Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Chipper Jones

Claim to fame: Jones rates among the greatest-hitting infielders, with 2,452 hits, 430 home runs and a .306 lifetime average. The 1999 National League Most Valuable Player, six-time All Star and longtime Atlanta Braves third baseman has declined since winning the 2008 batting title, though he’s wrapping an outstanding career.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Jones still plays and will be eligible for enshrinement through the Baseball Writers Association of America five years after he retires.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? The short answer is yes. Every eligible infielder with 400 home runs and a .300 lifetime batting average is in Cooperstown. The question is not if Jones will be enshrined but when.

I took part Friday in a forum discussion at Baseball Think Factory prompted by a blog post from Furman Bisher on news Jones may be retiring (Bisher’s a 91-year-old sportswriter who in 1949 conducted the only interview Joe Jackson granted about the 1919 World Series.) