So, ESPN has an interesting thought experiment going. Chipper Jones and Ken Griffey, Jr. are both excellent players, former No. 1 picks, and future Hall of Famers. Steve Berthiaume recently posed this question over at ESPN: if you could have just one, Jones or Griffey, for their ENTIRE career (yes, injuries and all), which one would you take? I thought it sounded like an interesting prompt, and decided to read on. What I found out, though, is that it really isn’t close; I would much rather take Chipper.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re both great players, and I think it is actually impossible to be “wrong” when choosing between them. However, throughout their respective careers (to date), Jones has been the better player.
I must admit, I was quite shocked to find this out. It’s kind of easy to see why, I guess. When we look at both players, they each saw a fair share of time on the disabled list, but the DL could probably retire Griffey’s number, especially in the second half of his career. But still, Griffey has 2781 hits, 630 home runs, and 1836 RBI, compared to Chipper’s (relatively) meager 2556/443/1534 line. Even with his extra time off the DL, is Jones really better than Ken Griffey, Jr.?
The answer is a surprising yes. The article itself split the players' first twelve seasons and rest of their careers to show the difference. Griffey’s first 12 came from 1989 through 2000, when he was between 19 and 30. Jones, meanwhile, had his first 12 from 1995-2006 (excluding a brief call-up in 1993), when he was between 23 and 34. Obviously, with Griffey’s incredible first half of his career, he would far surpass Chipper’s value, right? Well, in those times, Ken put up 438 homers and a .296/.380/.568 slash line (that’s batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage).
Chipper, on the other hand, hit 357 home runs with a .304/.402/.541 line. So, it’s much closer than I thought it would be. Griffey has a .948 OPS to Chipper’s .943, so they’re practically identical. But, Chipper has the higher OBP, which is better to scoring runs, so it could really go either way.
However, we want their full careers. For his whole career, Griffey obviously had the bigger counting stats. However, he also has nearly 350 more games played than Chipper, due to his earlier start. With over two extra seasons worth of games, we would expect him to have bigger counting numbers. Besides, Jones is still playing, and Griffey isn’t.
What about rate stats? Griffey finished his career with a .284/.370/.538 line, good for an OPS+ of 135 (meaning he was 35 percent better than the average hitter). Chipper, to date, has a .304/.404/.533 line, good for an OPS+ of 141. In this case, I would say advantage: Chipper.
What about defense? Everyone knows Junior for his flashy plays and his brilliant center field, while Chipper plays a rather un-lauded third base. However, the position may matter than than it seems; most attempts to rank positions by their difficultly rank third base and center field side by side, and not always in the same order, so it would be fair enough to say they’re about even.
Conveniently enough, they even played at other positions for roughly similar periods of time: Chipper has around 370 games in the corner outfield spots and nearly 50 games at shortstop; Griffey, meanwhile, has around 240 games in the corner outfield and almost 200 games at DH (which, given his longer career, means they’re pretty similar).
So, their position was about equal; what about their defense? Larry Jones, for his career, has been a slightly below average fielder, according to Total Zone (from Baseball Reference). Total Zone calculates a player’s defensive abilities based on the amount of plays they can make, and compares it to the rest of the league. It then uses this information to determine how many runs a player saved, with 10 runs equally one win.
In his career, Chipper has cost his team 21 runs, or just over one run per season. For all intents and purposes, he’s league-average. On the flip side, Junior was brilliant defensively in his early career. However, as injuries took their toll on his body, his fielding plummeted. Even late-career position switches couldn’t help. Overall, Ken Griffey retired having only saved a total of six runs as a center fielder; taking into account his fielding at other positions, he cost his team 14 runs overall, meaning his early career and late career were essentially a wash.
So, overall, Jones has been the better fielder, and defense and position between the two is basically the same. The only thing Griffey has over Chipper is more games played, but even then, Chipper is still playing. He may catch up.
One last bit of food for thought: Baseball Reference has a stat called Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. This takes basically everything I accounted for (hitting, defense, position, and playing time), and determines how many wins a player has been worth throughout their career. Junior retired with 78.5 WAR. Chipper? 80.9 and counting. Just some food for thought.
Ken Griffey, Jr had an impressive first few seasons. But even then, if you could only have one of Griffey or Chipper Jones for their whole career, Chipper is definitely the better choice.
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