If Omar Vizquel had hit 400 home runs, no one would be debating his Hall of Fame credentials. Marrying that offensive figure with his stellar defensive reputation would have rubber-stamped his induction this year, his first on the ballot.
But for all of the acclaim Vizquel earned for his play at shortstop over a 24-year career — including 11 Gold Glove Awards — advanced statistics say he never had a season as baseball’s top defensive player. He came close, finishing second in the majors in defensive wins above replacement in 1993, but never reached the top.
There is, however, another first-time Hall of Fame candidate who had an extended run as one of the game’s top defenders, including at least one season as baseball’s best over all. He is Andruw Jones, who at his peak, as a center fielder for the Atlanta Braves, delivered some of the most impressive defensive seasons of any player in history while, almost as an aside, clubbing 434 career home runs.
In other sports, it would be unthinkable to overlook a player so respected for defensive excellence. Deion Sanders became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in pro football. Dennis Rodman sailed into the Basketball Hall of Fame with a hearty endorsement from Michael Jordan. But despite having at least as many qualifications as Vizquel — and many other Hall of Fame candidates this year — Jones is getting very little support in his first year of eligibility, according to Ryan Thibodaux’s tracking of Hall of Fame balloting.
Jones, who won 10 Gold Gloves, all in a row, from 1998 to 2007, was named on nine of the 178 ballots that had been made public on Thibodaux’s website as of Wednesday morning. Vizquel, whose offensive credentials pale next to Jones’s, was named on 53 ballots. If Jones had one fewer vote, he would be sitting below the 5 percent threshold for returning on the next Hall of Fame ballot.
The contrast between Jones’s reputation among his peers and the voters is, to put it mildly, stark.
“With all due respect to Willie Mays, who I never saw play, Andruw Jones is the best center fielder in our generation,” said Tom Glavine, the Hall of Fame pitcher who was Jones’s teammate for seven years in Atlanta.
What Made Jones So Good?
Glavine raved about the sense of security of having Jones roaming the outfield behind him, with that extraordinary anticipation of every fly ball, and he said Jones had the opposite effect on opponents. He unsettled them just by jogging out to his position.
Ivan Rodriguez, a Hall of Fame catcher who played against Jones, noticed the same thing, and he described Jones’s impact as similar to that of a shutdown cornerback in the N.F.L.
“He’s a guy that when you’re at the plate, the last thing you want to do is hit the ball to center field,” Rodriguez said. “He played very shallow, and you’d think you’re going to hit a ball over his head. And all of a sudden, he’d start running all the way to the wall, and there’s Andruw Jones making another great play.”
Catcher Brian McCann, who played three seasons with Jones in Atlanta, joined Rodriguez and Glavine on a conference call this week that was part of their participation in the Diamond Resorts Invitational golf tournament near Orlando. When the subject of Jones and his Hall of Fame prospects came up, they began to speak over each other in hopes of making a case for him.
Glavine, a fairly old-school player with an affinity for traditional statistics like wins and saves, made a surprising suggestion: Perhaps the number-crunchers of the game could build an argument for Jones.
“I think he’s one of those guys that you really have to start to take a look at how he impacted the game on the defensive side of the ball,” Glavine said. “How the Hall of Fame voting committee goes about doing that, I don’t know, but there are certainly all kinds of sabermetrics in today’s game that I think could be applied to Andruw.”
The Statistical Case
Glavine is right that analysis of defense has been refined in recent years. The most precise measure is a statistic called defensive runs saved, which was devised by Sports Info Solutions. The company uses game data and video to assess the quality and value of a fielder’s plays. For example, did he make a diving catch of a sinking line drive or did he break the wrong way, then trap a ball that he should have caught easily?
Jones’s defensive peak, from 1997 to 2002, came just before Sports Info Solutions started tracking that statistic. While the number of runs Jones saved during those years is unknown, it is a testament to his excellence that from 2003 to 2007, as he began to decline, Jones still saved 67 runs. In the same time period, the second- and third-best defensive outfielders in baseball, Torii Hunter and Willy Taveras, combined for 68 (Hunter had 39, Taveras 29). Even after he had slowed down, Jones put a Babe Ruth-like distance between himself and his defensive competition.
In another effort to assign a numeric value to a player’s defensive contributions, Baseball Reference created a formula for defensive WAR. The statistic has been tracked to 1871 — five seasons before the National League was created. By Baseball Reference’s assessment, Jones is the best defensive outfielder in history, his 24.1 defensive WAR trumping Paul Blair’s 18.6 and Mays’s 18.1. He led all players, regardless of position, in defensive WAR in 1998.
Although runs saved has become a critical component of defensive WAR’s formula, John Dewan, the owner of Sports Info Solutions and the author of “The Fielding Bible,” said the best statistic for comparing players across eras was Bill James’s fielding win shares. It is part of James’s system of measuring a player’s contribution to his team’s wins, and it relies on a consistent formula through the years. By that measure, Jones ranks fourth among outfielders with 85.5 career fielding win shares, trailing only Tris Speaker (117.8), Mays (103.6) and Max Carey (94.8).
Jones led the majors in the statistic for five consecutive seasons, from 1998 to 2002, and he was in the top six for fielding win shares 10 times in 11 seasons.
For his part, James, regardless of what his statistic indicates, has publicly stated that he does not feel Jones’s defense has been proven to be worthy of Hall of Fame consideration, but Dewan came to a different conclusion.
“There is no question that Andruw Jones was one of the best defensive outfielders of all time,” Dewan said.
He Wasn’t Just a Glove
Jones’s offensive statistics cannot truly compare to those of candidates like Chipper Jones and Jim Thome, but he more than held his own with the bat. Along with his 434 home runs, he both scored and drove in 1,200-plus runs. Jones also stole 152 bases and, according to adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage, which adjusts for a player’s home field and the league in which he played, he was 11 percent better than average at the plate for the duration of his career.
In his nine-year offensive peak, Jones averaged 35 home runs and 104 runs batted in per season and had a slash line of .270/.347/.513. His bat exploded in 2005 for 51 home runs, and he followed that with 41 in 2006.
Jones’s career began unraveling in 2008, when he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers as a free agent. He showed up overweight and sustained a severe knee injury that required surgery and stripped him of his defensive ability and much of his power. Had he remained healthy and corrected the conditioning flaws that preceded his injury, it is conceivable that he would have topped 500 home runs in his career, which might have been enough to sway Hall voters reluctant to back a player known mostly for his glove.
A Tough Sell Nonetheless
In truth, Jones faces a difficult situation on the ballot because there is a glut of strong candidates. He is one of 12 players on this year’s list who compiled more than 60 career wins above replacement, and voters are limited to 10 choices.
But for Jones, who was unquestionably the best defensive outfielder of his generation and among the greatest ever, being on the verge of ballot oblivion seems unjust when players who trail him by a substantial margin in WAR have received far more consideration.
The list of players outpacing Jones in voting who cannot match his 62.8 career WAR includes not only Vizquel — who hit a scant 80 career home runs but is held to a different standard because he was a shortstop — but also Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent and Fred McGriff, who were one-dimensional in comparison with Jones. Even Vladimir Guerrero, who has been named on 94.4 percent of the revealed ballots, fell short of Jones in WAR, with 59.3.
Perhaps if Jones survives this vote, which could clear as many as five players off the packed list, he will do better in future elections, especially if people make more of an effort to understand his overall value.
Glavine, for one, thinks that Jones’s case can be made even if you focus on only one aspect of the game.
“Defensively,” Glavine said, “there’s not a question in my mind that he’s a Hall of Famer.”