- Andruw Jones was one of baseball's elite defensive players and a monstrous hitters early in his career. His precipitous decline likely cost him Hall of Fame election.
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2018 Hall of Fame ballot. It was originally written for The Cooperstown Casebook and has been adapted with the permission of the publisher, Thomas Dunne Books. For a detailed introduction to this year's ballot, please see here. For an introduction to JAWS, see here.
It happened so quickly. Freshly anointed the game’s top prospect by Baseball America in the spring of 1996, the soon-to-be–19-year-old Andruw Jones was sent to play for the Durham Bulls, the Braves’ Class A affiliate. By mid-August, he had been promoted three times, having blazed through the Carolina League, the Double A Southern League and the Triple A International League and debuted for the defending world champion Braves. By Oct. 20, with just 31 regular-season games under his belt, he was a household name, not only the youngest player ever to homer in a World Series game—breaking Mickey Mantle’s record—but also doing so twice at Yankee Stadium.
Jones was no flash in the pan. The Braves didn’t win the 1996 World Series, and he didn’t win the 1997 NL Rookie of the Year award, but along with Chipper Jones (no relation) and the big three of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, he became a pillar of a franchise that was amid a remarkable stretch of 14 NL East titles from 1991 to 2005 (all but the '94 strike season). From 1998 to 2007, Jones won 10 straight Gold Gloves, more than any centerfielder except Willie Mays.
By the end of 2006, Jones had tallied 342 homers and 1,556 hits and looked bound for a berth in Cooperstown, but after a subpar finale in Atlanta and a departure for Los Angeles via free agency, he fell apart so completely that the Dodgers bought out his contract, a rarity in baseball. He spent the next four years with three different teams before heading to Japan at age 35, and while he hoped for a return to the majors, he couldn’t find a deal to his liking after either the 2014 or '15 seasons. He retired before his 39th birthday, and thanks to his rapid descent, risks being overlooked by Hall of Fame voters.
|Player||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS||Hits||HR||SB||AVG/OBP/SLG||OPS+|
|Avg. HOF CF||71.2||44.6||57.9|
Jones was born in 1977 in Willemstad, Curaçao, the capital city of roughly 150,000 of the Dutch-Caribbean island, which lies about 35 miles north of the coast of Venezuela. Father Henry Jones was a catcher for Curaçao’s national team in the 1970s, good enough to play professionally—except that the island wasn’t scouted by major league teams at that time, and attending a major league tryout ended a player’s amateur status. Henry gave Andruw his first glove at three and his first bat at four, and the kid remained precocious at every stage. He went to Japan with a traveling team at 11, one year before Hensley Meulens become the first Curaçao-born major leaguer with the Yankees in 1989, and at 15, played against Juvenile League teams featuring kids 16–18 years old. At a tournament in Puerto Rico, Braves scout Giovanni Viceisza, who had been scouring the Netherlands Antilles for Atlanta for five years, recognized Jones’ five-tool talent and summoned longtime Braves director of scouting Paul Snyder, who advised the team to sign him once he turned 16. They paid a $46,000 bonus.
Still shy of his 17th birthday, Jones struggled in the Gulf Coast League in 1994, but he fared better upon being moved up to the Appalachian League. His raw numbers at the two stops (.290/.368/.412 with three homers and 21 steals in 63 games) were respectable; that he held his own in leagues where the average player was two or three years older was far more important. Just shy of his 18th birthday, Jones 21st ranked on BA’s top prospect list in the spring of 1995, second on the Braves behind Chipper Jones. His performance that year with Macon in the South Atlantic League (.277/.372/.512 with 25 homers in 139 games) earned him BA Minor League Player of the Year honors, and the No. 1 overall prospect ranking heading into the 1996 season. Before his promotion to the Braves, Jones hit a combined .339/.421/.652 with 34 homers in 66 games at Durham, 38 at Greenville and 12 at Richmond.
“Andruw was beyond his years, baseball maturity-wise,” Snyder told Baseball America in 2006. “The biggest problem was that we couldn’t find any level that he didn’t dominate.… Very seldom do you get a guy like this to come through so quickly.”
