Goodbye, Mr. Chips?

Back in December, I pondered the incumbent class of Hall of Fame candidates, a subject that often brings forth both the best and the worst of thinking, from professional analysts, knowledgeable fans, and the witless alike. My very favourite of any of those was a response to the previous year’s such pondering, when a reader—anxious to make Edgar Martinez’s Hall of Fame case (he was and remains a ballot holdover and he has a case, though the DH bias is liable to keep him out of Cooperstown awhile longer)—decided to compare him to, among others, Chipper Jones: It’s pretty clear that Edgar was a model of consistency. And in terms of hitting, it’s clear to me that Edgar is a notch above modern-era players like Todd Helton, Frank Thomas, Chipper Jones, and Larry Walker. To which I replied:

Number two on the third base parade, grinning all the way even in spite of his knees . . .

But Edgar Martinez isn’t “a notch above” Chipper Jones. Anyone who thinks so isn’t reading the real numbers. Jones at this writing has played the same number of seasons now (eighteen) as Martinez did play, and he spent damn near every day of it playing one of the field’s most physically demanding positions while still shaking out as a .300/.400/.500 man. Martinez’s leverage stats–his averages in situations involving plays potentially more pivotal than others in changing win probabilities, particularly with one dramatic swing–are somewhat better than Jones’s, in fact they’re pretty damned impressive, but they may be inflated by Martinez’s having played on teams in which his were more likely to be those kind of situational at-bats because they weren’t as good as Jones’s teams. Almost anyone in the lineups of Jones’s teams could find himself in those situations.

If Chipper Jones were to retire this instant, he would retire a) with a .304/.402/.533 line; b) 82.7 WAR (we did note . . . that Martinez’s is 67.2); and, c) four incumbent and two in-waiting Hall of Famers, including Mike Schmidt, the no-questions-asked greatest all-around third baseman ever to play the game (George Brett is an extremely tight second), among his top ten comps. Edgar Martinez has one Hall of Famer in waiting (Magglio Ordonez) among his top ten comps and a big bunch of not-quites otherwise. Not to mention that Jones through the end of 2011 averaged 212 runs produced per 162 games, compared to 195 for Martinez, with far more overall extra base hits, home runs, and runs batted in in the bargain, and was never considered a true liability in the field.

No, Edgar Martinez is not a notch above Chipper Jones; he’s quite a few notches below Jones. (Comparing Martinez to Frank Thomas is a little on the fatuous side, too–pitches may not have loved facing Martinez but nobody wanted to run home to his mommy at the mere sight of him in the on-deck circle, either.) Jones hasn’t been a markedly great defencive third baseman, but it never once seems to have occurred to anyone that he’d have been better off in a league where he couldn’t hurt your team with his glove.

I’m led to think of the foregoing once again because Jones has announced that, yep, this time it’s for real, what he merely pondered in 2010 is going to come true at the end of 2012. The no-questions-asked greatest franchise player in the history of the Atlanta Braves (Warren Spahn, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Dale Murphy, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine, after all, did put in time with other clubs) is going to call it a career. And, yes, it’s kind of ridiculous that I should have been drawn into pondering Jones’s greatness aloud a few months ago based on one fanboi’s argument on behalf of Edgar Martinez, who wasn’t a few notches above Chipper Jones on the best days of his life, never mind over an entire career.

“Never in my mid-20s would I have given myself a snowball’s chance to be in camp and have a job at 40 years old. But I like to think I’ve kept myself in pretty good shape over the years,” Jones was quoted as telling the Associated Press Thursday, after the Braves announced his retirement plan. “The skills are still there to go out and get it done. I don’t know for how much longer, but we’re gonna ride it as long as we can.” Apparently, unless someone or something wreaks a miracle upon his long-troubled knees, that ride has about six months to go, seven if the Braves make one more postseason for their longtime field anchor.

Even opposition fans had to appreciate him. He’d beat the living hell out of your team but that grin was so damn infectious you just couldn’t knock a guy who—in contrast to most of the outward stoics who seemed to become the faces of the Braves over all those winning seasons—actually let you know he loved playing the game. Even through the knee troubles, Jones would not let you think baseball was anything less than fun for all the work (and it was damn near Ph.D. level work) he put into playing the game. Met fans are just one isolated example of opposition who came to admire and even adore him while he was laying the Mets to waste; he was so effusive in his ability to turn Shea Stadium and Citi Field into his own batting practise fields, without rubbing it in, that even Met fans couldn’t help liking the guy. It probably didn’t hurt that he named one of his children Shea, either.

There’s a milestone or two Jones could yet achieve if he has a solid 2012. In theory, anyway. He could become only the second Brave to hit every one of 500+ home runs in the uniform. (Hank Aaron was the first and remains the only one; Eddie Mathews was traded to the Houston Astros seven bombs short of the mark, believe it or not.) Among switch hitters, only Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray belong in the 500 home run club. Among third basemen, only Mathews and Mike Schmidt are in the club. This assumes, of course, that the skills are still there to go out and hit 46 bombs this year. Jones hasn’t hit as many as 29 home runs in any season since 2007. He’s also the number two switch-hitting RBI man, ahead of Mantle but still well behind Murray. Even Jones would laugh himself hoarse if you asked him whether he could drive 356 runs in this year.

