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September 5, 2012

Painting the Black

Chipper, Loyalty and the Two-Way Street

by R.J. Anderson

Will Chipper Jones have played his final game come October 5th? We know Jones and the Braves conclude their regular season schedule in Pittsburgh on October 3rd. Given how the standings are shaping up, and the new single-game Wild Card round, Jones could play in back-to-back elimination games, a scintillating proposition for those who seek out history by watching the firsts, lasts, and other notable milestone of a player’s career. Jones’ career could end on October 3rd, 5th, or maybe not until the following week, or the week thereafter. The unpredictability of it all creates great drama; and so, we’ll hear lines uttered reminding us that this could be Jones’ final at-bat, or his final home run, or his final error. All as a way to emphasize the moment—to say, this matters!

Jones retiring does matter, of course. As the final on-the-field link between the present and the glory days, Jones means a tremendous amount to the Braves and their fans. Play in one city for as long, and do it as well, as Jones has, and local idolatry is a given. What’s telling about Jones’ legacy is not how Braves fans feel about him, but rather, how opposing cities are treating him. From gifts to standing ovations, the pomp and circumstance honoring Jones is everywhere, even in New York. The outpouring of appreciation toward the future Hall-of-Famer seems two-folded: one part hat tip for his impressive numbers, one part for embodying the ideal franchise player.

Loyal has become a go-to-adjective in describing Jones. He never has and never will play for a big-league team besides the Braves. But in business—and baseball is foremost a business—loyalty without production is useless, and Jones’ ability to stick with one franchise from start to finish says as much about his production as his character. Although past Atlanta greats Dale Murphy, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz spent their final years in decline with other teams, Jones prevented the Braves’ eyes from wandering by consistently producing. Loyalty is a two-way street.

The two worst offensive seasons of Jones’ career came in 1995 and 2009, according to True Average. Jones has two built-in excuses for 1995: 1) he was 23 years old and 2) he had missed the previous season due to a knee injury. The 2009 season is harder to hand-wave, but Jones signed a three-year, $42 million extension prior to the season opener, ensuring his place on the roster for the duration of the deal.  Here’s the kicker: Jones’ TAv in either year would rank top-15 among third basemen this season. Even when Jones was bad by his own standards, he was pretty good.

Jones’ trek from hotshot prospect to team leader felt like a natural ascent. His father, a former coach and teacher, raised a hard-nosed competitor, as a Sports Illustrated feature from 1995 detailed. When you read accounts of Jones doing extra work in the cages or the video room, or playing through this injury or that one, you cannot help but wonder if his father’s no-shortcuts attitude helped carve the man’s ambition. Jones flexed his leadership muscles by publically questioning Jason Heyward’s swing and health last season. From anybody else, the comments sound petty. But Jones knows more about hitting than anyone and had to shed the soft label himself. Consider the sarcastic opening to Jones’ player comment in Baseball Prospectus 1996: “These players today, they're too soft. Can't come back from an injury the way they used to.”

There’s a story about Bobby Cox’s earliest opinion on Jones shared in Scouts Honor that sounds too good to be true. Cox, then the general manager, liked Jones as a ballplayer. He wondered, though, if Jones had the requisite toughness to succeed. One day, supposedly a week before the draft, Cox got a report from a scout. An opposing player had begun yakking at Jones’ pitcher. Being the sophisticated ballplayer Jones was (and remains), he responded by punching the player in his face. This delighted Cox and led the Braves to select Jones with the first-overall pick in the draft. Jones even signed his first professional contract with a broken hand endured from the punch. (For the sake of Jones mythology, we’ll ignore Todd Van Poppel’s signability issues and pretend this was the tiebreaker.)

Twenty-plus years later, Jones is standing on second base. The Braves trail by one and there are two outs in the inning when Paul Janish hits a ball to center field. Jones rounds third and heads to the plate. The ball beats him there. What does Jones, 40 years old and weeks from retirement, do? What do you think?

The same traces of competitiveness, toughness, and unselfishness that define Jones’ play have led to him sacrificing personal preference for the betterment of the team. When the Braves had a chance to acquire Vinny Castilla, Jones signed off on the move, and did so forcefully. Jones, the franchise’s face at third base, slid to left field to accommodate the new acquisition. Years later, Jones renegotiated his deal and took a $14 million haircut over a three-year span to free up budget space. (For his troubles, Jones did have his option years turn into guarantees.) Jones’ team-first attitude was prevalent throughout his career, according to John Schuerholz’s book Built to Win. Even now, Jones is thinking about the team. During an interview on a FOX Sports telecast, Jones said he would consider playing on were his knees in better shape. However, as it were, he felt leaving the rest of the organization hanging on his every ache and pain would be wrong.