The Braves owned a seven-game cushion when they recalled Jones from Richmond on Aug. 14. They’d lost regular rightfielder David Justice to a season-ending dislocated shoulder back in May and wanted to test the teenager before the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline to set their postseason roster. Jones went 1-for-5 in his debut against the Phillies on Aug. 15, striking out twice against Curt Schilling but collecting a ninth-inning single off Toby Borland. The next night, facing the Pirates, he homered off Denny Neagle, one of five he’d hit in 31 games. He started 17 games in rightfield, and five in center. “Some scouts say he’s on a par with Atlanta’s Gold Glove centerfielder, Marquis Grissom,” noted Sports Illustrated’s Tim Kurkjian, less than two weeks after he arrived.
In the postseason, Braves manager Bobby Cox initially used Jones as a defensive replacement for lumbering leftfielder Ryan Klesko. He didn’t start until Game 3 of the NLCS against the Cardinals and didn’t collect his first hits until Game 7, via a two-out RBI single in the first inning, then a two-run homer in the sixth in a 15–0 rout. Then came his big night in the World Series opener, with a two-run homer off Andy Pettitte and a three-run homer off Brian Boehringer in a 12–1 win. Jones hit .400/.500/.750 and started all six games, though the Braves lost.
Jones repeated as BA’s Minor League Player of the Year (the second player to do so since the publication’s 1981 inception) and No. 1 prospect (the first since they began ranking them in 1991) in 1997. Even so, the Braves didn’t immediately clear him a path to a full-time job. Towards the end of spring training, they traded Grissom and Justice to the Indians for Kenny Lofton and dealt Jermaine Dye, who had played 96 games with the Braves as a rookie in 1996, to the Royals for Michael Tucker. Klesko, Lofton and Tucker were the regulars, with Jones either coming off the bench in the late innings or starting against lefties while Tucker sat. He did spend six weeks in centerfield when hamstring and groin injuries sidelined Lofton.
For the year, he played in 153 games but started just 96 (55 in right, 41 in center), hitting a modest .231/.329/.416 with 18 homers. Still, his defense—valued at +28 runs via Total Zone—turned enough heads that he finished fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, well behind winner Scott Rolen but ahead of Vlad Guerrero.
Lofton’s return to the Indians via free agency opened centerfield for the 21-year-old Jones, who hit hit .271/.321/.515 with 31 homers, 27 steals, +35 defense (!) and 7.4 WAR, tops on the team and fifth in the league, 0.1 WAR behind Mark McGwire and a full win ahead of Sammy Sosa in the year of the pair’s great home run chase. Jones’ first Gold Glove kicked off his 10-year streak.
Continuing to provide outstanding defense along with power and speed, Jones ranked second in the NL in WAR in both 1999 (7.1) and 2000 (a career-best 8.2) and made his first All-Star team in the latter year, hitting .303/.366/.541 with 36 homers and 21 steals. The Braves, who had been ousted in the NLCS in both 1997 and ’98, returned to face the Yankees in the 1999 World Series, but Jones could muster no magic, going 1-for-13 as Atlanta was swept.
Following that big 2000 season, Jones (and agent Scott Boras) won a record $8.2 million salary via arbitration. After a disappointing 2001 (.251/.312/.461 with 4.9 WAR), the 24-year-old ballhawk, who was one year away from free agency, agreed to a six-year, $75 million extension. As Boras told The Sporting News’ Ken Rosenthal, “We’ve had managers and coaches say that Andruw Jones is the best centerfielder they’ve seen since Willie Mays. It’s a visual understanding. Andruw’s routes to balls are excellent. His first step is excellent. His ability to come in and go back is excellent. He can catch the ball running at many different angles.”
Jones wasn’t immune to off years such as 2001 and ’04 (.261/.345/.488 with just +8 defense and 3.2 WAR), but even so, his power and glove guaranteed a substantial baseline of value every year from '98 to '06; he made five All-Star teams during that stretch, homering in the '03 and ’05 games. Adjusting to a wider stance in which his head stayed lower and moved less, he broke out to lead the NL in both homers (51) and RBIs (128) in 2005, ranking fourth in WAR (6.7) and finishing a close second in the NL MVP voting behind Albert Pujols. He then followed that up with a 41-homer, 5.6 WAR season in 2006. From 1998 to '06, Jones hit a combined .270/.347/.513 for a 118 OPS+, averaging 35 homers and 21 fielding runs; his 6.1 WAR trailed only Alex Rodriguez (7.8 WAR) and Barry Bonds (7.5 WAR) in that span.