At this writing, Jones is number 26 all-time on the offencive Wins Above Replacement list, number 31 all-time on the OPS list, number 40 on the all-time RBI list, and number 28 all-time on the extra base hits list. Think about that. On four very critical categories measuring a baseball player’s ability to help his teams win Chipper Jones among the fifty greatest baseball players of all time. Did I mention he’s also number 17 all-time in win probability added? Think about that, too. Among all the men whose presence in the lineup gives their teams that much more of a chance to win Jones is top twenty.

He doesn’t have a lot of black ink on his resume entering this season; in fact, he’s only ever led his league in any key offence category four times: he led the National League in OPS and OPS+ in 2007; he led the league in batting and OBP in 2008. He has a small truckload of gray ink even though it shakes out to quite a bit less than the average Hall of Famer might have. But by the Bill James measures known as the Hall of Fame batting standards and the Hall of Fame batting monitor, Chipper Jones pulls up at 178 on the monitor (the average Hall of Famer: 100) and meeting 67 percent of the standards. (The average Hall of Famer: 50.) Slice him any way and if he were to retire this minute, instead of at season’s end, Jones would shake out as an above-average Hall of Famer.

All the foregoing accomplished on knees that have bedeviled him ever since he was forced to sit out what should have been his rookie season, after he tore up a knee in spring training of 1994. He ended up number two in the 1995 Rookie of the Year voting and, coincidentally, was a key figure in the Braves’ run to their only World Series ring since the franchise relocated to Atlanta. The Braves have been winners for the most part since but they’ve only had that one ring to show for all those seasons ruling the National League East. Jones would be the last guy to say no if the Braves could get one more crack at it, never mind the prize, this season.

He’s been the absolute mainstay for a franchise that has seen, one after the other, various mainstays come and go. He’s turned out to be the nugget among number-one draft picks; David Schoenfeld of Sweet Spot has limned that among the number-ones, Jones has the highest WAR with his original team, his 82.7 well ahead of Ken Griffey, Jr. (67.6 with the Seattle Mariners), Joe Mauer (40.3 with the Minnesota Twins), Darryl Strawberry (37.7 as a Met), and Alex Rodriguez (37.1 as a Mariner).

It's no disgrace to be behind Mike Schmidt among third basemen . . .

Schoenfeld ranks Jones as the second-greatest third baseman of all time, behind Mike Schmidt and ahead of Eddie Mathews. I used to underrate Mathews myself, and I saw him play in my boyhood, but did you know Eddie Mathews has more WAR (98.3) than George Brett (85.5), whom I used to rank as number two behind Schmidt? Having seen the lot of them play and factoring their final statistics into that, I’m still going to have to rank them this way: Mathews number three (he was a terrific fielder but not as good as Schmidt in the field), Brett and Jones in a dead heat for number two (I might rank Brett higher if injuries hadn’t ground him away from third base a little sooner than he should have yielded the position), and Schmidt number one.

It’s no knock on Chipper Jones to say he’s merely in the top four all-time all-around third basemen. His home runs haven’t been the kind of conversation pieces Mike Schmidt could hit almost without effort; he hasn’t been a genuinely great or spectacular fielder. But if greatness is not strictly defined as spectacle, Jones has personified it. Defencively, he’s been a league-average third baseman who’s rarely made truly egregious mistakes with his glove and arm. He’s had a decent throwing arm, he’s had a knack for being where the ball is without having to extend too arduously to get there, and nobody ever once thought his teams would be in need of emergency services by putting him on third base every day. But every one of them thought the Braves had that much less chance to win if he wasn’t in the lineup.

(Did I mention that Jones at this writing has averaged 212 runs produced per 162 games? That’s a measly two behind Schmidt’s career average.)

Jones has no desire to shake out as a manager after his playing career ends, though, never mind that he’d probably make a good manager. “I think I’d be better off as a specialty coach,” he said to reporters a month before announcing his retirement plan. “I have such a passion for hitting. I’m kind of a one-track-mind kind of guy. I can’t have my hands in a bunch jars and be delegating responsibility for a bunch of different areas. I’d much rather stay focused on just one area and be able to do that well. While I think I could manage, I really don’t have the urge to manage. I’d much rather be a hitting coach than a manager.”

If that’s true, an awful lot of players to come are going to be getting an awful lot of education they couldn’t pay for otherwise. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you’ll take an old hint from Sports Illustrated’s Michael Bamberger: It helps that [Jones] has some ridiculous gifts. He was in a visiting clubhouse a while back, reading the crawl on a cable channel from about 30 feet away. A teammate said, ‘You can read that?’ Jones thought, You can’t? He can remember hundreds, maybe thousands of at-bats, what he hit off whom. One night last week, after a game in which he saw two dozen pitches, he could remember in detail all but two or three of them: count, pitch, location, result. He watches game tape like a detective, and if a pitcher tends to slightly open his glove before throwing a curve, Jones knows it.

A student like that has a terrific chance of becoming a teacher who bestows the right kind of thinking into his own students. Hopefully, those students won’t mind a bit if Jones has to take a brief leave from class for a Cooperstown induction speech in 2018.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sean Breslin on March 22, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    You did a really great job with this. Don’t ever let anyone tell you Chipper isn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

    Well done, and I hope you check out my memoirs of Chipper over at http://breslinsports.com

    Reply

  2. Sean—If anyone tried telling me he’s not a first-ballot Hall of Famer I’d strap him into a polygraph machine! He could have retired three years ago and still a) be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and b) tied for number two among all-time third basemen. By the way, that’s an excellent job you did writing about Jones yourself!

    Reply

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