Chipper Jones: Mr. Underappreciated

Ben GunbyAnalyst IApril 24, 2008

It has become as rare as a week going by without some sort of story about a past pastor of an Obama attended church, and it’s becoming rarer by the minute. It’s the unusual case of a star athlete spending his entire career in one city with one team, and being the consummate professional while doing so. In many respects, Tom Glavine is about as close as you can get to such a story, and even he spent a handful of years away from his original club (with their archrival no less) before returning home. The fact that ultimately, Glavine won’t hardly even be remembered as ever having played for the Mets, but ultimately will likely be thought of as a “Braves lifer” further illustrates the rarity of a player spending his entire career on one team. What’s even less likely to occur is for that player to be a Hall of Famer. What’s even more incredibly scarce is having TWO such players on one roster. Meet John Smoltz and Chipper Jones.


Much has been made of John Smoltz’s stellar career in the past few days thanks to his 3,000th strikeout that he recorded earlier this week. There’s not much need to delve too deeply into his accomplishments. We know, 200 wins, 150 saves, one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all-time, five times finishing 7th or higher in Cy Young voting, five All-Star appearances and three times finishing in the top 20 of MVP voting (pretty impressive for a pitcher). He’s the ONLY member of the 3,000 strikeout / 100 save club, and he’s had all of one season since his rookie year where his E.R.A topped 4.00 (which came in 1994, when he lost most of the 2nd half of the year, which is notable because in the early 90s Smoltz was known for his second half prowess). Not to mention there is the fact he’s taken less money to stay in Atlanta, and he’s done things that were against his personal preference because it was better for the team. He’s the ultimate professional, a sure-fire Hall of Famer, and the quintessential “Braves lifer”. Enough about him though.


Since 1995 there has been one constant in the Braves lineup, and that’s been number 10 in the middle of the order, as in Larry Wayne Jones Jr., a.k.a. Chipper. Chipper’s career certainly got off to in auspicious start. He entered spring training in 1994 ready to become the Braves primary shortstop, only to have a freak base running incident at first base in an exhibition game result in a torn ACL and delay his arrival to “The Show” for a year. Things couldn’t have worked out better for the life long Braves fan.


In 1995 Chipper took over for Terry Pendleton at third base. Pendleton was the anchor of the Braves lineup during their run through the early part of the 90’s, now the torch was being passed to Chipper. Needless to say, Chipper took the torch and ran with it. All he did in his rookie year was finish 2nd to Hideo Nomo in Rookie of the Year voting, bat third for the eventual World Series champs while finishing in the top 20 in MVP voting and then have OBP of .453 in the postseason. Not a bad debut. The incredible part? 1995 would easily be, statistically speaking, the worse season of Chipper’s career. Things would only go up.


Chipper set about to be the best third basemen, and best switch hitter in the game. If those were his goals, you’d be hard pressed to prove he didn’t accomplish them. From 1996 thru 2001 Chipper finished in the top 11 in MVP voting six times, and was an All-Star on five occasions. Remarkably, the one year he wasn’t an All-Star was 1999. That of course was the year he further followed Pendleton’s footsteps as he claimed the NL MVP award, thanks in large part to the fact he drove in 16 runs, had 7 home runs, and had a ridiculous 1.510 OPS in just 12 games against the Mets.


In 2002, Chipper’s run of All-Star games to an end as the Braves asked him to move to the outfield. It was a move Chipper wasn’t thrilled with, but his respect for Bobby Cox and desire to help the team win prompted Jones to go along with the move to enable to club to add Vinny Castilla. Over the next two seasons, Chipper, along with Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield formed one of the greatest offensive outfields the game of baseball has ever seen. However, left field wasn’t Chipper’s forte, and there were concerns that it was going to hurt Chipper physically. In 2003, Chipper missed more than 5 games for the first time in his career. It didn’t seem like much, but it seemed to be the start of trend. In 2003 Chipper arguably had his worst season since his rookie year. He still finished 25th in the voting, but it was the first time since his rookie season that he wasn’t 11th or higher.


In 2004 Chipper injured his hamstring while playing in the outfield. Upon his return from the disabled list it was decided that a return to 3rd base was in the cards. Jones missed 25 games in 2004, and even upon his return wasn’t quite right. His offense suffered again, and for the first time since 1997 Chipper had an OBP under .400. He also failed to drive in 100 runs for the first time since driving in just 86 in the strike shortened 1995 season.


People wondered if Chipper was beginning to hit the downslide of his career. Those rumblings only got louder in 2005 when Chipper missed over 50 games due to injury. However, while he missed a lot of time due to injury, his numbers were up. His numbers improved again in 2006, even though he again missed over 50 games. However, he was productive enough in the time he played to once again crack the top 20 in MVP voting as he drove in 86 runs in just 110 games played.


Last year though Chipper started to really get back on track. While he still missed time with injury, it wasn’t due to muscle strains and pulls, but rather a freak play at third base where he injured his hands. He still saw action in 134 games, and that was enough for him to prove he is still one of the elite hitters in all of baseball. He finished 6th in MVP voting, despite playing on a 3rd place team and missing nearly 30 games. Chipper led the league in OPS. The Braves were 73-61 with Chipper in the lineup, 11-17 sans the switch hitter. It could be argued that with a healthy Chipper Jones for 150 games, the Braves would have won the division.


Chipper has picked up in 2008 right where he left off in 2007. He is again among the league leaders in all meaningful offensive categories (save stolen bases) and has once again entrenched his place as among the most feared hitters in the game. He entered tonight’s game batting .422 with an OBP of .462. All he did was go for 3-3 and hit his 7th home run, driving in his 20th run. He’s made it quite clear that he intends to make a push for a second MVP trophy this season. One could argue that Chipper, since the summer off 2006, has been the best hitter in baseball. His start in 2008 has done nothing but further cemented his status as one of the game’s most feared hitters, and perhaps the most feared switch hitter of his generation.


It’s also further cemented his case to be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Chipper, in his entire career, has been a part of one losing team; he’s got a career average of .300, with five years of .315 or higher. His career OBP is .404, which is 40th all-time, and he’s posted four seasons of .425 or higher. His .952 OPS is 22nd all-time. He’s already got 2,000 hits, and he’s still counting. He’s now just seven long balls shy of 400 and he’s 13th among active players in RBI. When it comes to being a professional hitter, few have been as good, for as long, as Chipper Jones has, and he’s not slowing down.


What should slow down though is baseball fans, particularly Braves fans. They should slow down and appreciate what Chipper Jones has brought to not only the city of Atlanta, but the game of baseball in general. He, like Smoltz, has been an icon in Atlanta, and has been a fixture in the Braves lineup. He’s among the greatest offensive 3rd basemen to ever play the game, and among the greatest switch hitters to ever step into a batter’s box. People don’t realize just how great of a career Chipper has had, and how much of a treat it has been to watch him hit a baseball all these years. If the last year and half are any indication though, there’s still plenty of time to enjoy it.