At the end of a season, it's easy to point fingers. Win or lose, there are always multiple factors that go into a team's success or failure. But some factors weigh more than others, and in 2009, Chipper Jones' dismal performance was the heaviest factor in Atlanta's failure to make the playoffs.
It's hard to blame Chipper Jones, of course. He's been the face of the Braves organization for years. But in 2009, Chipper had the worst season of his career. He batted .264, a full .100 points lower than in 2008. It was the worst batting average in his entire career.
He hit 18 home runs and batted in 71 runs, the lowest in his career in both categories. Even worse, he produced those numbers during a season in which he played in more regular season games than he had since 2003.
On the field, Jones had more errors than any other third baseman in baseball, and he posted the worst fielding percentage (.930).
In short, it was a terrible season for Chipper Jones. But the worst part is that the majority of those numbers came in the second half of the season. Jones entered the All-Star break with a .320 batting average and a .452 on-base percentage.
How did he get from those numbers to the total numbers for the season? In the second half, he hit .236. His on-base percentage was .361.
Put simply, Chipper Jones absolutely tanked down the stretch for Atlanta.
But while Jones was experiencing the worst second half of his career, Atlanta started playing really good baseball. As a team, the Braves started hitting a lot better in the second half. The team average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and home run totals all increased in the second half.
The pitching got better too. The team’s cumulative earned run average dropped from 3.88 to 3.22.
Not surprisingly, the team’s record was far superior in the second half. After going 43-45 in the first half, Atlanta went 43-31 for the remainder of the season, one of the best second-half records in all of baseball.
Now imagine if Chipper Jones had even played decently in the second half. Atlanta would be in the playoffs, no question.
Down the stretch, Jones was routinely batting third in the Braves lineup. He was supposed to be the player hitting for average and driving in the leadoff batters. That didn’t happen.
Of course, no one can blame Bobby Cox for not giving Jones every opportunity to get back on track. It is Chipper Jones, after all—the same Chipper Jones who batted .364 in 2008. How could he not be expected to turn his season around?
But Jones never did get things figured out. Whether it was age, health, or just a really bad slump, Jones' numbers got worse and worse, right up to the very last game of the season.
Atlanta missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season.
Again, it’s hard to blame a player like Jones. He’s the sole reason Atlanta has remained a viable contender over the years. Year after year, Jones has produced solid numbers, despite constant injuries.
Jones has also been a respectable face for the franchise. Other clubs have watched their players face questions about steroid abuse. Jones has never even been suspected of using steroids.
Considering the amount of injuries that piled up as he got older, it’s hard to imagine he wasn’t tempted to try steroids, after watching players like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds put up incredible numbers late in their career.
But he didn’t use steroids, and for that, his chances at the Hall of Fame are even greater. How much better would players like Chipper Jones have been if they hadn’t been subjected to playing against juiced opponents?
Despite that, his numbers in 2009 forced even Chipper himself to question whether he could still play at a high level.
He openly talked about retirement during his slump, at one point telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "I'm not going to tolerate the numbers I have right now for very long. I'm certainly not going to stick around for a big contract if I'm not having fun and not producing. I'm not saying I'm retiring at the end of this year or the end of next year, but if I become an average player, I'm not sticking around."
As a superstar, Jones has high standards for his own performance. He's used to putting up big numbers. He's used to being the statistical leader on the Braves.
For now, he’s agreed to come back to the Braves for another season, probably his last since it will also be the last for Bobby Cox.
But Atlanta has to handle Chipper differently in 2010 than they did in 2009. He’s not the same player he once was, but he can still be extremely valuable.
For starters, he cannot be expected to play every day. Atlanta needs to be strategic about his playing time. There’s a reason his numbers in the first half were good. He was rested. In the second half, he tired.
It’s unfair to ask him to be the leader of the team. That has to fall on younger players like McCann, Escobar, and Hanson. Atlanta asked too much of Chipper in 2009, and as a result, it put a stain on his career numbers.
He’s given a lot to Atlanta. He’s carried the franchise on his back for years. For both his and the team’s sake, now it’s time for them to carry him.