The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
It took until 2016—51 years after the inception of the amateur draft—for an No. 1 overall pick (Ken Griffey Jr.) to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Two years later, it appears that Chipper Jones, the first selection of the 1990 draft, about to complete that same route. Though he lacked the obvious big league pedigree of Griffey, the Florida-born Jones—whose nickname came because he was considered a “chip off the old block” of Larry Wayne Jones Sr., Taylor High School’s baseball (and football) coach and algebra teacher—was saddled with outsized expectations of baseball stardom at a young age. Like Griffey, he more than lived up to them.
While Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and later Greg Maddux—all now enshrined—served as the primary mound anchors for the Braves' run of 14 consecutive postseason appearances from 1991–2005, Jones became the NL East dynasty's offensive cornerstone once he secured a starting spot in 1995, the lone year during that run that the Braves won the World Series. Drafted out of high school as a shortstop and converted to third base as a rookie, Jones never ranked among the defensive elites at the hot corner, but his glove was more than adequate for the position. At his best, the 6’ 4” switch-hitter was one of the league's top offensive forces, and one of the best ever among third basemen.
Due to injuries that limited him to an average of 120 games per year over his final eight seasons (2005–2012), Jones fell short of the major hit and home run milestones that generally guarantee Hall entry, but his career totals and rate stats (not to mention his eight All-Star appearances and playoff performances) are more than enough to get him elected. Through advanced statsistical analysis, his case is every bit as strong. He should have no problem joining Glavine, Maddux, Smoltz and manager Bobby Cox in Cooperstown next summer.
Avg. HOF 3B
Born in DeLand, Florida in 1972, Larry Wayne Jones Jr. grew up in tiny Pierson—which Jones later described as “a one-caution-light town in the middle of nowhere,”—about 20 miles north with a population of around 1,400. On the family's nine-acre property, Stillmeadow Farm, Larry Sr. taught him to switch hit like his idol, Mickey Mantle. By age 10, Chipper was wowing observers with his ability to turn the double play, and by the time he reached eighth grade, he was good enough to play on the Taylor High varsity team. At that point, Larry Jones quit coaching temporarily, concerned with any perception that he could be favoring his son, who nonetheless beat out a senior for a spot on the team.
Concerned that his son could be benefitting from academic favors as well, the elder Jones enrolled Chipper, by then a sophomore, at Bolles High School in Jacksonville, 90 miles away. Jones led the school to three state Class AA championship games, eliminating Taylor High each year. Ahead of the 1990 draft, he met with agent Scott Boras, whom he found "brash, abrasive, smug and cocky,” according to his description of their brief meeting in his 2017 memoir, Ballplayer. Instead, he hired childhood friend B.B. Abbott. A day before the draft, Jones ditched his prom weekend to meet with the Braves, who owned the No. 1 overall pick; Cox, then the team's general manager, had scouted him. Over dinner at an Olive Garden in Daytona Beach, Jones agreed to a bonus of $275,000 with incentives that pushed the total package of $400,000. Boras' top client, pitcher Todd Van Poppel—whom the Braves had judged too costly for their tastes—signed for a bonus of $500,000 and a total package of $1.2 million. Jones’ stance and decision were about more than the extra bread(sticks). "I’m a Southern kid, and I wanted to play in a Southern town where I felt comfortable," he said years later, "and I felt comfortable from day one in the Braves organization."
Jones struggled in his first taste of pro ball, hitting .229/.321/.271 as an 18-year-old in the Gulf Coast League, but scouts saw enough for him to crack the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list at No. 49. By the next year in the South Atlantic League, he hit .326/.407/.518 with 15 homers, 98 RBIs and even 40 stolen bases. Still playing shortstop, he found the going rougher in the field, making 56 errors, but he nonetheless rocketed to number four on BA's list. After a strong 1992 season split between High A and Double A, he entered the following year as the game's top prospect. He hit .325/.387/.500 with 13 homers and 23 steals at Triple A Richmond before being called up to the Braves when rosters expanded. He debuted on September 11, 1993, playing the ninth inning as a defensive replacement for starting shortstop Jeff Blauser. In eight games, he got just four plate appearances, though he did collect his first hit, a single of the Reds' Kevin Wickander.
Jones slipped behind the Expos' Cliff Floyd as BA’s top prospect entering 1994, and had no clear position with the big club. He'd never played an inning professionally at any position besides shortstop, but with Blauser entrenched there and former NL MVP Terry Pendleton at third base, the Braves had no obvious opening until leftfielder Ron Gant broke his leg in a February motorbike accident. Jones set about converting to the outfield, but unfortunately, in mid-March, he tore his left ACL while attempting to dodge a tag, an injury that would knock him out of the entire strike-shortened season.
