Yesterday, Chipper Jones suffered an ACL tear while making a spectacular play at third base; he’s almost certainly out for the rest of the year, and considering that he was
retiring considering retirement at the end of the season, there’s a possibility that we have seen his last game in a major league uniform. (Jones’s agent has said he “doesn’t believe [Chipper] will simply retire without attempting to first rehab the injury,” so this is just preliminary speculation at this point.) Chipper Jones spent much of the year in the offensive doldrums, but had begun to heat up in the month of August, where he was 12-for-30 with three homers in nine games for the Braves. So the Braves will miss his bat. But they’ll miss his presence even more.
Chipper Jones was drafted by General Manager Bobby Cox as the first overall pick in 1990, famously going ahead of fireballer Todd Van Poppel in a draft-day override. Since then, as Jack Moore has written, he has been the greatest franchise player — has provided the most value to the original team that drafted him* — in modern history. His former teammates Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz will probably go into the Hall first, but he’ll be remembered as the franchise’s best hitter since Henry Aaron.
(*As reader Blue points out in the comments section, this should read, “… has provided the most value to the original team that drafted him with the first overall selection in the draft.”)
He’s had a strange career, though. His career began with an ACL tear, just before the start of the 1994 season, and looks like it might end on one. He won one MVP, and received votes in 11 other seasons, but never again finished higher than sixth. Until his 36th birthday, he never led the league in any traditional stat, until he finally won a batting title in 2008. (As a result, using the old Bill James Hall of Fame tools, he’s way above the Hall of Fame norm in HOF Standards and HOF Monitor, but way below the norm in Grey Ink and Black Ink.) From his rookie year in 1995 until 2003, Chipper Jones played in more than 94% of his team’s games every year; since then, he only once played in as many as 140 games. This will mark his first trip to the DL since July 2008, but since then, there have been ten separate occasions on which he has missed multiple consecutive games. While he’s been one of the best-hitting third basemen of all time, his defense has been below-average at best. And his admitted marital infidelity is pretty hard to defend, as well.
Still, as he’s gotten older, he’s been an unselfish leader on the team. In 2002, just three years after his MVP, he voluntarily moved from third base to left field to accommodate the team’s acquisition of Vinny Castilla; then, two years after playing his last inning at third base, he moved back. The left field move is commonly blamed for his numerous leg problems over the years, as they began to crop up shortly after he began playing his new position. On numerous occasions, he has offered to restructure his contract with the Braves to increase their payroll flexibility.
By now, most fans and baseball writers have gotten used to the idea of Chipper Jones as a Hall of Famer, so he probably won’t run into the problems that Ron Santo has had. But they may not realize quite how good Chipper has been. Last offseason, blogger Mac Thomason noted that, in Lee Sinins’ Sabermetric Encyclopedia last offseason, Jones led all third basemen in the modern era in Runs Created per Game and was in a virtual dead heat with Eddie Mathews at the top of the list for Runs Created Above Average. Chipper is 37th in all-time WAR, and sixth among third basemen (seventh if you consider Alex Rodriguez a 3B), behind Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Wade Boggs, Brooks Robinson, and George Brett.
Thomason goes on to say:
Chipper is the greatest player in Atlanta Braves history — and they’ve had some pretty good players. He’s clearly ahead of Dale Murphy, and even ahead of Hank Aaron (not counting the Milwaukee years). The only player who could have a case, because they’re so different, is Greg Maddux, and Chipper’s Braves career is twice as long. Scored purely as a hitter, he might be the best third baseman of all-time; he has the highest slugging percentage of any third baseman, and the highest OPS, and is third or fourth in on-base (depending upon if you count Edgar Martinez). I’d still rank Schmidt first, for a number of reasons, but second is muddled, and Chipper has a pretty good argument.
Whatever the future holds, he has had an incredible career.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.