There will always be guys like Joe Jackson, Pete Rose and (more recently) all of the steroids era players, but opinion on them will always be greatly divided in both directions. You’re usually a vehement defender of Rose’s Cooperstown case, or you think he was a cancer upon baseball. Likewise, the steroids guys are usually either a sympathetic victim of their times, or the worst kind of cheats incarnate.
But what if we take out the names controversial for extracurricular activities, and just look at on-field performance? In recent years players like Ron Santo, Andre Dawson and Goose Gossage have finally gotten their days in the sun in upstate New York, so who are we left with?
Gil Hodges probably leads the list, and the longtime Brooklyn Dodgers first basemen still gets Hall of Fame consideration by a 16-man veterans committee, as he’s remembered as one of the most dominant players of the 1950s. Another name is certainly Dale Murphy, a two-time MVP for the Atlanta Braves who continues to be denied entrance.
We could well be adding another name to that list of borderline Cooperstown calls with Andruw Jones. The former Braves center fielder, who will almost undoubtedly go down as one of the most controversial Hall of Fame cases based purely on performance, signed a contract to play in Japan for 2013, likely ending his big-league career.
In a lot of ways, the success of Jones’ Hall of Fame candidacy will be a voter referendum on the value of defense at premium defensive positions. While guys like Ozzie Smith and Brooks Robinson comfortably reside in Cooperstown for their defensive prowess, Jones and Omar Vizquel — who retired following the 2012 season and will be up for a Hall of Fame vote in five years — are borderline at best.
But no one can deny that, during his peak, Jones was not just perhaps the greatest outfielder of his day, but one of the all-time great center fielders. Though his play was often overshadowed by the flashier catches of Jim Edmonds, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Torii Hunter, Jones had unrivaled range and first-step instincts roaming the outfield, catching balls on the run that even his elite peers would have had to dive for.
Likewise, Jones was no slouch with a bat in his hands, either. Even upon arriving in the big leagues as a fresh-faced 19-year-old — the mid-90s Mike Trout — Jones was never overmatched at the plate, hitting two home runs in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series as a teenager, and putting together a respectable .722 OPS during his first two major league seasons — a month in 1996 and his first full season in 1997, during which time he played right field.
For his 17-year career, Jones hit 434 home runs and knocked in 1289 runs with a .823 OPS — very good numbers for a guy who could have easily gotten away as a defensive specialist given his talents.
Of course, Jones’ detractors will point to those offensive totals as not Hall of Fame worthy, particularly in the context of the era in which he played. Jones was never connected to PED allegations, but it’s an unfortunate reality that everyone during the mid-90s onward is under some level of suspicion. But either way, Jones’ offensive stats look less impressive in the context of the ’90s and early ’00s than they do in a historical perspective.
The other knock on Jones is his precipitous decline immediately before and continuing after he left Atlanta. After having career years in 2005 and 2006, Jones fell off the map in 2007 — his last with the Braves. Jones’ OPS fell over 100 points from 2006 to 2007, and there was a perception that it was Jones’ own doing, playing out of shape. Still, that didn’t stop the Dodgers from signing the then 30-year-0ld to a two-year deal worth more than $18 million per season.
Although Jones would continue to mash left-handed pitching up through 2011 with the Yankees, the fact that he was only a major league regular for 11 seasons may well keep Jones out of Cooperstown — even if he won (well deserved) Gold Gloves in 10 of those seasons playing center field, the second-most all-time for an outfielder.
So, perhaps Jones’ career is more comparable to Sandy Koufax in terms of its brilliant brevity. However, while Koufax racked up 165 wins and four n0-hitters in flashy fashion, Jones brilliance isn’t as easy to see, and is thus going to take a much bigger leap from the Baseball Writers Association of America to validate his candidacy.
Will it happen? It’s going to be very, very interesting to see.
Photo via Flickr/Keith Allison