Walking away now helps the fans, too. We as a culture romanticize going out on top in athletics more so than any other industry. No one roots for the latest Oscar- or Grammy-winner to retire. If Denzel Washington’s knees are achy, you get him a stunt man; there is neither an editing technique nor a CGI modification that would give Jones back his old range. Physical decay is more visible in sports. Were Jones to continue playing, he would lead to the discovery that we are all mortal. By going out on top, as it could be, Jones is saving us the awkwardness.

Let us not make Jones out to be a superhero, a deity, or anything more than human. His body and desire have betrayed him just as they have betrayed the lot of us. Perhaps that knowledge works in Jones’ favor. He comes across as down-to-earth. Replace Jones’ baseball knowledge and aptitude with that of, say, a mechanic and you could confuse him for your neighbor. In that sense, he shares a lot with one of his influences, Dale Murphy.

No one knows for sure when Jones will take his final swing. We do know that he’s had a career other ballplayers will envy and attempt to emulate. You get the feeling he couldn’t be more thrilled.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Atlanta Braves,  Chipper Jones

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Ric Size

Regarding the video of the play at the plate; home was completely blocked so sliding was impossible without missing the plate. He could have collided even more forcefully if he had wanted to, in his effort to dislodge the ball. I thought it was a clean play.

Sep 05, 2012 06:00 AM
rating: 1
 
kmbart

Watch the video again, and this time look at the positioning of Kratz (the Phillies' catcher) at the plate. He's fully upright, reaching up for the ball, and the plate is easily reachable between his legs IF "CHEAP-SHOT" CHIPPER HAD TRIED TO SLIDE. Instead, Jones went in high, leading with his shoulder, like a football lineman trying to level an opponent. Good teammate? Maybe. Smart ballplayer? We've heard it many times, but this clip shows his decision-making skills are not always the best. BTW - Kratz is taller and heavier than Jones, and he's wearing protective gear.

Sep 05, 2012 10:17 AM
rating: 0
 
beerd90210

the catcher is on the 3rd base side of the right-hand batter box. that's gotta to be one hell of a slide to get through the wickets that far, and I don't think it's a play I've ever seen. I agree that he could hit have hit him a lot harder. I think he had to hit him because that's what you do, but he shortened his stride, slowed down, went sideways and didn't him that hard cuz he either didn't want to get hurt or hurt the catcher.

Sep 05, 2012 12:41 PM
rating: 0
 
CJNC1963

"Years later, Jones renegotiated his deal and took a $14 million haircut..."

That must have been one heckuva haircut. :-)

Sep 05, 2012 06:50 AM
rating: 0
 
Matthew Avery

Sounds like something John Edwards might've been up for. :-)

But seriously, watching Chipper these past few years has been, well, awesome. 2008 was incredible, when he was hitting at or around .400 for most of the season, and now this year when he seemed like he was on his last legs. For him to come up big like he has this year is fantastic. He's paced himself a bit more, taking a few games off here and there, and I think its really helped keep him productive.

As the best hitting switch hitter since Mickey Mantle and the best third basemen since Mike Schmidt, I think his career has actually been somewhat underrated. At least until his farewell tour this year has generated a lot of wonderful articles like the one above.

Sep 05, 2012 09:03 AM
rating: 2
 
carligula

To help prove your point, I was going to tell you you forgot about Eddie Murray. Then I looked him up... Chipper has a 19-point lead in TAv on him.

Sep 05, 2012 13:37 PM
rating: 1
 
Eddie

Great article. Thanks.

Sep 05, 2012 11:15 AM
rating: 0
 
dan11995

Braves fans couldn't have asked for a more mythical end to our "Larry Legend"'s career than what he's given us to this point in the season. When that last game finally is played, I'll have a tough time fighting back the tears. Thanks for this article. Whenever someone looks up ballplayer in the dictionary, there should be a picture of Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter shaking hands.

Sep 05, 2012 15:24 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

" Although past Atlanta greats Dale Murphy, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz spent their final years in decline with other teams, Jones prevented the Braves’ eyes from wandering by consistently producing."

I realize Chipper is a Hall of Famer and all that, but Glavine and Smoltz produced more consistently than Chipper. Smoltz and Glavine didn't spend a day on the DL for over 10, and in the case of Glavine, 15+ years. And no, Chipper never shedded his soft label either. He hadn't played in 150 games since 2003. I'm sorry, maybe you didn't portray Chipper as a superhero, but you're not giving due credit to some of his peers who did deserve to end their career in Atlanta.

