Andruw Jones is likely to announce his retirement from Major League Baseball sometime in the very near future. Jones hasn’t been on the MLB radar since his last season in the big leagues back in 2012, when he played 94 games with the New York Yankees but hit just .197/.294/.408. He played 2013 and 2014 with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the Japan Pacific League and hit 26 and 24 home runs, while combining to hit .232/.393/.441. He’ll turn 39 years old in April, so he is likely to hang up his spikes after a 17-year Major League career.
In this column at FanGraphs, David Laurila made an apt comparison between Jones and Jim Edmonds with these numbers showing the similarity:
.254/.337/.486, 1933 hits, 434 HR, 10 Gold Gloves, 67.1 WAR—Andruw Jones
.284/.376/.527, 1949 hits, 393 HR, 8 Gold Gloves, 64.5 WAR—Jim Edmonds
It’s a good comparison. They were nearly equal in value in their careers and both hit many home runs and won numerous Gold Gloves.
Another interesting player to compare Jones to is more similar when you look at the arc of their careers. Both came up to the big leagues at the age of 19 and were very good players until the age of 30, then experienced a significant drop-off in value from that point on. That other player is Ken Griffey Jr. More on him later.
Andruw Jones came up with the Atlanta Braves in 1996, making his Major League debut on August 15th. He only hit .217/.265/.443 in 31 games in his rookie year but helped the Braves make it to the World Series. He hit two home runs in Game 1 against the Yankees, becoming the youngest player to ever hit a home run in the World Series. The Braves lost the series four games to two, but Jones hit .400/.500/.750 and made his presence known on a national stage.
Jones established himself in center field for the Braves in 1997 at the age of 20. He hit .231/.329/.416, which was below average for a hitter in an era of high offense (96 wRC+), but he was so good defensively that he was worth 3.7 Wins Above Replacement. The following year was the first in an impressive stretch of nine seasons from 1998 to 2006 during which Jones averaged 6.4 WAR per year. Not only did he excel on defense during this nine-year stretch, he averaged 35 home runs per season, 99 runs scored, 104 RBI, 12 steals, and a .270/.347/.513 batting line (119 wRC+). He was a five-time All-Star and won nine straight Gold Glove Awards (he would win a 10th in a row the next year). If Jones had played in the first part of the 20th century, his nickname might have been “Death to Flying Things.” Instead, he was just Andruw Jones. Jones’ best season was a 7.9 WAR year in 2005 when he hit .263/.347/.575 with 95 R, 51 HR, 128 RBI and finished second in the voting for National League MVP. This stretch was the essence of Andruw Jones—a power-hitting center fielder with 35 home runs a year and terrific defense. There were only four players in baseball worth more WAR during this nine-year stretch: Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez.
Jones was an above-average player again in 2007. He was worth 3.3 WAR thanks primarily to still excellent defense. His hitting dropped off considerably, though. After hitting .262/.355/.553 with a combined 92 home runs over the two previous seasons, Jones hit just .222/.311/.413 in 2007. His 26 home runs were his lowest total since 1999. This would be his last season in Atlanta and his last season with a WAR above 2.0. It was also his last excellent season on defense. Jones would play with four different teams over the final five years of his Major League career and hit .210/.316/.424. His once-great defense dropped off precipitously and he averaged just 0.6 WAR per season.
Those last five journeyman years for Jones could make it hard for people to remember how great he was in the first part of his career. Through the first seven years of his career, Andruw Jones was nearly the equal of Ken Griffey Jr. Both Jones and Junior reached the Major Leagues as 19-year-olds and were power-hitting center fielders. Griffey started winning Gold Glove Awards in his second year in the bigs and won nine Gold Gloves over the next 10 years. Jones won his first of 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards in his third year in the Major Leagues. While both were considered good fielders, the truth was that Jones was significantly better than Junior for an extended period of time and held more of his defensive value in the latter years of his career. Jones was an elite fielder through his age-30 season, then became more of a slightly-below-league-average fielder in his last five years. Griffey, on the other hand, was rarely at the elite level as a fielder that Jones reached and when he declined, it was a significant decline to well-below-average defense in his late 30s.
