 home runs is a lot for a center fielder but the rest of his offensive game was not Cooperstown caliber. It’s also noteworthy that only 359 of those taters occurred when he started in center field. That’s behind Edmonds, who logged 372 blasts as a starting CF (out of 393 total).

Edmonds, another premier defensive player, was a late bloomer, not becoming a regular player until his age 24 season (1994). Like Jones, Edmonds is lacking in longevity. He was, however, another defensive stud. He won 8 Gold Gloves, thanks to his highlight-reel diving catches. Forget the metrics for a moment (that’s coming in the next section). Edmonds won 8 Gold Gloves; Jones won 10. Now look at the offensive numbers, in particular the “slash” line (AVG/OBP/SLG):

Courtesy Baseball Reference
CareerWARPARHHRRBIBAOBPSLGOPSOPS+
Jones62.88664120419334341289.254.337.486.823111
Edmonds60.37980125119493931199.284.376.527.903132

Jones has the slight power edge (aided by 684 more plate appearances) but Edmonds was clearly the superior hitter overall. Two years ago, despite a good offensive profile and 8 Gold Gloves of his own, Edmonds got just 2.5% in his first and only year on the writers’ ballot.

Best Defensive Center Fielder Ever?

It’s the title of this piece and it’s the burning question: is Andruw Jones the best defensive center fielder in the history of baseball? Watching him play, there’s no doubt that he was spectacular. Nobody I’ve ever seen had the ability to play shallow and go back on balls over his head. By playing shallow, he made outs on line drives that would have been singles with other center fielders. At the same time, he didn’t seem to lose anything hit to the deepest parts of the ballparks.

The testimonials to the Curacao Kid’s defensive prowess start with his Hall of Fame teammates who benefited from his brilliance with the leather. Whenever given the chance, on MLB Network, John Smoltz calls Jones the best defensive center fielder he ever saw and that he should be a Hall of Famer. Tom Glavine recently said “with all due respect to Willie Mays, who I never saw play, Andruw Jones is the best defensive center fielder of our generation.”

The study and interpretation of defensive statistics over baseball history is perhaps the most controversial topic when it comes to Hall of Fame debates. As the study of sabermetrics gains mainstream credibility in the community of baseball writers and pundits, a consensus on the reliability of defensive numbers still remains elusive.

The defensive metrics on Baseball Reference rank Jones as the best ever at his craft in center field. Here is the top 10 in WAR “runs above average from fielding” and defensive WAR. The differences are subtle; they’re more meaningful when you compare players among different positions.

Top 10 all time in WAR "Runs from Fielding" (min 50% played in CF)
RkPlayerWAR Runs FldPlayerDefensive WAR
1Andruw Jones235.7Andruw Jones24.1
2Willie Mays184.5Paul Blair18.6
3Paul Blair174.4Willie Mays18.1
4Jim Piersall174.2Devon White16.2
5Devon White133.4Jim Piersall15.3
6Willie Wilson108.4Kenny Lofton14.7
7Kenny Lofton107.9Lorenzo Cain12.1
8Willie Davis104.1Carlos Gomez11.1
9Lorenzo Cain101.0Garry Maddox11.1
10Garry Maddox99.8Willie Davis10.9
Courtesy Baseball Reference

Well, that’s pretty impressive! Either way, Jones dominates the numbers.

If you take the “WAR Runs Fielding” component and compare to players of all positions, Jones still comes in 4th place. He’s behind only Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger, and Ozzie Smith. The Human Vacuum Cleaner (Robinson) and the Wizard of Oz are in the Hall of Fame; Belanger is not but he was a zero offensively (career .228 BA, 20 HR) so he’s not a germane comparison to Jones.

When you consider that Jones did hit those 434 home runs, that he was a good (if not great) offensive player, if you believe the statistics in the preceding graphic, which strongly imply that he was in fact the greatest defensive center fielder of all time, that seems like a very strong Hall of Fame case.