Read that again: For a nine-year period, only A-Rod and Bonds were more valuable than Jones. If that seems like hyperbole, consider the extent to which the Braves’ trio of Hall of Fame pitchers—Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz—prevented runs and brought home Cy Young awards despite Smoltz being the trio’s only true strikeout pitcher. Those pitchers needed defensive support, and year in and year out, no defender played a bigger part.
“Andruw was always moving before the ball was even hit,” said Matt Kemp, briefly Jones’ teammate on the Dodgers but, before that, a centerfielder he studied. “He would read the pitch, anticipate where the ball was going to be hit and already be moving to that spot.”
Jones’ shallow positioning, his quick first step and uncanny knack for the right routes made for fewer spectacular dives than, say, Jim Edmonds, but those skills translated to a defensive performance that was an estimated 192 runs above average during that nine-year span. That was 58 runs better than any other player in baseball (Angels outfielder Darin Erstad was second). Including the entirety of his Braves’ run—which by the end had seen Maddux and Glavine both depart—Jones was 239 runs above average in the field, miles ahead of outfielder Brian Jordan (56) and shortstop Rafael Furcal (52).
Note that I’ve cut the 2007 season from the consideration of Jones’ heyday. After clouting 92 homers in 2005–06, his final year before free agency was a disappointment, as he hit just .222/.311/.413 for an 87 OPS+ with 26 homers. Though still 19 runs above average afield, his 3.0 WAR was lower than even his rookie season. He was far from full health, battling soreness in both knees as well as a hyperextended left elbow suffered on May 27, but refused to lean on those as explanations. “I’m not going to make excuses about the injuries that I had,” Jones said in September. “I just didn’t play on a high level.”
Jones left the Braves after 2007, his age-30 season, and signed a two-year, $36.2 million deal with the Dodgers, whose general manager, Ned Colletti, cited the elbow injury as an explanation for the outfielder’s struggles. Boras told the media that Jones had reviewed video suggesting his stance was too wide by four inches, costing him balance.
The deal with the Dodgers began unraveling when Jones showed up to camp out of shape—overweight by 15–25 pounds, according to various reports. His batting average slipped below .200 in the season’s fifth game and stayed there all year long. In late May, he went on the disabled list for the first time in his career, losing six weeks to surgery to repair a torn meniscus and remove a cyst in his right knee, the all-important back knee in his batting stance, which lessened his ability to drive the ball. Inflammation and tendonitis further limited him to just one game after Aug. 9, sandwiched around two more DL stints. With his strikeout rate spiking from 21% in 2007 to 31% in that abysmal campaign, he finished at .158/.256/.249 with just three home runs and an astounding -1.6 WAR in 75 games.
Worse than Jones’ performance was the perception that he didn’t care, not that his showing up out of shape could have created any other impression. Caustic Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers called him “the Tubbo” in print on multiple occasions. In one column, Jones continued to answer variants of “I don’t care” in response to a barrage of unflattering questions, including whether he was bothered by the boos from Dodgers fans. “Don’t you care that the fans in Dodger Stadium have turned on you?” asked Simers. “No,” said Jones. “That’s their problem.... You play for the team, you don’t play for the fans. The fans never played the game. They don’t know.”
Such comments only exacerbated the situation as Jones spiraled downward. But as badly as he played, the Dodgers won the NL West and advanced to the NLCS before falling to the Phillies. The disappointment of the Jones signing was replaced by the mania caused by the July 31 trade for Manny Ramirez, who hit .396/.489/.743 in 53 games.
