Friday, November 24, 2017
Mr. Chips in the Cooperstown Chips
A few years ago, after sketching the Hall of Fame cases for one year's ballot, my comments on Edgar Martinez prompted a reply from one of his more die-hard fans. The gentleman suggested Martinez was not just a throwback player, but a notch above several modern-era players, one of whom was Chipper Jones.
He wasn't even close to kidding. And until that point — Jones was a season short of retirement, if I remember right — I'd never have thought to sketch Chipper Jones's Hall of Fame case by way of comparing him to Edgar Martinez. Not without laughing my fool head off.
Don't get me wrong — I do think Edgar Martinez deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, which can't argue the DH bias credibly any longer since the inductions of Paul Molitor and Frank Thomas. But laughing my fool head off over Jones vs. Martinez would only begin with the point that nobody thought Jones would really butcher you in the field and never felt the world coming to an end seeing him with a glove on his paw.
Jones was about a league-average defensive third baseman whose strong throwing arm was belied by an average of 13 errors a season. He didn't save a lot of runs defensively, but when you could switch hit the way Jones did he didn't have to.
Edgar Martinez, if you ever saw him in the field, made a cement truck with flat inner rear tires resemble Brooks Robinson. Making a DH out of him was the best thing for him and the Mariners, and he shone. Enough so that, if you're old enough to remember Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart, you lamented that he couldn't play in the DH era because he might have been a comedy of errors with a glove but he could flat out hit.
Jones wasn't an axe murderer in the field, but he could flat out hit to the nth power, and as a switch hitter in the bargain. So if my old correspondent is still reading, let it be said that Martinez might have a slightly gaudier looking slash line but produced 195 runs per 162 games lifetime to show for it, while Chipper Jones produced 210 runs per 162 games lifetime to show for his, not to mention Jones being worth almost 20 more wins above a replacement-level player.
Jones is possibly the third greatest switch hitter in baseball history and he may rank equal to Eddie Murray and right behind Mickey Mantle. In fact, Jones's and Mantle's slash lines aren't as far apart as people might think when first hearing their names mentioned together:
Mickey Mantle, batting left-handed: .281/.418/.547
Mickey Mantle, batting right-handed: .330/.424/.574
Chipper Jones, batting left-handed: .303/.405/.541
Chipper Jones, batting right-handed: .304/.391/.498
You might drop your jaw slightly to know that Jones drove in 199 more runs from the left side than Mantle while hitting only eleven fewer home runs from it, while Mantle drove in 69 more from the right side. Or, that Jones hit as often from one side as the other, even if his net results were somewhat better from the left side. So were Mantle's, even if he didn't hit quite as frequently when batting from the port side.
Bear in mind that Mantle played in a home park that wasn't friendly to right-handed hitting and Jones played in home parks that were favorable to hitting from either side. So how did they look at home versus on the road?
Chipper Jones at home: .314/.413/.558
Chipper Jones on the road: .293/.389/.501
Mickey Mantle at home: .305/.428/.569
Mickey Mantle on the road: .291/.413/.545
These guys are pretty damn close, and that's allowing for Jones playing the slightly tougher defensive position between them with Mantle playing the toughest one in the outfield.
What would you say, though, if you were to be told Jones never led his league in runs batted in but drove in 100+ nine times, while Mantle led his league in RBI once and drove in 100+ only four times? Or, that Mantle scored 100+ runs nine times and led his league five times while Jones scored 100+ runs eight times without once leading his league? Or, that Jones was actually the tougher man to strike out, while the pair of them were damn near equal for speed when healthy? (Jones's stolen base average: .765; Mantle's: .801.)
Jones did face tougher pitching overall than Mantle did, including a few more Hall of Famers in their peak years. It's extremely tempting to sketch an argument that, given an equal level of tough pitching to face, Mantle and Jones might still shake out as near-equals as Hall of Fame switch hitters. Sit down and sketch it in detail and you may still find Mantle a shade or three ahead, but the differences would still be very close.
How did these guys do in the heat of pennant races? If you count the highest heat of a race as August through whenever the pennant or the division is decided, you're going to be in for a slight surprise:
Mickey Mantle, August through October: .292/.417/.529
Chipper Jones, August through October: .306/.404/.541
I bet you didn't think Chipper Jones would prove to be just a little bit better than Mickey Mantle in the highest heat of a pennant race, and that's allowing for Mantle having had to hang around and play about four more seasons than he was really worth, without his teams being in pennant races anymore, thanks to:
a) The Yankees' farm system being parched starting in the last year a Mantle team won a pennant, and the Yankees needing his box office appeal for as long as he and the Yankees' other aging (Whitey Ford, Elston Howard), injured (Roger Maris, Jim Bouton), or inconsistent (Joe Pepitone, Al Downing) stars could give it to them.
b) A series of dubious investments meaning Mantle needed every penny of the six-figure salaries he earned in each of his final four seasons.
You don't need to compare Jones to Mantle to make his Hall of Fame case, of course. Jones is probably the fifth-best all-around third baseman who ever played the game and the no-questions-asked third best-hitting one behind Mike Schmidt and George Brett. (As a matter of fact, Jones is slightly ahead of Brett for run productivity, Brett having produced 191 runs per 162 games lifetime.)
