Sep 28, 2011; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones (10) waves to the crowd following the game against the New York Mets at Turner Field. The Mets defeated the Braves 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-US PRESSWIRE

Examining The Greatness of Chipper Jones

22 years after drafting him #1 overall, the Atlanta Braves will no longer be the employer of Chipper Jones.  Only ten players had more plate appearances than Chipper’s 10,614 while only playing for only one franchise.  While he isn’t the greatest Brave, and maybe not even the best third baseman in franchise history, he is a certain Hall-of-Famer who managed to stay productive through age 40.

Heading back to that 1990 draft, Todd Van Poppel was the consensus top prospect, but signability pushed him down in the draft.  The Braves picked a tall, skinny shortstop from Jacksonville, FL, a switch-hitter with polish, even at 18 years of age.  This was a blessing in disguise, as Chipper ended up having the best career of anyone in the draft, while Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada were the only ones worthy of HOF consideration taken.

His professional career did not start as planned, as he hit .229/.321/.271 in the Gulf Coast Rookie League.  The Chipper we know and love came alive in Macon the next season, as he hit .326/.407/.518 and stole 40 bases, though the 56 errors were a bit more than necessary.  1992 saw him take a step back offensively in A+ Durham, but he still got promoted to AA Greenville halfway through the season.  He rewarded the organization by hitting .346/.367/.594, leading him to be named the #1 prospect by Baseball America heading into the ’93 season.  A .325/.387/.500 line at age 21 in AAA Richmond showed that he had learned all he could in the minors.  Chipper got a small taste of the majors as a September callup, but he was not placed on the postseason roster.

The Braves determined he wasn’t ready to play shortstop at the majors, so they were preparing him to take over for an injured Ron Gant in left field in 1994, before a torn ACL in spring training ended Chipper’s season before it began.  With Terry Pendleton now leaving for the Florida Marlins, Chipper could settle in at third base before the ’95 season.  He also settled into the Braves lineup, not missing more than ten games in any of the next nine seasons.  While he did not burst on the scene, Chipper finished second in the ROY voting.  More importantly, the new 3-hole hitter led the team to their only championship in Atlanta.

Over the next three seasons, he became a perennial all-star, putting up .300/.400/.500 lines in 160 games.  1999 saw him transform from all-star to superstar, hitting .319/.441/.633, winning the NL MVP, making the Mets his personal batting practice.  Unfortunately, the other New York team spoiled the ending, sweeping the Braves in the World Series.  Chipper continued his elite performance until 2003, and questions of his decline came up after his ’04 season.  Looking back, it’s quite evident that it was just a BABIP fluctuation, as his plate discipline and power rates stayed the same, but the .246 BABIP sent his average plummeting to .248.

Part of the concerns were realized, however.  He missed 25 games in ’04, and he never again exceeded 600 PA in a season.  His production in the lineup returned to elite level, leading the league in OPS in 2007 and eventually reaching a career-high 175 wRC+ in 2008, winning the batting and OBP title.  After his age 36 season, Chipper could not recapture the power, leading him to sub-.200 ISOs and sub-.300 BABIPs the final four seasons.  He was still 20% above average, but his declining defense and increasing injuries made him a 2-3 WAR player starting in 2009.

In his career, Chipper finished at .303/.401/.529, one of 21 .300/.400/.500 hitters in MLB history with at least 5000 PA, while only five of those have more PA than Chipper.  Among position players, his 81.5 rWAR rate 31st all-time, while his 90.4 fWAR rates 33rd all-time.  Unfortunately, we probably can’t call him the best third baseman in Braves history, as Eddie Mathews rates 22nd and 23rd in those same rankings respectively.  Among both pitchers and hitters in franchise history, Chipper ranks sixth in rWAR, with Hank Aaron, Mathews, Kid Nichols, Warren Spahn, and Phil Niekro ahead of him.  That’s three top-30 hitters and three top 15 pitchers all in the same franchise, plus Greg Maddux accumulating 2/3 of his WAR with the Braves.

Among hitters who played at least 60% of their games at third base, Chipper ranks 4th in PA, 4th in hits, 3rd in doubles, 3rd in HR, 1st in RBI, 1st in runs scored, 2nd in walks (to Eddie Yost?), and 5th in rWAR.  Among switch-hitters, he’s 6th in PA, 5th in hits, 3rd in doubles, 3rd in HR, 2nd in RBI, 4th in runs scored, 3rd in BB, and 2nd in rWAR.  He never had a below league-average season, a very rare feat for someone who plays through age 40.  While he never had a historic 10 WAR type season, I think it’s safe to say that there won’t be another Braves player to amass such prolific totals for quite some time.  Farewell Chipper.  Hope the hunting, fishing, and family life is as great as your baseball career.

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  • Lee Trocinski

    This is not meant to exclusively sum up his career into a bunch of numbers. He had the pressure of being the future cornerstone of the franchise, which most prospects don’t live up to. He stayed in Atlanta after the division run, despite the poor team results and elite performance by himself. He is essentially Atlanta’s Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, or Tony Gwynn. I am glad I was just old enough to truly follow his career, and I doubt another ATL player will have such a career in my lifetime.

  • fireboss

    Nobody walked more than Eddie Yost (The Walking man) they called him had 8 years with 123 walks or more between 48 and 60 so being close (about 100) behind him is quite a feat. I watched Mathews play third he had more raw power but Chipper was a better glove man in his prime. His ‘decline’ between 2004 and 2012 is somewhat over stated. Only 2 NL third basemen played more games as Chipper (1094 games ages 32-40) during that time; David Wright (1262 games ages 21-29), Aramis Ramirez (1210 games ages 26-34), Pedro Feliz played 1038 ages 29-35 to get fourth spot. if you add in the softball… err AL then A-Rod, Beltre and Brandon Inge join the list, all younger than Chipper. In his age group no one primarily a third baseman played more games in that period. Still it’s the intangibles he brought to the field every game that made Chipper a legend.
    Speculation about who will wear the mantle of face of the team for the next decade centers on Heyward. If Heyward wants to turn down money to stay in ATL hemay well be the man but I suspect that barring injury in 6 years he’s playing elsewhere. McCann too will more than likely move along though many doubt he will leave, I doubt the Braves will pay an aging injury prone catcher who was never sterling with the glove as much as an AL team will. That leave Freeman of the current crop, time will tell if he grows into that role or someone else steps in . . . Prado perhaps?

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