After failing to find any takers for Jones in trade, the Dodgers negotiated a rare contract buyout, releasing him while spreading the remaining $22.1 million on his deal over six years; they wound up putting some of the savings towards retaining Ramirez. Soon afterwards, the Rangers signed Jones to a minimum-salary deal on the basis of a Jan. 26 workout via which he was said to have lost 25 pounds. In part-time duty, primarily against lefties, he hit .214/.323/.459 with 17 homers in 82 games, though he battled hamstring woes.
Jones spent three more seasons in the majors tacking a similar course as a part-timer, one with the White Sox and then two with the Yankees. He hit 19 homers and was worth 1.9 WAR in 2010 in Chicago, though his performance with the bat was actually better in his first year in New York (.247/.356/.495 with 13 homers in 222 PA). For as potent as he was, his contributions were limited by pain in his left knee that eventually required offseason surgery. In December 2012, following a disappointing second season in pinstripes, he signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles of the Japanese Pacific League. Less than two weeks later, on Christmas Day, he was arrested in connection with a domestic dispute.
According to the police report, after consuming several drinks, Jones allegedly assaulted his wife, Nicole, putting his hands around her neck and threatening to kill her. He was charged with battery, and a week later, Nicole filed for divorce. In a sad irony, the Washington Post article reporting his arrest included the note that the Joneses had been major supporters of Jaden’s Ladder, a group that helps victims of domestic violence.
The divorce was soon cancelled as the couple attempted to reconcile. Jones pled guilty, paid a fine and received probation that allowed him to leave the country to continue his career. In Japan he hit a combined .232/.392/.441 with 50 homers in 2013 and ’14. He explored a return to the majors in early 2015, but reports of interest from multiple teams failed to produce a guaranteed contract. In early 2016, he officially retired.
From a traditional standpoint, Jones’ biggest obstacle to election isn’t his abrupt decline and departure from the majors itself—more on which below—but its impact on his career hit total, since he fell 67 short of 2,000. For whatever reason, BBWAA and committee voters have rejected every post-1960 expansion candidate who fell short of that mark—some very swiftly and some much less so. Bobby Grich, Jim Edmonds, Robin Ventura and Jimmy Wynn went one-and-done on the BBWAA ballot and never got another shot from the VC. Dick Allen and Minnie Miñoso never got 50% of the vote from the writers and have failed to break through on the committees despite multiple chances. Those players all had excellent careers and accumulated at least 50 WAR. Someday, one such player will break through, but will it be Jones?
He’s got a few things working against him beyond just the hit total, including his lifetime .254 batting average. Only three players in the Hall are below .260: Shortstop Rabbit Maranville (.258), first baseman Harmon Killebrew (.256), and catcher Ray Schalk (.253). Maranville and Schalk played key defensive positions and had strong defensive reputations that predate the Gold Glove era but are at least partially upheld by the metrics, though the former ranks dead last in JAWS among enshrined shortstops, and the latter is second-to-last among enshrined catchers. Killebrew punched his ticket to Cooperstown with 573 home runs and ranks 12th among the 19 enshrined first basemen, finishing below the standards in all three categories due to his subpar defense. Jones has stronger defensive metrics in his favor than any of that trio, and at a key position to boot (not to mention 434 homers), but still, the paucity of Hall of Famers in the .250s doesn’t bode well for him.
What’s more, though his ample power and patience boosted the impact of that low batting average, Jones hails from a high-offense era. His 111 OPS+, from a .254/.337/.486 line, is unexceptional—it's lower than 16 of the 19 enshrined centerfielders, matching that of Richie Ashburn and topping only Max Carey (108) and Lloyd Waner (99). It’s also worse than 51 of the 73 enshrined up-the-middle players (catchers, second basemen, shortstop and centerfielders).
Even the 10 Gold Gloves aren’t as big a help as one would expect. While all five 12-time winners are in (Brooks Robinson, Ozzie Smith, Ivan Rodriguez, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente), the two 11-time winners (Keith Hernandez and Omar Vizquel) aren’t; the former fell off the ballot without ever reaching 11.0%, and the latter, eligible for the first time this year, is 18.8 points below the JAWS standard and figures to be the subject of polarizing debate.
As a member of the Braves’ dynasty, Jones saw plenty of postseason action, but his .273/.363/.433 line with 10 homers in 279 PA is not a particularly strong showing, and it doesn’t help that the Braves went 2–8 in series in which he posted an OPS of .575 or above.