Jones meets 70 of the Bill James-sketched Hall of Fame batting standards; the average Hall of Famer meets 50. The James Hall of Fame batting monitor has him at 180; the average Hall of Famer comes in at 100. As Casey Stengel might have said (he did say it, about Joe DiMaggio), Mr. Jones was rather splendid in his line of work.
The average Hall of Fame third baseman earns 67.5 career wins above a replacement-level player. Jones earned 12.5 more, putting him sixth all-time among third basemen. I saw the men ahead of Jones play, and objectively I don't think Eddie Mathews and Wade Boggs were really better. Mathews is a member of the 500 home run club and Boggs has those gaudy batting averages. Adrian Beltre is still active, and might shake out as just slightly ahead of Jones. Might.
Jones's advent to the Hall of Fame ballot helps make the potential 2018 class intriguing. Because his fellow first-time ballot makers include Jim Thome, who should be another first-ballot Hall of Famer, and such returnees as Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman, both of whom deserved to be first-ballot Hall of Famers. It's not entirely impossible to think that we might see three or even four inducted next July.
But bet on Jones being at the head of that class. Which would mean the five key men during that magnificent run of Braves division dominance — Jones, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and manager Bobby Cox — would be arm-in-arm in Cooperstown.
That would put those five further into very select company. The key men of the Yankees' 1950s dynasty (Mantle, Ford, Yogi Berra, and manager Stengel) are there. So are the key men of the "Boys of Summer" Brooklyn Dodgers: Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Roy Campanella. So are the key men of the Oakland Athletics' staggering early 1970s dominance: Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, and manager Dick Williams.
Not bad for a Florida kid who missed what should have been his rookie season on the disabled list with a torn ACL in his left knee, who became an eight-time all-star and won a Most Valuable Player award, who won his only batting championship and led his league in on-base percentage both at age 36, who shook off the scandal of his first marriage's collapse (he'd had an affair and a child with a Hooter's waitress), and who was 37 before he ever struck out four times in a game.
And if you like to look at silly records as well as the ones that count, be reminded that Jones is one of only five men in major league history to hit one over the fence on his 40th birthday. When he takes the podium at Cooperstown, it'll make him the third Hall of Famer to do it. Hank Aaron, alas, isn't one of them.
* * *
Chipper Jones was known during his career for being particularly abusive against the Mets, with whose fans he actually developed an oddly friendly relationship despite the havoc he wreaked against their heroes. He even named one of his sons after Shea Stadium. But did you know there was a team he abused even worse?
* Jones played the same number of games against the Phillies (245) as he played against the Mets. He also started the same number (237) against both teams.
* He had seven more plate appearances against the Phillies but twelve fewer at-bats; he walked 22 more times at the Phillies' expense but had 13 more sacrifices against the Mets. The Phillies handed him first base on the house 22 times; the Mets, 20.
* Considering his use, misuse, and abuse of each team, you might think it's a wonder that he didn't get plunked a few times each way. Remarkably enough, perhaps, Jones lifetime got dusted only eighteen times. That's slightly less than one plunk per season for him. The Mets got him once, the Phillies got him three times.
* Jones the Met Killer had 265 lifetime hits — but against the Phillies he got 280. He hit the same number of home runs (49) against each team lifetime, but he has more extra base hits overall against the Phillies. He has 71 doubles and three triples against them lifetime, compared to 46 doubles and four triples against the Mets. Add his home runs and you've got someone who slapped the Phillies silly for 123 lifetime extra base hits. He was downright merciful on the Mets by comparison, with a measly 99 extras against them.
* Which explains why Jones's OPS versus the Phillies (1.036) is a few miles ahead of his OPS versus the Mets (.949). He hit .331 lifetime against the Phillies compared to his .309 lifetime sheet against the Mets; his on-base percentage against the Phillies is 35 points higher than it is against the Mets. It may be small consolation for the Phillies to know that they lured him into grounding into double plays six more times (22) than the Mets ever did (16).
* Somehow, Mr. Chips managed to drive in only seven runs more against the Mets than he did against the Phillies, but let's remove his sacrifice flies from the equation. Against the Mets, he has eleven; against the Phillies, eight. Remove them and he has only four more lifetime runs batted in against the Mets. Since he has only seven more lifetime RBI overall against the Mets including his sac flies, he's probably got a mixture of RBI groundouts and bases-loaded walks at play in there somewhere.
* Going a little deeper sabermetrically, Jones has a lifetime .348 batting average on balls in play (BAbip) compared to his .315 against the Mets. Meaning: the Mets' defenses were better than the Phillies' in turning any Jones batted ball into an out, even though he reached on errors four times more (14) against the Mets than he did against the Phillies.
* As a matter of fact, there's only one offensive area in which Jones actually did perform as more of a Met killer than a Phillie killer: he has a lifetime .800 stolen base percentage against the Mets against a .750 against the Phillies. Jones committed 20 thefts against the Mets against five arrests; he committed six against the Phillies against two busts.
It should have been enough for the Phillies to keep their therapists and the Hague (to charge human rights violations) on speed dial. Or at least to demand equal credit when Jones accepts his Hall of Fame plaque.