Now it's time for the third and final phase of the Hall of Fame ballot series.
Phase 1 was a series of columns in which we celebrated some of the very good players on the ballot who I think simply fall short of Hall of Fame level.
• Livan, Millwood made their marks on the mound
In Phase 2, I examined the nine players on this year's ballot who were slam-dunk Hall of Fame choices for me: Vladimir Guerrero, Edgar Martinez, Larry Walker, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Chipper Jones and Jim Thome. As you probably know, a BBWAA member is allowed to vote for up to 10 players.
• Like it or not: A case for Bonds, Clemens
Well, the next nine players were the ones I spent hours considering for my final spot.
All nine players, in my opinion, have a compelling Hall of Fame case, and given an unlimited ballot, I might vote for four or five of them. But there's no unlimited ballot and I suspect there never will be, so I get just one more.
I will reveal that final player at the end of the Phase 3 series.
• Hall of Fame coverage
It's no secret that Andruw Jones was a superior defensive center fielder. After all, he won a National League Gold Glove Award every year from 1998 to 2007, 10 consecutive years, and as defensive statistics became more and more intricate and nuanced, they showed Jones to be an otherworldly defender.
For instance, John Dewan and his crew started keeping a cool statistic called "Fielding Bible runs saved." In 2007, when Jones was 30 years old and near the end of his prime, he still led MLB center fielders by saving 17 runs on defense.
You didn't need any statistics, though, to see he was something special. Jones was a beautiful defender, graceful, the best I ever saw at going back on a ball. He turned baseball defense into living art.
But as I alluded to earlier, Jones' career hit a giant and unforgiving wall when he turned 30. His age-30 season, 2007, was his last with the Braves, then he went on to play for four different teams, managing to stay healthy and play in 100-plus games in a season just once. He hit .210/.316/.424 in his final five seasons, and his impeccable defensive numbers fell off the table. This is not an uncommon story; many outstanding players don't decline gradually, but rather all at once. Jones retired at 35.
But he retired with 67 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs, and 63 WAR according to Baseball Reference, numbers that place him squarely in the Hall of Fame conversation. By Jay Jaffe's JAWS stat, which combines a player's peak and career performance, he ranks 11th among center fielders; only one eligible non-Hall of Famer player, Kenny Lofton, ranks ahead of him.
There are 12 center fielders already in the Hall of Fame who rank behind him in JAWS.
The reason Jones ranks so high is because various defensive stats don't just see Jones as a superior defensive center fielder, they rank him as the best center fielder of all time. And it's really not all that close.
Baseball Reference defensive WAR
- Andruw Jones, 24.1 WAR
- Paul Blair, 18.6
- Willie Mays, 18.1
- Devon White, 16.2
- Jim Piersall, 15.3
The trouble with this list, as Bill James has been hammering home on Twitter, is that Jones' defensive WAR is figured differently compared to Blair's and Mays'. We have a lot more data to work with now. And going forward, we will have a lot more data to work with from amazing center fielders such as Byron Buxton and Lorenzo Cain.
But really, Jones' Hall of Fame argument comes down to the list above. If you believe he's the greatest defensive center fielder in MLB history -- or at least in the conversation -- then his Hall of Fame case comes into focus.
Jones was not a great hitter; his .254 batting average and .337 on-base percentage are not the stuff of Cooperstown. But he mashed 434 home runs (led the league in 2005), drove in 100 runs five times, scored 100 runs four times and slugged just shy of .500 (.497) until his body broke down. He was a good offensive player in his prime. If you pair that with unsurpassed defense, that's a Hall of Fame case.
But it predicates on that last part. His defense cannot just be great, but unsurpassed. The Baseball Writers' Association of America, as best I can tell, has voted in just four players mostly because of their defense. They are:
2002, Ozzie Smith. The greatest defensive shortstop ever; probably a bit underrated offensively.
1984, Luis Aparicio. Fantastic defender who was also the best basestealer of his time.
1982, Brooks Robinson. Won an MVP and had a superb offensive year in 1964, but was basically an average to below-average hitter the rest of his career. But what a third baseman.
1954, Rabbit Maranville. He was a great character of the game, a clown and a magnificent defensive shortstop. He couldn't hit at all.
Jones' case would fit in here if you buy that he's a legendary center fielder.
But if you think he was a great center fielder -- say, top 10 all-time, but not in a whole different world from other great defenders like Mays, Garry Maddox, Curt Flood, Blair, Devon White, Gary Pettis and so on -- then his case doesn't quite hold up.
Consider one recent nominee: Jim Edmonds. He was an amazing defensive center fielder himself. And he was a much better offensive player than Jones, creating 150 more runs than Jones in a shorter career.
Well, Edmonds got only 2.5 percent of the vote his one year on the ballot. Looking at it another way, for 97.5 percent of the voters to see Jones as a Hall of Famer, they would have to believe he was much, much more valuable defensively than Edmonds, who, as mentioned, was fantastic.
I just don't think there's quite that much value available. Andruw Jones was the best defensive center fielder of his time and a fine slugger. But he doesn't quite get my last vote.