With Pendleton having departed as a free agent after the 1994 season, the 23-year-old Jones took over third base in ’95 and hit .265/.353/.450 with 23 homers, 86 RBI and a solid 2.7 WAR. The Braves went 90–54 in the strike-shortened season and won the NL East. In the Division Series opener at Coors Field, Jones homered twice, the second shot breaking a 4–4 tie in the top of the ninth inning to carry the Braves to a come-from-behind victory. Though he added only one more homer, Jones hit a combined .364/.446/.618 that October while helping the Braves past the Rockies, the Reds and finally the Indians for their first championship since 1957. After the season, Jones placed a close second to Dodgers hurler Hideo Nomo in the NL Rookie of the Year race.
Jones emerged as one of the NL’s top players while helping the Braves back to the World Series in 1996. He hit .309/.393/.530 with 30 homers, 110 RBI, 14 steals, and 6.2 WAR, good for eighth in the league. Along the way, he earned the starting nod at third base for the All-Star Game and held his own at his old shortstop position for five weeks after Blauser suffered a fractured metacarpal and Pendleton was reacquired. Jones hit a combined .345/.433/.491 during the postseason, with a homer off Nomo that helped cap a three-game sweep of the Dodgers in the Division Series. He went 11-for-25 with four RBIs during the NLCS against the Cardinals and collected a hit in all six games of the World Series against the Yankees, albeit in a losing cause.
Jones turned in All-Star seasons in 1997 and '98 as well, setting career highs with 34 homers and 7.0 WAR (sixth in the NL) in the latter, but the Braves were upended in the NLCS both times, first by the Marlins (and Eric Gregg's strike zone) and then by the Padres. He compiled a career year in 1999, bashing 45 homers (third in the NL), walking 126 times and stealing 25 bases while batting .319/.441/.633; both his on-base and slugging percentages ranked fourth, while his 169 OPS+ ranked second and his 6.9 WAR third. He was an overwhelming choice for NL MVP, receiving 29 of 32 first-place votes. Alas, that was something of a consolation prize for a postseason run that ended with the Braves being swept by the Yankees in the World Series. It was the fifth time in nine years that Atlanta reached the Fall Classic, and their third time with Jones, but he never made it back, and thus far, neither has the team.
Jones, who somehow missed out on being an All-Star during his stellar 1999 season, earned the honor in each of the next two years while hitting a total of 74 homers. He hit .330/427/.606 for a 160 OPS+ in 2001, cracking the top 10 in all four categories but failing to stand out against the backdrop of an inflated offensive environment in which five players hit at least 49 homers. The Braves were knocked off by the Cardinals in the Division Series in 2000, and got as far as the NLCS in ’01; Jones' two homers helped power the team past Houston in the latter year’s Division Series, but he was held in check in their NLCS loss to the Diamondbacks.
In August 2000, months before he could have reached free agency, the 28-year-old Jones signed a six-year, $90 million extension that included deferred money and a pair of club options. The contract was the majors' fourth largest behind those of Griffey (nine years, $116.5 million), Kevin Brown (seven years, $105 million) and Mike Piazza (seven years, $91 million). He never did test free agency. In November 2005, Jones and the Braves would rework the end of the contract into a three-year, $37 million deal covering 2006–08, with a vesting option for 2009. In March 2009, he signed a three-year, $42 million extension with another option.
In late 2001, the Braves experimented with Jones in leftfield while using trade acquisition Ken Caminiti at third base. That particular move didn't pay great dividends, but that winter, they signed former Rockies slugger Vinny Castilla to a two-year, $8 million move, hoping that the 34-year-old third baseman's rebound in Houston the previous season was not a mirage. Jones went to leftfield, and though he complained about boredom—"I miss being mentally in the game on every pitch. In left field, it's a little difficult to keep your concentration," he told USA Today—he turned in a typically strong season, worth 5.7 WAR (including +3 runs in leftfield via Total Zone). Castilla was dreadful, but even with all of their regular infielders and catcher Javy Lopez hitting for a 94 OPS+ or worse, the Braves somehow won 101 games before being bumped off in the Division Series by the Giants. The leftfield experiment worked a bit better the following year in that Castilla showed signs of life, but Jones' offense took a dip. His 137 OPS+, while still excellent, was his lowest since 1998. Once again, the 101-win Braves took a first-round exit, this time at the hands of the Cubs.
