In 1996, nobody outside of Atlanta had ever heard of the 19-year old center fielder named Andruw Jones. In fact, even those who closely followed the Braves hadn't heard much more about him other than the fact that the Braves had him locked up since the ripe old age of 16.
That was until his first two World Series at bats in historic Yankee Stadium.
Back then prospects weren't as highly tracked or widely discussed as they are now. If word on some fresh young talent made its way up to a team's typical fans it meant they were something big. But to have info on a Braves prospect available to typical fans in say Seattle, it was much less common than it has become here in 2009 where detailed scouting reports and ranked lists tell you everything you need to know.
So I can say first hand when I was watching the '96 series as a 17-year-old and saw this unknown teenager step up to the plate, I was with the majority of the country when I said "who?"
As true baseball fans we can always remember big moments in our favorite pastime. World Series moments especially have a way of ingraining themselves into our heads. Watching a relatively unknown teenager hit not one but two home runs in his first two at bats of a World Series in Yankee Stadium as a visitor is one of those moments that stick with someone.
And I'm sure it stuck with Andruw too.
And I'm sure the success Jones had over his great stretch with Atlanta has stuck with him too. In fact that might be part of the reason he's have such a tough time rebuilding his once stellar career. But we'll get to that in a moment. In the mean time I have to ask the question of what happened in the world of Andruw Jones to cause such a dramatic collapse of one of baseball's brightest stars?
Before we dive into what some of the causes could have been, we need to look at what kind of collapse we are talking about. Take a look at Andruw's career numbers and the dive they started taking immediately after his giant offensive seasons of 2005 and 2006.
As you can see Jones was pretty consistent in most of his offensive statistics from about 1998-2004 with the exception of stolen bases which started a dramatic drop off in 2000. But then 2005 came and we saw an incredible jump in home run totals for Jones. From 1998-2004 Jones averaged a little better than 32 homers, 98 RBI and hit .272 during that span including seven straight Gold Gloves. These were very strong numbers and any team would have loved to have that type of averaged stats from their center fielder despite a 18.76 K%.
Then the two big years (2005-06) came for Jones in which he hit .262, crushed 92 homers and drove in 257 RBI with a K% of 17.82. Those are huge numbers for anyone over a two year period and it was an incredible jump in power numbers. Over those two seasons it was way off his normal trend which saw a jump in homers average from 32 to 46 and RBI average jump from 98 to 129. His batting average however took a dive from .272 the previous seven seasons down to .263. Basically 2005 and 2006 were mirror images of each other except 10 less homers which look to have translated into a few more doubles.
At first look you may think that this was just a fluke and that was the reason for the large jump in numbers. But flukes are usually the result of one big season and Jones strung together two virtually identical giant years. A big reason for the increase in power was due to Jones opening up his stance and driving through the ball more. He made this adjustment before the 2005 season and ran with it. As you can see this adjustment made a huge difference almost immediately and helped solidify the heart of the Braves order. Everything was going fantastic for Jones especially with his contract coming up after the 2007 season. If he could continue his success he would be seeing an enormous payday heading into the winter of '07.
Unfortunately for Jones, his 2007 season saw a tremendous drop off in numbers. Not only did his homers (26) and RBI (94) numbers drop off significantly, we saw his batting average drop 29 points below his lowest thus far (2001) and an astonishing 48 point drop from his lowest slugging year (2001). To say Jones had hit a low was an understatement and it couldn't have come at a worse time for him with his contract coming due that winter.
Luckily for Jones he had super agent Scott Boras by his side and if there's one thing we have learned, Boras clients never lose out on a big payday. Boras used his slimy ways and was able to convince the Los Angeles Dodgers that Jones was the man they wanted patrolling center heading into the 2008 season. So in typical Boras fashion, he was able to spin Jones' awful 2007 campaign off as just a fluke season and that he truly was the player they'd seen the previous years. Jones then signed a two-year, $36.2 million contract while Boras laughed all the way to the bank.