Sep 05, 2012 18:13 PM
rating: -3
 
FredOwens

Comparing an everyday infielder to a starting pitcher is like comparing a working quarter horse to thoroughbred racing stock. They wear in different place and for different reasons. The rapid lateral movements required by infielders particularly at 3rd and short do not compare to the mechanics of a starting pitcher. Chipper's had 6 knee surgeries and his return to play after the last 4 was faster than playing a similar position at with similar injury. A-Rod was off two weeks longer (off the top of my head) and when he came back he wimped in as a DH.
You chastised Chipper for not playing 150 games a year since 2003. Guess which NL third baseman have played the most games. Chipper (age 31-40) played 1226 games, David Wright age (21-29) 1238, and Aramis Ramirez age (25-34) 1346. Scott Rolen has 1126 games from age 28-37 but about 250 were AL and some as Dh. Adding AL 3rd baseman Ty Wigginton at 1226 in there too but he's younger as well and played many of his games at DH. ARod Beltre and Inge are ahead but ARod is 4 years younger, Inge 5 and Beltre 7.
Consider also that he missed a good two months of 2010 with a knee injury most including me thought would end his career but came back to play 126 games in spite of having a second knee surgery at the All Star break and started this year with two more of the same and will play about 120 games. I'd put Chipper's toughness up there with anyone's. I know of no everyday player with as many knee issues in a position requiring it. A-Rods arthritis doesn't count BTW.
There are other numbers. Between 1995 and 2012 16 players have an OBP over 400. Chipper has an OBP just over at 401 but has played more games than anyone on the list. The closest man is Thome 149 games back.The list goes on.
He is not super human but he is a first ballot no doubt Hall of Fame player. Writers too silly to vote for him like the ones who didn't vote for Aaron. Musial or Mantle should have their voting rights taken away.

Sep 06, 2012 06:37 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Why do you go back to his age 31 season? He spent his age 31 all in left field and part of his age 32 season in left field. He's also had 27 games at DH since 2003.

Using games played is a bit misleading anyway since he would get a "game" for each pinch hitting" appearance.

Sep 06, 2012 07:37 AM
rating: -1
 
FredOwens

I went to his age 31 year because you said "He hadn't played in 150 games since 2003." It seemed to follow that I should start there he did play left for 149 games that year. If I start at 2004 where he played 40 games in left and 95 in third I'm happy to do that.
Why do his left field games not count as games played? You questioned his ability to get on the field regularly. I mere pointed out that of his peers at third base he's close to the top in any list.
If you'd like to age limit it, all players from age 32 - 40 who played a corner outfield spot or 3rd base 4 players have over 100o games Raul Ibanez 1298, Ichiro Suzuki 1098, Chipper Jones 1073, Bobby Abreu 1000. Of those players he leads in BB, OBP, Slg ,and of course OPS. He's second in HR, RBI and IBB. If you expand that to every non-pitcher, non-DH in that age group you get to add Derek Jeter but he's behind Chipper in games and all those categories.
If you'd like to look at seasons with over 125 games as primarily a third baseman between 2004 and 2012 you'll find that 10 had more than 5 such seasons. Beltre and Wright 7, Arod, Ramirez,Imge, Mora Feliz 6, Blake, Chipper and Atkins 5. Of those 10 Beltre, Wright and A-Rod I suppose are in his class as a player. A-Rod has HoF numbers, Wright may if he stays healthy, Beltre is the best defender now but his 15 year numbers are significantly short of Chipper and he gets to DH regularly. Wright's 9 year numbers are closer and he's young enough to make an Hof push.
The numbers show that Chipper's been as dependable as the best folks in his age group and those who play his primary position whether you start in 03, 04, o5 ,06 or 07. His recovery from a career ending level knee injury and a similar arthroscopic procedure at the ASG last year to play 126 games proves he's not soft. To have two more surgeries this year and still be a 120 game candidate is pretty tough too.

Sep 06, 2012 12:26 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

My point is that he hadn't been healthy in general since 2003.

You are the one who explicitly said "Guess which NL third baseman have played the most games. Chipper (age 31-40) played 1226 games".

You gave him an extra 200 games played in the outfield and all his games as a pinch hitter to pad those "games counted" numbers.

Then you limited it to NL only.

Now you're arbitrarily expanding it to "corner outfield spots or 3rd base" and throwing in AL players, but only ones who were aged 32-40?

I get the idea. You like Chipper. I never said I didn't like Chipper. I'm just saying players with tenure on the Braves like Smoltz and Glavine were not rewarded. In any event, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to play these cherry-picking games. It's kind of like saying Mark Grace was the best offensive NL first baseman in the 1990s because he had the most hits in that decade but he smoked cigars which people find offensive and its easy to find first basemen in free agency which is why he didn't retire as a Chicago Cub.