Jones' Hall of Fame Monitor score of 109—which recognizes his big home run seasons and reaching the 400 plateau, his regular play at key defensive positions on playoff-bound teams, the Gold Gloves, and so on—leaves him somewhere between “a good possibility” at 100 and “a virtual cinch” at 130. Among his contemporaries are players such as Jimmy Rollins (121), Magglio Ordoñez (114), Nomar Garciaparra and Michael Young (112), Matt Holliday (111), Carlos Delgado (110), Edgar Renteria (109), and Jason Giambi (108), showing that the distance between those two levels is where Hall of Fame dreams go to die.
Jones’ candidacy does have points in its favor on both traditional and advanced fronts, and on both sides of the ball. First, the homers: While only 27 of the 51 players with at least 425 homers are in the Hall, nine others were either active in 2017 or have not yet hit the ballot. Two others, Chipper Jones and Jim Thome, are eligible for the first time this year. Eight others were connected to performance-enhancing drugs. None of the remaining four (Delgado, Guerrero, Dave Kingman, Fred McGriff) played a key defensive position, as Jones did. In fact, only three up-the-middle players (Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mantle) top his 434 homers. Meanwhile, Jones’ total of 236 fielding runs not only leads all centerfielders but also all outfielders, 51 runs ahead of second-ranked Mays.
As for his WAR-based numbers, the strongest point in Jones’ favor is his 46.4 peak WAR, which ranks ninth at the position, 1.8 wins above the standard and second among those outside the Hall besides Mike Trout (55.2!). Due in part to his early retirement, Jones’ 62.8 career WAR isn’t quite as robust, ranking 13th, below 10 of the 19 enshrined centerfielders and 8.4 wins below the standard. His 54.6 JAWS is 3.3 points below the standard but still good for 11th all-time, behind seven Hall of Famers plus Carlos Beltran (57.1) and Lofton (55.7), who went one-and-done on the 2013 ballot.
On the subject of Jones’ fade, his 58.0 WAR through his age-29 season ranks 24th among position players, while his 342 homers are tied for seventh, and his 1,556 hits rank 40th. Remove the Hall of Famers and those not yet eligible from the equation, and Jones’ through-29 home run total is tops (Bonds is 10th at 259); his WAR is second.
|Rank||Player||Through Age 29||Age 30 Onward||Above Peak WAR||Above JAWS|
|4||Shoeless Joe Jackson||47.8||11.2||N||N|
What a list. As you can see, some of these players acquitted themselves reasonably well after 30, while others flamed out in spectacular fashion. Jones’ dropoff—a gap of 53.1 WAR between the two halves of his career—is the steepest of the bunch. He’s still one of the eight who exceeds the peak standard at their positions, but not one of the four who exceeds the career standard.
I suspect Jones’ quick fade will spell his doom on the ballot, though it’s just one of several factors working against him. There’s the ongoing logjam on the ballot; a voter might conclude he’s the 11th-best in a format that only allows 10 votes. There’s the historic tendency of voters to undervalue defense (as was the case for one-and-done candidates Bell and Grich above, not to mention current candidate Larry Walker and—I fear—Rolen). And then there’s his year with the Dodgers; from his showing up out of shape to his comments regarding fans to his unorthodox buyout, he offers plenty of ammunition to anyone looking for reasons not to vote for him that have nothing to do with numbers. Likewise for the ugly domestic violence allegation, particularly as the issue has become front and center with the game’s new policy, introduced late in the 2015 season.
The writers gave rude treatment to Lofton (ninth in JAWS but just 3.2% in 2013) and Edmonds (15th in JAWS, 2.5% in 2016) even without such factors. While Jones may have enjoyed a higher profile than that pair thanks to the 10 straight Gold Gloves on the perennial playoff participant, much of the credit for their run has already been apportioned to the trio of enshrined hurlers and Chipper Jones, eligible this year and a lock for first-ballot entry. For as fitting as it would be for the two Joneses to go in side-by-side as did Maddux and Glavine in 2014, the odds of that happening are long indeed.