As we trek toward another Hall of Fame vote, there will be lots of eyes on Andruw Jones' vote percentage. The former Braves star who also had stops with the Dodgers, Rangers, White Sox and Yankees, is on the ballot for the fourth time. He hung on the ballot the first two years thanks to totals of 7.3 and 7.5 percent, respectively, and got a nice bump to 19.4 percent last time around. It's possible he can make run and get to 75 percent before he gets through 10 tries.
The strongest area for a case to put Andruw Jones in the Hall of Fame would be his exceptional defense in center field. The relatively small support he's received for this seems out of line in compared to other all-time defensive greats. Yes, he is. We'll get to that in a second.
It seems to me that voters still don't know what to do with defense, in general. It's hard to blame anyone because rating defense in baseball is still such an inexact science. Blatant errors are easy to see, but everyone with a decent baseball brain knows how much range matters and how tough it is to judge this with the naked eye. We're left trying to find which metrics best measure what lines up with the eye test and even if we decide a stat seems accurate, we don't have the tools to go back and apply this new stat to the past, especially the further back you go as video becomes more and more limited.
Still, there have been cases where defense carried the day in Hall of Fame voting, both recently and a bit further in the past.
Ozzie Smith is generally regarded as the greatest defensive player of all time. Defensive WAR shows as much. Defense is why he flew into the Hall with ease on his first try (91.7%). He did rack up 2,460 hits and 580 steals, but he was a career .262 hitter with an 87 OPS+. He only hit .300 once and only topped a 100 OPS+ (league average) four times.
This isn't to denigrate the Hall case of Smith. The best defensive player ever should be in. He isn't alone on defense boosting the case, though.
Brooks Robinson has a much better offensive profile, but he also played third base, traditionally a position expected to provide great offense. He hit .267 with a 105 OPS+ in his career. He didn't get to 3,000 hits and only ended with 268 homers. He got 92% of the vote in his first try. This is because he's generally regarded as the best defensive third baseman in history (guess who ranks first in total zone runs).
Going down further, Bill Mazeroski was a veteran committee selection. He was a career .260/.299/.367 (84 OPS+) hitter, but made it on the strength of his excellent defense at second base and his World Series walk-off homer in 1960.
These guys aren't alone in getting rather sizable -- even if variable -- boosts for their defensive chops (Joe Tinker, Luis Aparacio and Phil Rizzuto are others from older generations that come to mind). I have no issue with it, as defense is a huge part of the game.
I'm just wondering where this boost is for Jones.
In defensive WAR, whether on Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference, Jones is the top outfielder of all time. In the latter, among all players, he's 22nd in history behind an assortment of infielders and catchers.
In looking at defensive WAR among center fielders, it's not really close. Jones leads in blowout fashion (top 13 listed here).
Using "total zone runs" (explanation here, but the short form is it's the number of runs a player was above or below the average defender throughout his career at his position), Jones is second in history behind Brooks Robinson, sitting ahead of widely accepted all-time great defenders like Ozzie Smith, Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays.
Jones led the league in defensive WAR four times while finishing in the top 10 nine times. He led the league in total zone runs six times and finished in the top 10 eight times. He led center fielders in putouts six times (which also goes to his range) and assists three times (yes, he could throw, too).
Nearly every advanced metric on the board says Jones was probably the best defensive outfielder ever and among the greatest defensive players ever.
I understand a large portion of fans don't find these numbers meaningful, as we didn't grow up with them. That's fair and totally understandable. What we're left with? The eye test and testimonials. Among many others, Jones' Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox said he was the best defensive player he ever managed or even saw. Hall of Fame pitchers John Smoltz and Tom Glavine have also publicly said Jones was the best defensive player they've ever seen. I checked around with several scouts and former players and the answer was uniform: Jones was the best defensive center fielder of his generation and perhaps many generations.
