Underappreciated Jones will leave as one of game's best 3B ever
No defensive position has fewer members represented in Cooperstown than third base, but we now know that the number of Hall of Fame hot cornermen will grow by one in 2018. That will be when Chipper Jones, who announced on Thursday that
To say that Jones, who will turn 40 at the end of April, is a Hall of Fame-quality third baseman actually undersells his career. He ranks in the top five all-time at the position. He was far and away the best third baseman of his era. He was the best hitter on the dynastic Braves teams of the 1990s and early 2000s, and ranks among the best players in the 136-year history of the franchise.
Despite winning an MVP award, making seven All-Star teams, hitting .288/.411/.459 across 11 postseasons and ranking eighth in major league history in postseason games played, Jones has nonetheless been overshadowed for much of his career by names like Bonds, Pujols and Rodriguez. Part of that was due to frequent injuries in the latter half of his career, and part to the fact that Jones never led his league in a major counting statistic, his only triple-crown black ink being an MLB-best .364 average in 2008. Jones' retirement after this season means he will also fall short both the 500 home run mark (he currently has 454 and hasn't surpassed 30 homers since 2001) and the 3,000 hit plateau (he's at 2,615 and unlikely to get to 2,800). Still, he will be a deserving first-ballot Hall of Famer even without those milestone numbers.
For those looking for easily-digested traditional stats to help explain Jones's excellence, consider that, entering his final season, his career batting rates are .304/.402/.533. If his 2012 season equals or betters his average performance over the last three years (.269/.365/.443 in 496 plate appearances), he'll retire with a career line of .303/.400/.528 in more than 10,600 plate appearances. To date, only six players have finished their careers with a .300 average, .400 on-base percentage, and .500 slugging percentage in 10,000 or more plate appearances: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Tris Speaker, Frank Thomas and Mel Ott, all of whom were outfielders or first basemen. Drop the limit to 9,000 plate appearances and the only man to play another position to join the list is Rogers Hornsby, a notoriously awful defensive second baseman but who ranks among the top 10 hitters in major league history.
Jones, of course, played in arguably the most hitting-friendly era in major league history. As such, he ranks last in OPS+ among the hitters mentioned above, but, again, he did so as a third baseman. Going beyond the traditional stats to Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR), which is measured against the contemporary replacement level and thus adjusts for the overall offensive environment, Jones easily ranks among the best third baseman of all time. Among men who played at least 75 percent of their games at the hot corner, the all-time bWAR leaders look like this:
1. Mike Schmidt: 108.3
2. Eddie Mathews: 98.3
3. Wade Boggs: 89.0
4. Chipper Jones: 82.7
5. Brooks Robinson: 69.1
6. Ron Santo: 66.4
Notably absent is George Brett, who was worth 85.0 wins above replacement in his career, but spent the last seven of his 21 major league seasons at other positions (four at first base, three at designated hitter). If we take only the seasons in which Brett and Jones played the bulk of their games at third base (remember, Jones spent two years in leftfield in the middle of his career), Jones comes out ahead at 73.5 bWAR to Brett's 71.2, both still out-pacing Robinson, who was far and away the best fielding third baseman of all time by both subjective and objective measures, but was a .267/.322/.401 hitter and barely above league average at the plate over the course of his 23-year career.
As for Jones' own era, looking at third basemen since 1990 produces this career bWAR leaders list:
1. Chipper Jones: 82.7
2. Scott Rolen: 66.2
3. Robin Ventura: 55.4
4. Adrian Beltre: 47.6
That's not close. Rolen looked to be on a Hall of Fame track in his 20s but has been derailed by injuries in his 30s. Jones's 30s have also brought a plague of injuries, limiting him to an average of 123 games per year over the last eight seasons and less than 130 games played in all but two of the last seven, but he has skirted disaster and though he has missed time, his production at the plate was never noticeably impacted. Indeed, from 2005 to 2008, Jones averaged just 120 games a year, but hit a staggering .332/.430/.585 (162 OPS+) in those games. Beltre will turn 33 in early April, but wasted his peak years at Seattle's Safeco Field. Also worth noting, Alex Rodriguez has been worth 43.6 wins above replacement since moving to third base in 2004, but he's clearly in decline and has also been dogged by injury in recent years.
Then there is Jones' role in the Braves' dynasty. As a rookie in 1995, he hit .364/.446/.618 in the postseason to help lead Atlanta to its only World Series title. In 1999, he was the National League's Most Valuable Player and helped lead the Braves to their third pennant in his first five years. From 1991 to 2005, when the Braves made the postseason every year that there was one, Jones ranked second to only Greg Maddux in total wins above replacement on the team, that despite playing just eight games for the Braves prior to 1995. Here's that list:
1. Greg Maddux: 61.2
2. Chipper Jones: 56.0
3. Tom Glavine: 51.9
3. Andruw Jones: 51.9
5. John Smoltz: 47.1
In fact, in the entire history of the Braves, which dates back to 1876, Jones, who has never played with another organization, ranks sixth in wins above replacement behind five Hall of Famers:
1. Hank Aaron: 141.2
2. Kid Nichols: 96.2
3. Eddie Mathews: 95.9
4. Warren Spahn: 92.7
5. Phil Niekro: 90.5
6. Chipper Jones: 82.7
The only hitters to contribute more wins above replacement to their teams since 1990 were Barry Bonds, Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. The only pitchers to do so were Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Maddux.
It's also worth noting that Jones is one of the greatest switch-hitters in major league history. Among those hitting from both sides of the plate, only Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray hit more home runs than Jones, and in the modern era only Mantle had a higher bWAR.
Jones need not be limited to such exclusive lists. Over the last two decades, he was one of the best players in baseball of any kind at any position. The lists above are littered with Hall of Famers, and Jones fits comfortably among them with one season left to play. In 2018, he'll take his rightful place alongside those men in Cooperstown.