I have always been a big believer in silver linings. Incredibly horrific events can have some positive outcomes. Of course, the positives never outweigh the negatives in these moments, but I choose to look at it from a “lessons learned” perspective. Harold Baines going into the Hall of Fame is not a positive moment for the Hall of Fame. It’s positive for Baines and his family. It’s positive for White Sox fans and fans of Baines. Still, it’s hard to argue that it makes the Hall of Fame a better place.
The lesson learned from the Baines situation is that the present day Veterans Committee has a path forward if it looks at their vote in the correct prism. I could argue for days about whether or not Baines is a Hall of Famer (he’s not), but that misses the point. The point is whether he is the best player not currently in the Hall of Fame. There is no way anyone in their right mind that could argue that.
This is the spot in book preparation where I would do a bit of revising. I have been dedicating the “what about” series to players that people think should be in the Hall of Fame. Usually, these were popular players, that simply came up short for one reason or another. However, this revelation is profound on a number of levels. I certainly am not going to try to identify the single best player not in the Hall of Fame, but I can do it at each position. In this case, we have a player that is already on the BBWAA ballot. Being that this is a web blog, I can simply take this path moving forward.
One of the problems with an overabundance of talent is that way too much is expected. It’s rare, but occasionally we find a Hall of Fame caliber player that is overlooked because more was expected. Some in the Hall of Fame even have that moniker. Certainly Mickey Mantle is among the top four center fielders in the history of the game, but the common refrain from those that watched him is that he could have been more had he been injury free and taken better care of himself. This brings us to the subject of our discussion: Andruw Jones.
Players like Jones get the wrong kind of attention. He started young and so some people felt like he should have put up more counting numbers than he did. His last productive season came at age 30. He was out of the game by the time he was 35. He could have surpassed 500 home runs, 1500 runs, and 1500 RBI. He didn’t do any of those things. However, we could spend forever looking at what he didn’t do and forget about what he did do. Since, we are focused on him along, we can breeze through the index and spend the meat of our time tackling a bigger question.
Hall of Fame Index
Jones has the highest index for any center fielder that is not currently in the Hall of Fame. By sheer definition, that makes him the most qualified Hall of Fame candidate at the position. There are others to be sure and we will get to them in due time, but his advantage is significant enough that we can single him out. There are other reasons to single him out and I think most discerning fans know that reason, but let’s take a look at his offensive numbers first.
There is a compounding effect that propels players and teams from being merely good to being great. If you are good in more than one facet of the game then you will come out looking very good when you take all-encompassing numbers like WAR and win shares. The same is true for teams when their pitching and hitting is good. Jones was a good offensive player. No one would ever mistake him for a great one, but he did have his moments. Those are the moments that convinced people he should have been better.
Let’s ignore the complex data for a second and consider conventional wisdom. When a player puts up numbers like Jones did and wins ten Gold Glove awards, that’s pretty special. Of course, we don’t concern ourselves with traditional Gold Gloves here. They are often awarded to the best offensive player at the position. What we will do is consider the common defensive metrics over time and compare Jones to other center fielders that had tremendous reputations as a fielder. Let’s see who winds up on top.
Let’s begin by breaking down our categories. Our sources can be separated into two main categories. We have win shares and baseball-reference. We took the innings, Rfield, DWAR, and DWAR1 from baseball-reference. We took defensive win shares (DWS), win shares per 1000 innings from both, and win share Gold Gloves from win shares as well.
One of the important things to note about fielding analysis is that it is backwards as compared to hitting analysis. Hitting analysis is based primarily on what you do. How many hits do you have? How many runs do you create? How often do you get on base? These are all questions based on positive events. Fielding is almost opposite. For decades people focused and graded fielders based on the number of errors they had. Imagine if that is the way offensive analysis worked. Essentially, you are basing your opinion of someone’s competence based on the amount of times you think they failed. Of course, failure in this regard is subjective. If I take a bad route to a ball and don’t get there it’s not an error. It’s just a ball I didn’t get to. So, I could actually make a better play if I take the correct route to a ball and simply fail to make the catch. That might be ruled an error.
Given these parameters, a large part of fielding analysis is based on perception. Even more advanced metrics attempt to conclude whether you should have gotten to the ball. So, even when we distill out the fact that different metrics use different frames of reference (average vs. replacement level) we still have variance based on someone’s opinion about whether someone should have made a certain number of plays. It’s madness and we have to agree on that beforehand, but we can take the general consensus and go from there.
We include win shares per 1000 innings because comparing pure totals is unfair based on the fact that Mays and Speaker had five or six seasons worth of innings more than someone like Jones. So, we compare them on a per 1000 inning basis and find he comes in second in that regard to Curt Flood. Baseball-reference has him number one by a large margin in their Rfield metric (which is compared to average) and it shouldn’t be a surprise that he was also number according to defensive WAR which is compared to the replacement level fielder on the whole diamond.
This is where the last category (DWAR1) is so remarkable. That is simply an accounting of how many times the player led the entire league in defensive WAR. That’s comparing him to all positions and some positions (notably shortstop and catcher) have a natural advantage because of the distance from replacement (in other words, the replacement level shortstop is much worse than the replacement level center fielder). He still was the most valuable fielder in the entire game four times (four seasons in a row actually).
Granted, a couple of players (notably Mays and Speaker) won more win share Gold Gloves. That’s likely because his career was only 11 or 12 years long in terms of being an everyday player. It’s pretty remarkable being one of the three most valuable outfielders in 9 out of 12 seasons. All in all this means that we could certainly argue that Jones is best fielding center fielder in the history of the game. Naturally, some will push back against that and that’s fine. The numbers make the case though and since he could be called the best doesn’t that merit a spot in Cooperstown?