By Cruz Serrano
Back when Barry Bonds’ hat size was still considered human, back when the only interleague series was in October, way back before baseball’s Summer of Love that saw Sosa and McGwire hammer their way past Roger Maris, the team of the 90s was hunting for their second straight World Series title. After winning it all in ‘95, the Atlanta Braves were out to build a dynasty rather than becoming more reminiscent of the Buffalo Bills, whose success paralleled that of the Braves: close but no cigar. The Braves, once again, found themselves as the best team in the National League and were prepared to take on the Yankees, one year removed from the retirement of Don Mattingly. The Braves came out firing, thanks in large part to the heroics of then 19-year-old Andruw Jones. Jones became the youngest player ever to hit a home run in the World Series, and was also only the second player ever to hit a home run in his first two at bats in the fall classic. The Braves high-octane offense along with their incredible starting pitching jumped to a quick two games to none lead in the series. However, the Braves bullpen imploded, and the Yankees would sweep games 3-6 to put an end to the Braves hopes of winning back-to-back championships.
Looking back at that series, it’s hard not to see similarities between the series and the career of Andruw Jones. Much like the Braves in the series, Jones’ career started off fast, and he quickly became regarded as one of the best centerfielders in baseball, if not the best. However, Andruw, like the Braves in ‘96, eventually hit a proverbial wall that cut short what was sure to be a no doubt Hall of Fame career. Even with the parallels, it’s hard to say that Andruw came up short, mostly because of how great he was before his body and bat betrayed him. From a purely subjective standpoint, Andruw Jones was the most exciting player to watch in his mid-twenties: the light tower power, along with his incredible defense and flair for making jaw dropping plays, made every game a must watch. Andruw also played the shallowest center field of any player that I can remember, and I hardly recall any balls landing in the grass over his head. However, in order to argue for his Hall of Fame candidacy, there needs to be an objective look that shows that Andruw was in fact one of the best handful of centerfielders to ever play the game.
For me, the best place to start is taking a look at players in the Hall of Fame that played a majority of their career in center. There are currently 17 centerfielders in the Hall of Fame, with the pinnacle of the position being Willie Mays. Of the 17 in the hall, only 7 of the players were actually voted in by the BBWA, the rest of which were inducted via the veterans committee. The 7 players that were voted in by the BBWA were all, for the most part, offensively driven players. Interestingly enough, of the 17 centerfielders in the Hall of Fame, only 6 have a higher career WAR total than Jones according to Fan Graphs, and there are a few that Jones was significantly better than. There are actually 8 players listed as centerfielders on Fan Graphs ahead of Jones, however, two of them actually went in to the Hall of Fame at different outfield positions. It’s safe to say that at least in terms of WAR, Andruw Jones is worth a serious look for Hall of Fame induction.
As for a specific player to compare with Andruw, Hall of Famer Andre Dawson does the trick. Dawson, otherwise known as “The Hawk”, played a majority of his career games in centerfield and went into the hall as such. The biggest difference between Dawson and Jones is the value they provided on the field. Dawson, like the rest of the center fielders voted in by the BBWA, was a much better offensive player, and was below average defensively over his career. Dawson and Jones offensive stats compare favorably, however, with each players listed here:
HR: Dawson 438, Jones 434.
SLG%: Dawson .482, Jones .486
OBP: Dawson .323, Jones .337
WAR: Dawson 59.5, Jones 67.1.
One important thing to remember here is that Dawson played in an era where offense was less common. Jones played in the middle of the “steroid era”, when the significance of a number like 400 home runs was greatly diminished. However, Jones’ incredible defense makes up for that fact, and that is why, at least I assume why, Jones has a higher career WAR despite playing in a friendly offensive environment. For further comparison between Jones and Dawson, both players Fangraph profiles can be found by clicking their respective name.
Although I pointed out that most of the centerfielders elected by the BBWA were offense-first players, I think the best case to be made for Jones comes from looking at his impeccable defensive statistics. Jones won 10 Gold Gloves in his career, but this is definitely not enough to say that he was great defensively. Gold Glove awards are all too often not given to the best defensive player, and for whatever reason, it seems that good offensive players end up with Gold Gloves. My favorite defensive statistic is, well, it’s called defense, or def for short. Def is a Fan Graphs statistic that quantifies a player’s defensive value using fielding runs and adjusts it for the player’s position. For a deeper understanding of all that goes into Def, please check out the Fan Graphs stat glossary here. So now with the foundation of Def set, we can look into how it plays into this conversation. Andruw Jones has the highest Def total for any center fielder on Fan Graphs. This may come with a grain of salt, however, because prior to 2003, there is not UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) data available, and UZR happens to be a statistic that is used in the formula for Def. For seasons prior to 2003, Fan Graphs instead uses TZ (Total Zone) in the formula for Def. Even with the difference in formula, no centerfielder even comes close to Jones’ total Def of 281.3 (Willie Mays is second with a total of 170.1). And going beyond just centerfield, Jones ranks 8th all time for Def total, regardless of position. And Jones played at a position that is regarded as a defense-first position, which is one of the reasons I find it so odd that most Hall of Fame centerfielders were known more for their offense.
Overall, I think Jones has a pretty good case for being a Hall of Famer. His defense alone warrants his consideration, much like The Wizard of Oz Ozzie Smith. When adding in the fact that Andruw put up offensive stats that compare well with a Hall of Fame player at his position, I think he becomes a no doubter to be enshrined in Cooperstown. Aside from his contributions on the field, Jones was also the first player to lead a wave of talent that has come over from Curacao, as well as other players from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, such as Andrelton Simmons, who grew up in Curacao idolizing Andruw Jones and hoping to play in the MLB just like him.
So when it’s all said and done, Andruw was an above average offensive centerfielder who revolutionized the position defensively. He can also be given a ton of credit for inspiring the current players from the Kingdom of the Netherlands to reach the major leagues today. However, whether he gets voted into Cooperstown is a completely different conversation. Sadly, the shadow of the “steroid era” looms over his career, even if it may be completely unwarranted. Also, the Hall of Fame voters’ tendency to value offense over defense when regarding centerfielders hurts his cause as well. All I know is that he deserves to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame someday, and if it ever happens, I will be there in Cooperstown to support one of the players that helped me fall in love with the game of baseball.
– Cruz Serrano, @cruzin_USA