Griffey was the better hitter, of course, but in terms of overall value, they were very close into their mid-20s. The chart below shows each player’s cumulative WAR by age. Griffey’s WAR advantage after each player’s first seven years was slim, just 38.2 to 36.5.
In a similar number of plate appearances, Jones and Griffey had a similar number of home runs, runs scored, and RBI. Griffey had a significant edge in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Jones was much better on defense. As mentioned above, they were very close in overall value.
Griffey took his game to another level in his age 26 and age 27 seasons, when he averaged 9.4 WAR per year while hitting 105 home runs and slugging .637. Jones averaged 5.2 WAR in his age 26 and 27 seasons, which is great — just not at the same level as Griffey.
The five-year stretch of seasons when Jones and Griffey were 26 through 30 years old makes up the bulk of the difference in career WAR between the two players. During this stretch of ages, Jones accumulated 27.7 WAR and Griffey had 35.6. Again, Griffey was a much better hitter, with a significant edge in average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, along with a large edge in runs, home runs, and RBI. Jones made up some of that difference with his still excellent defense.
This is not to say that Jones wasn’t an elite player. He was. Over the five-year stretch from age 26 to 30 (2003 to 2007), Andruw Jones was seventh in baseball in WAR.
If you expand the range to the first 12 years of his career, from 1996 to 2007, Andrus Jones was also seventh in baseball in WAR, behind Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Curt Schilling. In his first 12 seasons, Andruw Jones averaged 87 runs scored, 31 home runs, 93 RBI, and a .263/.342/.497 batting line with excellent defense.
And that was it. Those first 12 seasons make up nearly 96% of Jones’ career WAR even though he continued to play for another five years. He signed with the Dodgers as a free agent prior to the 2008 season and had the worst year of his career. He hit .158/.254/.249 and his defense went from excellent to average. His WAR for that season was -1.1. He rebounded on the hitting side over the next three seasons but was no longer the defensive stud he’d once been and became a part-time player. Over his last five seasons, he was worth just 2.9 WAR total.
Of course, Ken Griffey Jr. did not age well either. He was injured in 2001 at the age of 31 and finished with the lowest WAR of his career to that point (1.8). From 2002 to 2004, he played an average of just under 70 games per year and had 0.5 WAR per season. He continued to hit well (117 wRC+), but on defense he struggled. From 2004 to 2009, no outfielder in baseball with more than 2000 innings in the field had a worse Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) than Griffey. He was even worse than Manny Ramirez and Adam Dunn.
The graph shown earlier reveals the similar arcs of the careers of Andruw Jones and Ken Griffey, Jr. They both were great players through the age of 30 and below average players from age 31 on. Griffey did have more truly elite seasons. He had three seasons with eight or more WAR, which were better than any season Jones had, but they were very close in the number of seasons with four or more WAR (Griffey had 10, Jones had 9).
It will be interesting to see what Hall of Fame voters think of Andruw Jones in five years. Admittedly, there was a 10-WAR difference between Jones and Griffey over the course of their careers, but they don’t seem all that different when you look at their similar career trajectories and their distribution of WAR, particularly in the number of great seasons they each had. Jones played 17 years, while Griffey played 22. But in Griffey’s final five years, his value was below replacement level. It didn’t seem like it because he hit a respectable-looking .247/.340/.444 and had nearly 500 hits and almost 100 home runs, but his defense was a killer that greatly affected his value.
Ken Griffey, Jr. was just voted into the Hall of Fame with 99.3% of the vote, the highest percentage ever. Jim Edmonds was on the same ballot and is now one-and-done with just 2.5% of the vote. How will Andruw Jones fare?