Perhaps it’s a bit premature to be discussing Andruw Jones‘ Hall of Fame case; after all, he hasn’t officially retired and the offseason isn’t even over yet. The 33 year-old outfielder, who batted .230/.341/.486/.827 for the White Sox last year, could be a great free agent bargain for any team in need of outfield depth, and it would be surprising if he’s still unsigned by Opening Day. I am sure everybody is sick to death of all the Hall of Fame talk already, but since Dave Cameron brought it up, I think it’s worth examining whether Jones, whose value is based more on defense than offense, deserves enshrinement.
[Edit: Bob Horton published a similar article on Jones over at Tomahawk Take. I suggest you check it out, it's very good]
Andruw Jones isn’t exactly an underrated talent; he won 11 Gold Gloves (and was a six-time All-Star), one Fielding Bible Award, and scouts, managers, and his peers were always raving about his defense. Jones is widely considered the greatest defensive center fielder of his generation, and perhaps the greatest all-time, and for good reason. According to fangraphs, his 274.8 career fielding runs above average is second among all position players, behind Brooks Robinson (294.0). According to baseball-reference.com, his 23.7 defensive wins above replacement leads all active players, and is again second all-time to Robinson (27.3). His 124.8 UZR leads all outfielders since 2002, as does his 18.7 UZR/150. If you prefer total zone over UZR, his 241 runs above average ranks second among position players (behind Robinson and tied with Mark Belanger), and his 221 runs above average at center rank first all-time. And according to plus/minus, Jones is +42 runs above average since 2003.
That Jones is also a very good hitter, particularly for a center fielder, bolsters his case. In his prime, he batted .263/.342/.497/.839 with 368 home runs and an 113 OPS+, and his overall career batting line is a respectable .256/.338/.488/.826. There aren’t many players inducted into the Hall on defense alone; out of the 230 position players inducted, Ozzie Smith is probably the only one elected based almost exclusively on his reputation as an excellent fielder. Though they have inducted many players with reputations as solid defenders, voters have typically put more stock in offensive contributions. The voters have elected far more sluggers like Harmon Killebrew and Mickey Mantle, who were virtually immobile in the field, than light-hitting defensive wizards like Smith. For the most part, the inductees who were above-average fielders happened to be above-average hitters as well: Brooks Robinson, Roberto Clemente, and Cal Ripken, for example, are among the best hitters and fielders at their respective positions. That isn’t a dig at the voters; it has always been much easier to quantify a player’s offensive value than defense, and even modern defensive metrics still struggle to measure just how good (or bad) with the glove a player really is.
According to fangraphs, Andruw Jones has accumulated 70.5 wins above replacement. That puts him in the company of Derek Jeter (70.4), Ozzie Smith (70.3), Craig Biggio (70.2), and Zach Wheat (70.0). Smith was inducted into the Hall in 2002; Wheat was elected by the Veteran’s Committee in 1959; Jeter will probably get in on the first ballot; while Biggio is not yet eligible, but it seems likely he will be voted in eventually as well. Of course, not all WAR metrics place equal weight on defense; baseball-reference.com has Jones at 59.9, which ranks 151 among position players (and quite short of HOF standards).
However, the disparity in WAR value probably isn’t the biggest knock against Jones’ Hall of Fame case; that would be his sudden decline at age 30. Jones never hit for a high batting average, and he tended to strike out a lot, but he possessed both the ability to hit for power and get on base. Between 1998 and 2006, Jones never hit fewer than 25 home runs in a season and he posted an OBP less than .320 just once, in 2001. He suffered a string of injuries in 2007 and 2008 that undoubtedly affected his hitting, putting up some of the worst ISO (.191 and .091) and wOBA (.314 and .234) marks of his career. He was healthy for most of his 2009 season with the Rangers and subsequently saw an increase in his power numbers (.246 ISO), though his .323 OBP was pretty average. He enjoyed a bit of a resurgence with the White Sox last year, putting up numbers much closer to his career peak. Jones isn’t quite 35, so it is possible that he has one or two good offensive seasons left.
Worse yet, Jones’ offense wasn’t the only thing to suffer a decline: he isn’t an elite defender anymore, either. From 2002-2007, Jones was one of the very best defenders in the league, posting a 120.4 UZR and 124 UZR/150. Since then, he’s been barely above average, with a 4.4 UZR and 43.1 UZR/150 over the past three seasons. Injuries and age appear to have slowed the rangy outfielder, who made just 35 out-of-zone plays in 771.3 defensive innings between 2009 and 2010 (he made 40 alone for the Dodgers in 2008, and hadn’t made less than 60 in a season from 2003-2007).
As far as all the intangible stuff that BBWAA voters seem to love, I really have no idea if Andruw Jones is a great leader or great teammate, or contributes to the clubhouse chemistry or anything, since I’ve never actually been a teammate of Jones’. I also have no idea if he is one of the most intimidating players of his time; though I imagine opposing pitchers don’t like him too much, since seems to get on base all of the time. Opposing hitters probably aren’t terribly fond of him either, as he’s always robbing them of extra-base hits and throwing them out whenever they get greedy and try to take that extra base (Jones has 120 career assists and 4,785 putouts). I don’t know if Jones meets the criteria under the character clause, either, because I can’t say with any certainty whether he is a decent human being or not. I think that he his; I’ve never heard otherwise and he seems like a nice guy. However, I learned a long time ago that public image can be easily manipulated and that people aren’t always what they seem. This is why I prefer to stick with numbers: a guy can pretend to be a great human being and a great teammate if he wants, but he cannot pretend to be a great baseball player.