Some players kind of sneak up on the Hall of Fame.
Chipper Jones, who announced his intention to retire at the end of the season, never led his league in anything until he was 35. He was never even really all that close:
– His one year that he hit 40 homers, a couple of guys named McGwire and Sosa topped 60. Outside of that year, when he tied for third, his high finish in homers was eighth.
– He ranked in the NL’s top 10 in RBI just once in his career, finishing ninth in 2003.
– His high finish in runs scored was fourth, doubles sixth, walks third, games played fifth, hits eighth.
– Until he was 35, his high finish in batting average was fifth, OBP third and slugging fourth.
It was in 2007 that Chipper finally added some black ink to the record, leading the NL in OPS. A year later, he won a batting crown and finished first in OBP, though one could say those were tainted given that he played in just 128 games and had 439 at-bats. Albert Pujols finished a close second in both categories while coming to the plate an extra 107 times that season.
So, no, Chipper was never truly the NL’s best player. But the two guys who stood above him during his career, Barry Bonds and Pujols, rank with the greatest performers of any era.
And if Chipper wasn’t the greatest, he spent 13 years only a notch or two below. From 1996-2008, he hit .314/.411/.555 and averaged 30 homers per year. He received MVP votes in 11 of the 13 seasons, winning the award in 1999.
One of the things that stands out about Chipper’s career is that he’s always been an above average player. In 17 seasons, his worst OPS+ was the 108 he put up as a rookie in 1995 (and he still finished second in the ROY balloting that year). He’s had big problems staying in the lineup as he’s gotten older, but he’s always been an asset when able to play.
Chipper’s defense is more controversial. Most metrics say he’s been essentially average in his career, though some would suggest he was considerably worse. Oddly, there’s been no real arc to his career defensively. Most peak young with the glove, but Chipper has simply been steady throughout. The numbers say he was just about as valuable defensively in the seasons following his two-year left field hiatus as he was in the years leading up to it.
Because of his injuries, Jones will finish his career with fewer than 500 homers. Still, he ranks 33rd on the all-time list with 454 and should move up to 30th or 31st. He currently has exactly 1,561 runs and RBI, which rank 53rd and 40th all-time, respectively. His average stands at .304, having crept downwards these last three years, but there’s almost no chance of it falling below .300.
Those numbers would make Jones a pretty easy call as a Hall of Famer even if he spent his entire career at first base or in left field. At third base, he ranks third all-time in homers behind Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews. He’s third in RBI behind George Brett and Schmidt and he’ll pass both with just 36 this year. He’ll also pass Brett for first in runs scored with 23 more.
From an OPS standpoint, he’s first and easily so. His .935 mark trumps Schmidt’s .908 and Mathews’ .885. That’s largely a product of era, but even switching to OPS+ puts him in the same ballpark with those two. Schmidt’s tops at 147, followed by Mathews at 143 and Jones at 141. Next are Al Rosen at 136 and Brett and Home Run Baker, both at 135.
By pretty much any measure, Jones ranks among the greatest of all-time at a position underrepresented in the Hall of Fame. Some stooges might decline to vote for him because he didn’t have enough big years or because he got hurt a lot or just because they don’t want to vote for anyone who played the last 20 years. It’s not going to stop him from going in, though. It might not have been quite so obvious when he was 32 or 33, but Jones ranks as one of the clear Hall of Famers of this era.