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.