It has been just over a week since voting concluded for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. For the first time since 1960, no new players will be awarded baseball’s most prestigious honor. Regardless of how you feel about the voting process (I, for one, am not a fan of the disconnect between the BBWAA voters and today’s game…looking at you, Dan Shaughnessy), I’ve always enjoyed watching players get inducted into this exclusive club. Seeing players like Greg Maddux, Mariano Rivera, Pedro Martinez, and Vladimir Guerrero be recognized for their greatness is a trip down memory lane and causes me to reflect on some of the great ballplayers I’ve watched throughout my lifetime. It’s this perspective that brings me to the enigma that is Andruw Jones and his case for enshrinement into Cooperstown.
The Case for Enshrinement
When you hear the name Andruw Jones, it’s hard not to think back to Game 1 of the 1996 World Series. Jones, then a fresh-faced nineteen-year-old rookie, blasted home runs in his first two at-bats of the series, becoming the youngest player ever to homer in a World Series game. His performance during that series (8-for-20, 3 extra-base hits, 6 strikeouts) was emblematic of his entire career. Jones was just as much a master of hitting the ball a country mile as he was going down on strikes (he’s tied for 29th all-time for career strikeouts).
Yet, as exciting as Jones was with his bat, his fielding was what truly set him apart from the rest. Let me preface my argument by admitting this: Gold Gloves aren’t necessarily the best indicator of fielding superiority (cough, cough, Rafael Palmeiro). Sometimes, recognition of a position’s best hitter gets amalgamated into also including best fielder. Sometimes, as is the case with Palmerio, we tie in past performance into today’s evaluation. Nevertheless, there is no arguing that from 1998-2007, Andruw Jones was the best centerfielder in baseball. The passage of time may dim our memories of a player’s performance, but just take a look at some of Jones’s career highlights below.
Range, route running, arm strength. Andruw Jones was the total package on defense. Sabermetrics back up this thesis. Per the Defensive Runs Saved system (a measurement of a player’s overall defensive value), Jones accumulated a score of plus sixty-seven with the Braves from 2003-2007 (2003 being the earliest indicator of this stat). For comparison’s sake, Jackie Bradley Jr., considered to be one of baseball’s elite fielders in today’s game, was runner up for the Gold Glove in 2019 with a DRS value of -2. The lowest value Jones had during that stretch from 2003-2007 was +7. It’s simply remarkable just how good Jones was in centerfield. I don’t think we’ll ever see this type of consistent defensive excellence over such an extended period of time in the majors ever again.
Ten Gold Gloves. Five All-Star appearances. Iconic postseason performances (I did a double-take when I saw that Andruw Jones hit .526 in the 2007 NLDS versus the Astros). Based on the breadth of his work during his twelve-year stint in Atlanta, it’s hard to argue against Jones’s induction into the Hall of Fame (despite him never winning a World Series championship or MVP award). Not winning the Baseball Writer’s Association of America MVP award isn’t a death-knell to your HoF chances; since the inception of the BBWAA MVP award in 1956, forty-four of the 110 players elected to the Hall of Fame who retired after the award’s creation never won one. Nor does failing to win a World Series preclude you from enshrinement. Ted Williams, Ken Griffey Jr., and Willie McCovey all never won a championship, but you’re crazy if you say they aren’t deserving of plaques in Cooperstown.
Yet, despite the brilliance that Jones displayed during his twelve-year run in Atlanta, it’s the back-end of his career that very well could keep him out of Cooperstown.
Where Things Went Wrong?
Were there signs that things were maybe coming off the track a little bit for Andruw Jones during his final year in Atlanta? Sure, there were some warning signals. His batting average (.222) was the lowest since his rookie season. He was increasingly becoming a dead-pull hitter (57.3% of the time) as opposed to using the whole field. He struggled to drive the ball with authority, posting the highest soft contact rate of his career (20.3%). All of this should’ve warned us that maybe we’d already seen the best of Andruw Jones. Maybe he was on the decline, despite only being thirty years old. And then 2008 happened…
It’s hard for me to articulate just how bad Andruw Jones was in 2008. A soaring strikeout rate. A sudden inability to get the ball out of the infield. Shockingly terrible defense in centerfield. It’s stunning how far Jones’s game fell in such a short period of time. Perhaps it was the weight gain. Perhaps it was a lack of motivation. Too much money. Outside distractions. Whatever the case may be, Jones’s legacy has been forever altered by this one season. Even after apologizing to the fans for his performance that season and moving on to play four more years in the league, Andruw Jones has never been able to shake the stigma cast by that ’08 season.
A surefire Hall of Famer who, all of a sudden, wasn’t, Andruw Jones amassed 33.9% of the requisite vote to enter Cooperstown in 2021, his fourth year on the ballot. His support has grown steadily since 2018 when he eked out just enough support to remain on the ballot. Still, it’s going to be an uphill climb for him to make it into the Hall of Fame. A glass-half-full approach would posit that he’s almost halfway there and he still has six years to go. Many players have posted middling voting results before making it after a strong final push (Larry Walker comes to mind). It’s tough to look beyond the veil cast by the final few years of his career, though.
Andruw Jones has fallen into the unfortunate realm of “Yeah, he was really good, but…”. Is that what his legacy will be? A positive callback followed by a counterargument? Time will tell. Jones has six more opportunities to have the BBWAA vote him in. After that, he’ll need to rely on the Veteran’s Committee to bring him home. One thing that will undoubtedly help Jones’s case is that he has been nothing but humble about his HoF chances. That’s going to go a long way in helping the voting committee move past the disappointing end to Jones’s career.
“If I end up making the Hall of Fame, I will be grateful and humble to be there. But what’s more special is my teammates know what kind of player I was, being able to go out there and give all I’ve got to help them win. They made me better.” — Andruw Jones https://t.co/gCCA3OCXUl
— David O’Brien (@DOBrienATL) January 27, 2021
So, what do you think? Vote below on whether you think Andruw Jones should or shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.
Is Andruw Jones a Hall of Famer?
— Daniel Primiani (@DanPrimiani15) February 2, 2021