Consider this as well: thanks mostly to his off-the-charts defensive numbers, Jones posted the 3rd best overall WAR from 1997-2006, behind only Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. If you believe the numbers, Jones was the best non-PED-linked player in baseball for a ten-year period. If you believe those numbers, that’s a Hall of Famer.

Can you Believe the Defensive Metrics?

If you’ve read other pieces on this site, you already know that I personally take defensive metrics with a big grain of salt, especially defensive metrics prior to 2003. There are so many factors that are unknown that can influence the numbers. I do not profess to be an expert of defensive statistics but I have an inquisitive mind and there is a basic “chicken and egg” question that I have regarding Andruw Jones’ off-the-charts defensive numbers.

The big question: to what extent can the presence of multiple high-quality pitchers (Hall of Famers Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz) influence the defensive metrics of their outfielders? Lazy fly balls are the most guaranteed fielding outs in baseball. With that high-quality staff, is there a higher proportion of balls that are hit with weak contact into the outfield?

An attempt at the answer:

Jones’ best seasons defensively were from 1997-2002. He was #1 in baseball at defensive run prevention in every one of those years, by the numbers. The defensive “fielding runs above average” that he accumulated during these six years are at the core of his Cooperstown case. If he only played those six seasons, his 169 “fielding runs above average” would be, in totality, 5th best in baseball history. Just those six seasons!

According to Baseball Reference, during those 6 seasons, Braves pitchers had the best BAA (batting average against) among all teams in baseball on balls in play classified as “fly balls.” Opposing batters hit just .138 on fly balls (the second best team’s mark was .144). In addition, for those 6 years Braves hurlers yielded the fewest home runs (732, which was a whopping 78 fewer to the second best team).

A low opposing batting average on fly balls could potentially be attributed to the quality of those outfielders (Jones in particular) but the low level of home runs falls squarely on the quality of the starters. There’s evidence that the collective efforts of the Braves hurlers resulted in the easiest cans of corn for any outfield in baseball during these six years.

What’s also interesting is that, for the most part, Jones’ teammates in the outfield also had positive numbers defensively during this time. That tells me that, while there’s no doubt that the Curacao Kid was an outstanding glove man, it’s likely that his superior metrics are in part attributable to the excellence of his teammates who toed the rubber for the Braves during his heyday.

The Godfather Enters the Debate

A little less than two weeks ago, on Twitter, advanced statistics pioneer Bill James (dubbed “The Godfather” of sabermetrics by MLB Network’s Brian Kenny) publicly inserted himself into the debate about whether in fact Andruw Jones was the best defensive center fielder of all time.

First, let me say this about Bill James. I started reading his annual Baseball Abstract in 1981 or 1982; I was a baseball-obsessed teenager. James opened my eyes to things about baseball I had never before considered. Until I read his work, I had never contemplated the value of on-base percentages for batters. I never considered the fact that run support for pitchers does not even out over the course of one season.

I’ve learned more about baseball and the Hall of Fame from James than from any other human being on earth. To make a play on the old E.F. Hutton commercial, when Bill James writes, I start reading.

Anyway, here’s a sampling of what might be considered a James-ian Tweet-storm on the topic of Andruw Jones:

Twitter is not exactly the best forum for a man with James’ analytical mind and writing skills. Confining James to 280 characters at a time is like confining Steven Spielberg to a 5-minute short. Therefore, having poked a small hornets nest with these tweets, James explained his views in more detail in a piece on his website.

Every once in a while, you read something that gives you an “ah-ha” moment:

Andruw Jones’ career dWar is shown as 24.1, in 17,039 innings, whereas Willie Mays is shown at 18.1 in 24,427 innings. On a per-inning basis, Jones is being credited with saving twice as many runs as Willie Mays, compared to a replacement level center fielder… Well, I believe that Andruw Jones was a fine defensive center fielder, but I don’t necessarily believe that he was twice as good a center fielder as Willie Mays. I’m a little skeptical.