I wonder about the deception of the eye test, too. Jones was so legendary for both his exceptional jumps on fly balls and how smooth he was in tracking him. That is to say, if you only saw a handful of games on TV a year with Jones in center, he made it look so easy it might've hurt the perception (several of the scouts and former players mentioned this). He didn't look like he was going at a dead sprint to make a diving catch in the gap when others might've had to do that. Instead, he was already well ahead of the ball, skating seemingly effortlessly to what he made into a routine catch. Routine for Jones, but a spectacular play for merely a great defender in center and a double or triple for even the average outfielder.
Should he be penalized for being so good at getting jumps that he made outstanding plays look routine? No, in fact, he should be credited. It shows up in the numbers above and those playing and scouting during his era saw it first-hand. They knew it. It was accepted reality. That's why he was an automatic Gold Glove winner for 10 straight seasons at a premium position.
Not only that, but Jones has offensive numbers that should provide a boost once we establish this is a glove-first case.
Jones ended up with 434 career home runs while being north of 1,200 in both runs and RBI. By no means are these outstanding compared to other Hall of Fame sluggers, but for a glove-first guy at a premium position, they are pretty damn impressive. He posted a career 111 OPS+, showing himself as an above-average hitter by a comfortable margin, too.
Thanks to a decline we'll cover in a second, Jones was not a compiler. His peak on offense is where the boost should happen. Remember, we're talking about arguably the best defensive player in baseball. From 1998-2006, Jones hit .270/.347/.513 (119 OPS+) while averaging 31 doubles, 35 homers, 104 RBI, 99 runs and 12 steals per season. Nine years of averaging that while being an all-timer in center field seems Hall-worthy.
He topped 30 homers seven times, 40 once and 50 once. He drove in over 100 runs five times while topping 100 runs scored four times.
Now, we can't leave without mentioning the likely culprit of Jones hanging around on the ballot without majority support.
Popular belief is that Jones' decline started when he showed up in Dodgers' camp, fresh off signing a huge deal, overweight and out of shape. He did totally bottom out in L.A. -- but his deal was just two years and he hit .222/.311/.413 in his last year with the Braves. If we loop in that 2007 season with Atlanta, Jones' last six years saw him hit .214/.314/.420 (92 OPS+) while adding just 92 homers after his age-29 season.
After averaging 6.1 WAR per season from 1998-2006, Jones posted 3.0 WAR in 2007 and then just 1.7 combined the remaining five years of his career.
I'm sure many from older generations have stories about players who fell apart like this, but Jones is my generation's example. In the matter of three years, Jones went from MVP-caliber player to laughingstock. He never fully recovered, even if he did post a few productive power seasons in his twilight.
I wonder how much this drastic demise factors in the vote. It shouldn't, in my opinion. The Hall of Fame vote should be based on the total picture and the low percentage for Jones seems like the smaller, latter part of his career weighs more heavily.
It is a factor, however, even when looking at the whole picture.
Due to this decline, Jones has two numbers that seem to scare off some voters. First off, his career average at .254 is pretty low by Hall standards. Even Ozzie Smith beats him out here. Jones didn't get to 2,000 hits, ending with 1,933. This hasn't been a disqualifier for others, but it's a low number and sometimes voters need to see things like at least a "2" at the start of a four-digit number of career hits.
Thanks again to the decline, Jones sits a touch below the Hall of Fame standard for JAWS and WAR, though for peak WAR ("WAR7," which takes the top seven WAR seasons), he's above the standard and trailing only Mays, Ty Cobb, Mike Trout(!), Mickey Mantle, Tris Speaker, Ken Griffey Jr., Joe DiMaggio and Duke Snider.
Andruw Jones was likely the best defensive center fielder of all-time who had a great offensive peak. He also had a drastic decline that meant he fell short of an established Hall of Fame standard in batting average and several key counting stats.
Given that this is a matter of opinion, there's no wrong answer. He's a yes for me. I understand the no votes. I just hope there's proper context being put into his defense.