Last Friday was a special night for Braves fans, as one of the most important players in franchise history, Chipper Jones, had his number 10 retired. It was a special night that saw Turner Field filled to capacity to watch the ceremony and the Braves victory that followed. Chipper is the fifth member of the great Braves teams of the 90’s to have his number retired following Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and manager Bobby Cox. Chipper commented on this at his Braves Hall of Fame luncheon saying he was the final member of those great teams to have his number retired. Amid all the fanfare and nostalgia, this was the one moment that struck me as out of place. Chipper is, after all, not the final member of those great teams deserving of recognition. There is one more great player that is worthy of the honor of having his jersey displayed forever at Turner Field, and that is Andruw Jones.
Now I will be optimistic and assume that Andruw’s day is coming. Despite having his #25 worn by an undistinguished cast since his departure in 2008 (most recently by Juan Francisco), I will assume the Braves have simply been waiting for Andruw’s retirement before honoring him in the manner he has earned. Andruw is currently playing in Japan and the Braves obviously made alumni weekend this year about Chipper so Andruw’s time is most likely coming, hopefully as soon as next season. Just in case there are any doubters out there about Andruw’s worth I think it would be helpful to remind folks of just how great Andruw was.
If I had to summarize the greatness of Andruw Jones in one sentence it would be this: he was as great a defensive player as Ozzie Smith while also hitting 434 homeruns. It can reasonably be said Andruw Jones was the greatest defensive centerfielder in the history of baseball and the only other player in the discussion is Willie Mays. Andruw won ten gold gloves in his career and Fangraphs rates him as the second greatest defensive player in baseball history trailing only Brooks Robinson. According to Fangraphs runs saved statistic Andruw was greater defensively than Ozzie and Mays and anyone not named Brooks Robinson. Defensive metrics especially ones from the 20th century are imperfect but Andruw was definitely one of the five best defensive players in baseball history. We may not be able to establish perfectly that he should be ranked second but 278.8 runs saved above average for a career on defense is a staggering number. Centerfield along with shortstop and catcher is one of the premier defensive positions on the diamond. Being able to reasonably claim to be the greatest defensive centerfielder ever makes Andruw one of the best Atlanta Braves ever.
Andruw was more than just a great glove at a premier position. Compared to other elite defensive players of all time Andruw was also one of the better hitters. Andruw for his career posted a 111 wRC+ meaning over his career Andruw was 11% better than a league average hitter. Ozzie Smith posted a 90 wRC+ for his career and Robinson a 105 wRC+ meaning that Andruw was better offensively than many of the other all-time great defensive players. Now as a complete player Andruw can’t compare to Willie Mays but then again only a few can. In terms of Atlanta Braves Andruw is certainly one of the best players in team history. A look at the all-time fWAR for the franchise shows Andruw with the fourth highest win total of any Braves position player. The top five is Aaron, Mathews, Chipper, Andruw, and then a large gap to Murphy. Andruw accumulated 65 fWAR in his Braves career while Murphy whose number 3 is already retired accumulated 45. Andruw also had two of the best years in Braves history with his 2005 and 2000 seasons being the fourth and fifth highest fWAR totals of any individual Atlanta Braves seasons.
More than just the numbers Andruw was a special player in Braves history. As a 19 year old rookie he had one of the most magical moments of any Atlanta athlete when he hit homeruns in his first two World Series at bats. Andruw was the youngest player to ever hit a homerun in the World Series and the highlights of that night are still some of my favorite Braves memories. Andruw was a central part of the Braves run of 13 straight division titles and his spectacular plays in centerfield night in and night out were the kind of things that made a Braves game vs the Marlins on a Tuesday night worth tuning in for. The wall climbing grabs, the spectacular dives, all with Andruw’s never wavering smile made Andruw one of my all time favorite athletes and someone I probably felt more affection for than even Chipper. It would be wrong for a player as special as Andruw was to not be properly appreciated by the franchise he gave so much to.
The only real knock on Andruw’s career I have ever heard is that once Andruw started to decline the decline happened very quickly. I don’t find this to be a compelling point as Andruw had 11 seasons in which he was worth at least 3 wins and in 11 of those years he was worth at least 5 wins. A five win year is an all-star caliber season and a 3 win year is an above average major league player. While Andruw’s decline may have come quickly when it did come, there are very few players who can claim to have had 9 all-star caliber seasons, and in Braves history, the list of players who can say that is tiny.
At his peak, Andruw was one of the best players in Atlanta history and a worthy MVP candidate. What does it really matter that he didn’t spend 5 years as a decent declining player when his peak was as spectacular and long as Andruw’s was? Andruw Jones is undoubtedly one of the best players in Braves history and is worthy of having his number retired. Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Chipper, Jones, Dale Murphy. Andruw fits right into that group. He was one of the greatest Braves of all time and I can’t wait to be at Turner Field to see his #25 take its rightful place alongside the other Braves legends.