— Bill James (billjamesonline.com, 1/15/18)

Well, there you have it, sports fans! The metrics dWAR and WAR Runs above average from fielding are telling us that Andruw Jones was twice as good as Willie Mays. Now, I’m not old enough to have seen Mays play and it’s entirely possible that, at his best, Jones was better.  However, it’s unfathomable that Jones could have been twice as good defensively as the Say Hey Kid.

In a separate piece on billjamesonline, John Dewan, author of the Fielding Bible series, cites James’ fielding portion of his Win Shares system. Dewan, one of the greatest authorities alive on defensive metrics, refers to the James-invented Win Shares as the best way to compare defensive players across eras. Here’s the top 10 in Win Shares for outfielders, according to Sports Info Solutions:

Career Fielding Win Shares Leaders, Outfielders (All-Time)
RankPlayerFielding Win Shares
1Tris Speaker*117.8
2Willie Mays*103.6
3Max Carey*94.8
4Andruw Jones85.5
5Ty Cobb*82.6
6Marquis Grissom79.2
7Torii Hunter78.7
8Willie Davis78.3
9Curt Flood75.1
10Richie Ashburn*73.8
*Hall of Famer
Courtesy: www.billjamesonline.com

Well, this is still pretty darn good for Andruw Jones but it’s not remotely the same as a metric that, on a per-inning basis, lists him as two times better than Mays. On this list, Jones is the fourth best defensive outfielder all-time, and he’s just a bit ahead of contemporaries Grissom and Hunter.

The Generational Bias of dWAR

Getting back to the metrics most-often cited in analyses about the defensive prowess of players, James made an additional point that “runs saved” estimates are, generally speaking, much higher for modern players than they are from players of previous generations and that’s simply because the data is so much more limited the further you go back in time.

This is an extraordinarily important point. As defensive metrics have evolved, there is an inherent bias that favors the players of today’s generation because we have so many more tools with which to measure them. Now that we’re in the StatCast era, we know more about 2017 defense than we do about 2003; we know more about 2003 than we do about 1988; we know more about 1988 than 1954, and so on.

I’m going to prove James’ point that the defensive metrics have a generational bias. These are the top 16 seasons of defensive WAR, as recorded by Baseball Reference, in the history of baseball, for center fielders (with at least 50% starts in center field):

Best dWAR for CF (min 50% games at CF) in MLB history
RkYearPlayerdWAR
12015Kevin Kiermaier5.0
22013Carlos Gomez4.6
32002Darin Erstad4.2
41998Andruw Jones3.9
51992Devon White3.9
61999Andruw Jones3.8
71992Darrin Jackson3.8
82009Franklin Gutierrez3.6
92013Juan Lagares3.5
102010Michael Bourn3.5
111996Ken Griffey3.4
121964Willie Davis3.4
132011Austin Jackson3.4
142014Juan Lagares3.4
151956Jim Piersall3.2
161984Kirby Puckett3.2

What do you notice here? Besides the presence of Andruw Jones twice in the top 6, it’s that 13 of the top 16 dWAR seasons have occurred in the last 26 years (since 1992). If you take the top 10, they’re all since 1992. Mays’ best total is 2.1, achieved twice (in 1962 and 1966); those marks are tied for 68th best for a single season total. Kevin Kiermaier, in the three consecutive seasons, has posted a dWAR better than anything Mays ever posted in his entire career.

If you extend this to the top 25 dWAR seasons for center fielders, 12 of them have been since 2009; 19 of them have been since 1992; there are none prior to 1956. The generational bias of the defensive metrics is obvious.

Are we buying the idea that today’s premier center fielders are fundamentally better than their fellow center fielders from yesteryear? Well, perhaps they aren’t fundamentally superior but they are certainly better prepared to maximize the odds of a positive outcome. With hitters’ spray charts and defensive shifts, it’s certainly true that more balls in play are being turned into outs while. However, at the same time, fewer balls are put in play than ever before.

