One of my favorite baseball memories involved Andruw Jones.
The Curaçao native was only 19 when he stepped into the batter’s box during Game 1 of the 1996 World Series for the Braves against the Yankees, and promptly smacked a home run. The next time he got a bat in his hands, he launched the ball over the fence again. He became the youngest player to ever hit a home run in a World Series game. It felt to me like a legend was about to be born.
It kind of worked out that way, although not in the fashion my fevered 11-year-old brain envisioned. Jones was a good hitter in his career, but not a great one. His career 111 wRC+ and .281 True Average characterized a high-power, low-contact hitter who had some very-good-to-great seasons, while never turning into a lethal offensive presence in an era where you couldn’t swing a dead cat without posting a 40-homer season.
And yet: Jones earned a 127 rating on Hall of Stats, a deserving Hall of Fame inductee. His 54.6 JAWS rating is higher than Hall-of-Fame center fielders Andre Dawson and Kirby Puckett. His 60.1 FanGraphs Hall of Fame rating eclipses the median threshold for center fielders by a big margin. By all accounts, Jones is a worthy Hall-of-Famer.
We know why. We all know why. It’s because of this.
I could literally do this all day. Jones was probably the greatest defensive center fielder I ever saw with my own eyes. The man was a wizard with the leather. Statcast would almost certainly have a field day with his first step and top speed in getting to balls. He probably single-handedly kept Tom Glavine’s ERA nice and shiny in the late 1990s.
The numbers support the case, too. While the flaws in Total Zone and Fielding Runs Above Average are manifold (less so with FRAA than with TZ), both consider Jones to be a pantheon talent. His 135 TZ is third all-time behind Paul Blair and Willie Mays. His 177.5 FRAA is the highest for a center fielder since World War II.
He kept doing it as he aged, too. For 11 consecutive seasons from 1997 to 2007, Jones was the best defensive center fielder in baseball. He hit well enough in those years to give him multiple six- and eight-win seasons.
Jones’ last few years were an unquestionable embarrassment, and probably left a bad taste in the mouths of fans and voters, especially since his peak seasons weren’t driven by offense at a time when defense was less appreciated and valued. No matter; Jones is coming up for induction at a time when glovework is appreciated. There was nobody better in the outfield than Andruw Jones. I don’t expect the BBWAA to vote him in next year; heck I don’t expect them to vote him in for many years. But vote him in they should. It would make the 11-year-old Braves fan living inside my heart extremely happy.