Another Look at Andruw Jones

Last week in a relatively minor move, the New York Yankees resigned veteran outfielder Andruw Jones to a one year contract. This is a good move for the Yankees, who will continue to use Jones as a fourth outfielder and right-handed bat as needed. It is also probably a good move for Jones, who will be slotted into a role for which he is a good fit on a team that has a decent chance of making the playoffs. Jones’ career has had an interesting trajectory. He made his debut as a 19 year old phenom for the the Atlanta Braves in 1996. He capped off that by homering in his first two World Series at bats. By the age of 20, Jones was the starting center fielder on a playoff bound team. For about a decade after that Jones was an elite player, know largely for his outstanding defense in centerfield.

Jones, however, transitioned quickly from elite defender and star center fielder to being a free agent bust with the Los Angeles Dodgers as he hit .158/.256/.249 in 2008 after signing a big free agent contract with the Dodgers. Beginning with the Texas Rangers in 2009, Jones reinvented himself again, this time as a useful veteran role player, a job he did well for the Yankees last year and for the Chicago White Sox in 2010.

When looked at as a whole, Jones has had a good career but not a great one, making him, at first glance, a weak candidate for the Hall of Fame. There were many important things he did not do well. His lifetime batting average of .256, buoyed by a reasonably high strikeout rate of 1,677 strikeouts in 8,395 plate appearances, has kept his career OBP at just below .340. While this is better than recent inductee Andre Dawson’s OBP, it is well below what should be expected from a Hall of Fame outfielder.

Jones was essentially a two dimensional player. He played defense and he hit home runs, but he did those things very well. Currently, Jones is one of only four players to have won ten Gold Gloves and have hit at least 400 home runs. The other three, Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays and Mike Schimdt, are all inner circle Hall of Famers or soon to achieve that status. Jones is obviously not comparable to any of those three players; and his membership in such an august club is more of a statistical quirk than a measure of his true value.

A closer look at Jones’ career could still suggest that he could be a strong Hall of Fame candidate. Only sixteen players have won ten or more Gold Gloves. Of this group eight, Johnny Bench, Roberto Alomar, Brooks Robinson, Schmidt, Ozzie Smith, Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline and Mays, are already in the Hall of Fame and an additional five others, Greg Maddux, Ivan Rodriguez, Omar Vizquel, Griffey and Ichiro Suzuki, will be strong Hall of Fame candidates. The players who will not make it to the Hall of Fame despite their ten or more Gold Gloves, are Jim Kaat and Keith Hernandez. Gold Gloves are obviously not the only, or even the best defensive metric, but they are a good indicator of how a player was perceived; and Jones was perceived as the best fielding outfielder in the game for the decade from 1998-2007.

Jones’ accomplishments as a power hitter are not nearly on par with his defense, but he was a reliable slugger for much of his career. Currently, he has 420 home runs, but with even members of the 500 home run club facing difficult odds of being elected to the Hall of Fame, 400 home runs is much less of a ticket to Cooperstown than it may have been in the past. Nonetheless, the correlation between 400 home runs and election into the Hall of Fame is still strong. Of the 45 players with at least 420 home runs 23 are already in the Hall of Fame. Of the remaining 22, 21, including Jones, are still eligible to be elected to the Hall of Fame. The one exception is Dave Kingman. Of those 21, only three or four players, Juan Gonzalez, Fred McGriff and Carlos Delgado and possibly Jason Giambi, will face trouble from voters due to issues other than steroids. The remaining players are either likely inductees — like Griffey, Jim Thome and Frank Thomas — or players whose candidacies will be dogged by the steroid issue — like Mike Piazza, Manny Ramirez or Mark McGwire.

Jones’ career is not over. While he will not win any more Gold Gloves, it is conceivable that he could play 3-4 more years and finish with 450 home runs while not driving his rate numbers down. If he does that, his Hall of Fame candidacy will look even better. Jones played in a high offense context, which helped his home run numbers, but Hall of Fame voters may be inclined to give non-steroid users a pass on that issue. Jones may not truly deserve to be enshrined in Cooperstown. His career OPS+ of 111 is too low, but his 60 WAR are more than several Hall of Famers. However, few who fielded as well and few who hit as many home runs have been kept out; and everybody who did both those things as well or better than Jones is in.