The Trio of First-Ballot Defensive Specialists

Andruw Jones is, interestingly, one of three first-time candidates on the BBWAA ballot whose primary case rests on the defensive side of the ball. 11-time Gold Glove Award winner Omar Vizquel is on the ballot. The acrobatic shortstop also has Cooperstown case based on his defensive prowess. The difference is that, as I wrote in Eye Test vs. WAR test, Vizquel was a very ineffective offensive player. In addition, the defensive metrics don’t back up his reputation. For whatever flaws there are in the numbers measuring players’ glove-work, they are undoubtedly more reliable when comparing players from the same year than in trying to compare players across generations.

Also on the ballot is Scott Rolen, an 8-time Gold Glover at third base. His case is, to me, the most compelling. I wrote about Rolens’ case last fall. Besides being a premium defensive player he was one of the best offensive third sackers of his era. With a career similar to Ron Santo‘s, Rolen advocates have a persuasive argument to make.

Conclusions and Cooperstown Prognosis

Based on Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame Tracker, there will in fact be two first-ballot Hall of Famers but there names will not be Andruw Jones, Omar Vizquel or Scott Rolen. Instead, Andruw’s namesake Chipper Jones and Vizquel’s Indians’ teammate Jim Thome are bound for easy first-ballot elections.

For the three defensive whizzes, the early prognosis is best for Vizquel; based on the first 202 votes reported by Thibodaux’s tracker, he’s at 31%. That’s far short of the 75% required for election but it’s a good opening number, especially on a super-packed ballot. Rolen is languishing at 12% and the Curacao Kid is perilously close to BBWAA oblivion, sitting at just 6.3%. The Hall of Fame rules state that any player who fails to earn 5% of the vote is removed from future ballots.

When it comes to the WAR-driven case that Jones was the best defensive center fielder of all time, most of the writers clearly aren’t biting yet. Actually, for a good number of the 13 public supporters, one of the stated reasons for checking Jones’ name on the ballot was simply to keep his name on the ballot for subsequent years.

Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on a podcast explaining his vote for Jones, said that he was a “big conversation” guy as opposed to a “big Hall” guy. He believes that Jones deserves a multi-year conversation about his Cooperstown credentials rather than being booted off the ballot after just one bid. Ken Davidoff of the New York Post and Jon Heyman of MLB Network have also mentioned the 5% rule as a contributing factor to check Jones’ name on their ballots.

We won’t know until Wednesday whether Jones will make the cut. It’s one of the few items from the upcoming announcement for which the outcome remains in doubt.

Personally, I don’t see Jones as a Hall of Famer. So much of his WAR value comes from his defense from 1997-2002 and I think those numbers are inflated. In addition, I can’t look past the last five years of his career. This was not a player hanging on in his late 30’s or early 40’s. Jones was 31 to 35 years of age in those final five campaigns.

The crux of the matter is that the core of Jones’ Hall of Fame case rests in those best-ever defensive statistics. I know for certain that he was a great defensive player but I can’t get on board with the idea that he was the best ever. I think it’s true that Glavine was correct, that he was the best defensive center fielder of his generation. But, if you believe the Bill James system, he wasn’t dramatically better than two of his peers (Torii Hunter and Marquis Grissom).

The Hall of Fame rules state that voters cannot cast ballots for more than 10 players.  There are 15 players I would vote for before Andruw Jones. This is not meant to be disrespectful; this ballot is jam-packed with talent.

I would be very happy to see Jones get over 5% and stay on the ballot for next year and years beyond that. He may not deserve a Cooperstown plaque but he deserves to have his candidacy discussed for another couple of years. Maybe in those years, James, Dewan or another statistical genius will be able to provide a better, more conclusive answer to the “best ever” question.

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

2 thoughts on “Andruw Jones: Best Defensive Center Fielder Ever?”

  1. Andruw Jones is overrated as a CF defensively. Good, but people make is sound like he’s epically great. Nope, there are many CF as good if not better who could his better. And his PED allegations, domestic violence, short worthy career. Some guys could his and were top CF defensively at age 35, not Andruw.

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