Jones began the 2004 season in leftfield, with Mark DeRosa playing third base, but DeRosa's bat failed to keep up its end of the bargain, and by mid-June, Jones was back at the hot corner. Though his glove was up to the task (+7 Defensive Runs Saved), he hit just .248/.362/.485, still good for a 116 OPS+ but atypical nonetheless. In fact, it was the only season during the 1998–2008 span that Jones’ OBP and SLG failed to top .400 and .500, respectively. Though the team no longer had Glavine (who signed with the Mets after 2002) or Maddux (who returned to the Cubs after 2003), the Braves still won 95 games, but for the third year in a row, they lost a Division Series, this time to the Astros. They would suffer another first-round loss to Houston in 2005. While Jones' bat rebounded (296/.412/.556), he lost six weeks due to a sprained left foot, and played in just 109 games overall, that after averaging 155 per year from 1996–2004.
Unfortunately, that injury was a portent of things to come. Over his final eight seasons (ages 33 to 40), Jones averaged just 120 games per year, topping 134 just once, and maxing out at 143. Ankle, oblique, wrist, hamstring and knee injuries all sent him to the disabled list, with a torn left ACL—the same one repaired in 1994—ending his 2010 season on August 10. Thus, he missed out on another Division Series appearance, in this case a loss to the Giants that marked the end of Cox's 29-year managerial career. Jones also underwent in-season surgeries on his right meniscus (2011), left meniscus and left calf (both 2012).
Remarkably, even as he aged and struggled to stay in the lineup, he remained every bit as productive, hitting .303/.402/.517 for a 142 OPS+ (one point above his overall career mark). In his 134-game 2007 season, he led the NL with a 165 OPS+, ranked second in batting average (.337) and fourth in OBP and SLG (.425 and .604) as well as WAR (a career high 7.6). On a rate basis, he was even better the following year. Playing in 128 games, he hit .364/.470/.574, becoming the second-youngest first-time batting champion in history (Barry Bonds was 37 when he won in 2002). His OBP also led the league, while his 176 OPS+ ranked second and his 7.3 WAR third.
That was Jones' last great season. Over his final four years, he averaged a solid 2.5 WAR even while continuing to battle injuries and resisting a move to first base; the arrival of Freddie Freeman in late 2010 ruled that out. After announcing that he would retire at the end of 2012—which meant forgoing his 2013 option—he received a farewell tour full of gifts and tributes from around the majors. He made All-Star teams in each of his final two seasons, and—after the Braves squandered an NL Wild Card berth by losing their final five games in 2011—one last trip to the postseason. Unfortunately, it was brief; Jones went 1-for-5 as the Braves lost to the Cardinals in the first NL Wild Card game.
Jones finished his career having played more games (2,499) and collected more hits (2,726) than any Brave besides Hank Aaron, and more homers (468) than any Brave besides Aaron and fellow Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews. Likewise, he's third in homers among players who spent the majority of their careers at third base behind Mike Schmidt and Mathews. The 428 games he started in the outfield, at shortstop or at DH bump him down to fourth (with 389) when going by the strict split (homers as a third baseman).
Among switch-hitters at any position, only Mantle and Eddie Murray homered more often, only Mantle and Pete Rose walked more often, and only four players—Rose, Murray, Frankie Frisch and Omar Vizquel —collected more hits. Among those with at least 7,000 PA, only Mantle, 19th century slugger Roger Connor, and Lance Berkman finished with a higher OPS+ than his 141, all in considerably fewer PA. Via Jayson Stark, Frisch was the only other one to hit at least .300 from both sides; as a lefty, Jones hit .304/.405/.542, while as a righty, he hit .305/.391/.499.
Those numbers, when combined with Jones' MVP award, eight All-Star appearances, pivotal role in the Braves’ run, and .287/.409/.456 line in 417 postseason PA, are a full enough résumé for Cooperstown, though it's worth appreciating his impressive standing in terms of the advanced metrics as well. For starters, his career total of 85.0 WAR ranks fifth among all position players since the start of 1987, trailing only Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols and Adrian Beltre. That WAR is sixth among all third basemen, trailing only Schmidt, Mathews, Beltre, Wade Boggs and George Brett.
Jones' seven-year peak total of 46.6 is "only" eighth behind Schmidt, Boggs, Mathews, Ron Santo, Brett, Beltre and Home Run Baker, but his 65.8 JAWS is sixth, sandwiched between Brett and Santo. Of the top nine in the JAWS rankings, all are in the Hall save for Jones and the still-active Beltre. Tenth is Scott Rolen, who's also debuting on this ballot, and 11th is Edgar Martinez, who's in his ninth year of eligibility. At a position with just 13 players enshrined, the lowest total of any position, all are worthy of election.
It's not happening for either Rolen or Martinez this year, but it will happen for Jones. It won't be unanimous —the first voter to leave Jones off his ballot has already surfaced—but like Maddux and Glavine, he'll receive upwards of 90% and join his former teammates in Cooperstown next July.