Friday, May 30, 2008

Jonesin' for some respect

Not much has been made of this yet, but Chipper Jones is hitting .420. Although it might seem like I’m referring to recreational drug-use, I assure you that Jones has a .420 batting average. It’ll be June in 48 hours. Hitting .420 for two straight months is incredible (half the dudes on my hall freshman year--and probably Joakim Noah--would be giggling uncontrollably right now). It would take a truly remarkable player to accomplish such a feat. Jones is just that. I realize batting average isn’t the greatest statistic but its significance increases exponentially when we’re talking about an historical mark. The last two players to make runs at .400 for an entire season were Tony Gwynn and George Brett. As of May 29, 1994, Gwynn was hitting .389. As of May 29, 1980, Brett was hitting .289. Of course, Brett went 65 for 139 the following month for an unbelievable .468 average so he caught up in a hurry. I’m not sure .400 is realistic in this era of baseball, but Jones is in great shape with respect to Gwynn and Brett who fell short of .400 but were the last two players to hit .390+ in a season. It’s interesting that after a splendid 14-year career, it will probably take a run at .400—or maybe just one of the best single-season batting averages of the last 50 years—to get anyone to notice just how good Chipper Jones has been. He might even be the best third baseman of all-time.

Jones is having the best season of his career. Along with hitting .420, he has a .500 OBP% which would be the highest non-Bonds OBP% of the last 50 years. In most years, he would be running away with the MVP. This year, however, his chances are 50/50 at best with Lance Berkman leading the NL in RBIs, Runs, OPS, Slugging %, and Total Bases, and Albert Pujols putting together another monster-season. Still, a second MVP is possible which would immediately thrust him into the realm of some of the elite players who have ever played.

In fact, it’s time for the baseball world to acknowledge the kind of career Jones has had. There is a good chance that he will become the first player in MLB history to hit 500 home runs, 3,000 hits, and have a .310 + batting average (Manny Ramirez could also accomplish that feat. Both are the same age and need about the same number of hits). Jones would also be the first third baseman to hit 500 home runs and reach 3,000 hits. Jones’s significance is probably best measured by comparing him to the other great third basemen in MLB history. Mike Schmidt and George Brett are probably the most accomplished players at the position. Alex Rodriguez still has played close to twice as many games at shortstop than at third so I will consider him a shortstop until that number moves closer to 1:1. Jones has been a better all-around hitter than Schmidt and Brett. He has more plate discipline than Schmidt and more power than Brett. Even with Schmidt’s reputation as an elite power-hitter, he only holds a 147-145 OPS+ advantage over Jones. Chipper will likely pass Schmidt in every significant offensive category with the exception of home runs. He hits for power, average, and has phenomenal plate-discipline. He’s also equally potent against righties and lefties.

Jones has won 11 Division Titles with the Braves including three World Series appearances and a World Championship in ’95. He was the only Braves-player who played for all 11 Division-winners. Mike Schmidt won five Division Titles, played in two World Series and also won a World Championship. Brett won five Division Titles, played in two World Series and also won a World Championship. Comparing team-success in baseball isn’t always the best way to compare players but it is just another comparison in which Jones stands out.

At the very minimum, Jones has to be considered one of the three best third basemen of all-time. The way his career is headed now, he will easily beat Brett in a straight-up comparison by the time he retires. Mike Schmidt’s three MVPs and reputation as the superior defensive third baseman give him a better resume than Brett and thus the unofficial title of “Greatest Third Baseman of All-Time”. However, if Jones picks up the MVP this year and becomes the first player in MLB history to have 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, and a .310 batting average, I think there will be a compelling argument to pass that title on to him. It’s just unfortunate that Jones has been building one of the all-time impressive resumes and he is rarely—if ever—considered one of the stars in MLB. Maybe a run at .400 will change that.

Update: According to Jayson Stark, Jones has the fourth highest batting average through May 28 of the last 50 years.

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