This is where the story really turns out ugly for the Dodgers. Not only did the Andruw Jones from '05-'06 not show up, the Andruw Jones with the horrible numbers from 2007 didn't even show up. All they received was an overweight, overpaid ballplayer with the same name.
Things just got worse following spring training as not only did Jones suffer injuries allowing him only 209 at bats, but when he was in the lineup he posted a putrid .158/.256/.249 line with 76 strikeouts causing a K% of 31.93, which I still have trouble wrapping my head around. Not only did Jones waste $14.7 million of the Dodgers money that season, he was a liability to have in the already punch-less Dodgers lineup. A price they are still paying him.
Now that we've assessed the mess that amassed for Andruw Jones. Let's take a look at what could be at the root of the issues.
I've already addressed and disregarded his two big seasons as being flukes especially considering he was a star before those happened. Some say that Jones' weight issues and fluctuations have caused to part of the problem. While this may have a tiny effect on him at the plate, I don't see it being that much of an impact. If anything it would have more of an effect on his defense and wouldn't explain his troubles at the plate. Others have said that it could be his age that is catching up with him. I also find this one hard to believe considering he is only 31-years old and hasn't shown any drastic signs of premature aging. Not only that but Jones has been a healthy and durable player for his entire career previous to this as he has never played less than 153 games since 1997. So that discounts any lingering injury that might be plaguing him. So what is it?
To see what type of a hitter he is at the plate, let's take a look at my scouting report I wrote about Andruw during the 2008 season:
Andruw Jones has a very original and now counterproductive approach at the plate. He widened his stance at the plate back in 2005 which lead him to great success. His stance now has become even more spread out and that hurts him when he's out in front of a pitch and can't stay balanced. This coupled with a maximum effort swing which produces a violent motion a lot of torque only adds to his recent troubles. He has incredible raw power and kills fastballs and mistake breaking balls when he's locked in. The trouble is that he hasn't really been locked in since 2006 and has spiraled downhill since. He has lost total control of the strike zone and is swinging at balls up, down and off the plate. This coupled with his erratic swing which isn't one which mechanically can be easily adjusted to help break free from a slump, has caused Jones to drift deeper and deeper into a giant funk that may end up causing him to find himself out of baseball for good.
Not exactly the glowing report I wanted to give to him but the fact is the fact. Jones' has completely lost himself at the plate. The problem is that this has gone on for so long that he may not be able to find his way out of it. For hitters like Jones, who aren't fundamentally sound with their swings to begin with, it's even more difficult to pull them out of their slumps once they are stuck in it. You can't adjust their swing and get them back to basics when they didn't really ever used the basics to begin with.
I believe Jones' issues stem from not only his unconventional approaches at the plate and the fact that it is now stuck in his head, but the fact that he had two huge years in Atlanta and pressed himself too hard to keep repeating those type of numbers in 2007 and subsequently driving him to try too hard to hit homers. This threw his swing out of whack causing him to press harder and eventually throwing him into the mess he's in now.
This really is too bad for Andruw Jones as he was an incredible player once upon a time and was so much fun to watch. While I wish him the best in trying to find his way again, I just don't see him returning to what he once was.
All that aside, he did show a return to power for the Rangers here in 2009 in a part-time role hitting 17 homers through 317 plate appearances. This was a nice surprise for the Rangers who got some power from the right side of the plate for only $500,000 from a guy who was a non-roster invitee to spring training. I have to be honest... I never thought he’d make it on the opening day roster.
Who knows what brought about this change in Jones that was just enough to keep him employed in the majors. Maybe he’s finally healthy. Maybe it was weight loss. Maybe he just needed a change of scenery to clear his head. Whatever it was it may have bought him some more time as a pro ballplayer.
This just goes to show what a mental game baseball truly is. Once something gets in your head in this game it is so difficult to get it out.
While I really hope it isn't too late for Andruw, I have a sinking feeling that it is.
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