Sep 06, 2012 13:21 PM
rating: 0
 
FredOwens

All I was doing was addressing the points you raised by showing that of his peers at third base he was in the top 4 or 5 even when all third basemen were considered. You complained that games in left field were somehow not games that should count as him having played so I added both corner outfield slots to broaden his competitors. By age bracketing it I was trying to compare like with like. Anything else doesn't make sense it would be like saying well that Nolan Ryan guy didn't make his 30 starts in his last three years without recognizing he was 44-46 years old at the time. I don;t consider that cherry picking at all, every search has parameters. But just to make sure we're being all inclusive I din;t a couple more. I looked to see how many people actually played 150 games a year in the 2004 -2011 time span. Turns out that it works out to between 68and 74 players a year do that each year a total of 244. of the 244 83 did it 3 or more times. But as you said after I started addressing the game issue, why is the number of games important? Aside from the obvious fact that you get more chances to produce isn't how well you produce the indication of value?
This time I searched for all players in all leagues who between 2004 and now had 3500 at bats. That produced a list of 87 players. Then I ranked on production. I'm using BR because it's easier to search while I write.
War - Chipper is 12th
War runs batting - 10th
Batting Runs - 10th
Batting wins - 10th
REW - 9th
RE24 - 10th
RE24/boLi - 9th
WPA/Li - 9th
WPA - 14th
Ali- 23rd
Clutch - 58th
OBP- 6th
BA - 15th
SLG 12th
HR - 32nd
RBI - 31
Walks - 12th
SO - 33rd

Age at the start of the search 32. He and Raul Ibanez - an under rated run producer during that time - were the oldest of the 83 names that turned up by two years.
See I don't have to cherry pick the patter part of Chipper's career to show that in totality he's remained a top of the ladder run producer in spite of his 5 knee surgeries, planar factitious that everyone thought Albert Pujols was so tough to go out there with every day yet when Chipper took a day off he was sloughing off - and a series of oblique strains that he played through until he literally couldn't swing a bat.
I've yet to see anything from you that supports your position that his average 125 games or so a year show him to be soft. His recovery time from knee surgery has been faster than other notables much younger and without the number of surgeries he's endured.
As much as you position me as someone who thinks Chipper can do know wrong - people who know me will know I've been saying he should retire since Houston and give him slack when he screw up - you seem to have an aversion to admitting that this guy you obviously don't like is universally acknowledged as a first ballot hall of fame player. You aren't per chance a Met or Philly fan are you? (Kidding Kidding)
I look forward to support for your position.

Sep 06, 2012 20:58 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I don't know if you are missing my comments because you are having difficulty responding in line to the thread. Though I may sound dismissive in this comment, I can appreciate the effort you went through to collect data. However, you do not seem to be comprehending my comments well. So, let's recap the end of the last one.

In your most recent comment, you said: "you seem to have an aversion to admitting that this guy you obviously don't like is universally acknowledged as a first ballot hall of fame player."

In my first comment, I said: "I realize Chipper is a Hall of Famer"

In my third comment, I said: "I never said I didn't like Chipper."

You aren't reading anything my comments. MY WHOLE ARGUMENT is: "Smoltz and Glavine were not shown loyalty." My "position" has nothing really to do with whether Chipper is durable or not.

You want to think Chipper is durable. I tend to disagree. R.J is the one who is suggesting he shed his "soft" label and I disagreed with that. I can admit I am wrong, as I have in the past, when I feel I am wrong. I don't feel I am wrong but I really have little interest in proving or disproving how durable Chipper has been. Nor am I going to argue numbers that are being cherry picked because it's like having an argument with jello. Also, I'm not going to argue numbers with you because you are not reading my comments.

Again, I don't dislike Chipper. I feel Chipper is a Hall of Famer. Again, MY WHOLE ARGUMENT is: "Smoltz and Glavine were not shown loyalty." Your only response to that was some quip about thoroughbreds and a few thousand words about Chipper.

Sure, I can dive into the numbers, cherrypick back, note that only people who have played since 2004 are likely to be star-level full time players anyway (or else, they wouldn't have been playing baseball that long). And maybe we'll get to the point where you I say he's averaged 124 games and you say he's averaged 125 games, or I say he's averaged x plate appareances and you say y. Except, I'm not gonna. As I said, how durable Chipper is has relatively little to do with my argument that "Smoltz and Glavine were not shown loyalty."

And, for the record, I'm a Cubs fan.

Sep 07, 2012 12:00 PM
rating: 0
 
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