Earlier this offseason, the statistical community rejoiced when the Hall of Fame finally voted Bert Blyleven into the Hall of Fame after 14 years on the ballot. Blyleven's case is notable because, in his first few years on the ballot, he received less than 20% of the vote.
Only after a thorough reevaluation of Blyleven's career — and a spirited internet campaign led by blogger Rich Lederer — did Blyleven finally garner the support needed to be inducted.
Almost immediately, fans and experts started looking for the next historically overlooked player to throw their support behind, with Tim Raines emerging as the most logical candidate thanks to his incredible numbers among the modern measures used by statheads. But once Raines is elected, what player will be next to benefit from a thorough historical review?
Andruw Jones, one of the modern era's truly underappreciated players, fits the bill. .
Based on offense alone, Jones is a borderline case. His .256/.338/.488 line does not look all that impressive, but remember that Jones spent his prime playing in Turner Field, one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball. Despite his home park, his career OPS+ of 111 indicates that he was an above-average hitter throughout his career.
In terms of raw numbers, Jones has shown good power and decent speed in his career, racking up 407 home runs and 152 stolen bases. Also, he played centerfield, a position that traditionally emphasizes defense over hitting. In fact, only two centerfielders in the Hall of Fame, Mickey Mantle (536) and Willie Mays (660), rank ahead of Jones in home runs. A third, Duke Snider, is currently tied with Jones.
It is also reasonable to expect Jones to continue padding a few of his career totals, as (believe it or not) he will only be 34 next season.
If offense is the only consideration, it's fair to hold Jones out of the Hall. Where Jones truly makes his case, however, is on defense.
According to Baseball—Reference, Jones is the second-most valuable defensive player in MLB history - at ANY position. Only Brooks Robinson is ahead of Jones in defensive WAR, and Jones has a realistic chance of catching Robinson in the next few years if he plays regularly in the field.
(It should be stated, however, that the WAR data prior to 1974 is incomplete. It is based off of play-by-play data and may not give an accurate view of the pre-Dead Ball Era. For players who played from 1950 to 1973, most players are nearly complete and are missing no more than 20 games in a given season.)
This data corresponds well with Fangraphs' UZR rankings, which only go back to 2002 but list Jones' 124.8 career UZR as the second-highest of any player during that time — despite the fact that he hasn't played regularly in the field since 2007 (Adrian Beltre ranks first with 125). And while this stat is hardly fair when comparing to older players, it's also not exactly fair to Jones, either; after all, these rankings exclude Jones' best five seasons, according to Baseball—Reference.
Traditional measures of defense, as misleading as they can be, also agree with Jones' greatness in the field. During his prime, Jones annually rated among the best in baseball in both fielding percentage and range factor, and his 493 putouts in 1999 ranks as the third-highest single-season total for a centerfielder since MLB started keeping track of the statistic in 1954.
Not surprisingly, Jones also won ten straight Gold Gloves from 1998 to 2007, and probably should have won another in 1997.
No matter how you look at it, Andruw Jones was a historically great defensive player who was also a positive contributor on offense during his prime. And there is no reason to think that any future analysis of defense that uses advanced measures won't come to the same conclusion. This, as much as anything, will build the momentum for Jones' case once he retires.
Hall of Fame voters have elected elite defenders before — both Robinson and Ozzie Smith were first-ballot selections, and Andruw Jones was more valuable offensively than either of them at his peak. The voters should reward Jones the same way when he retires.
After all, he is more than qualified.
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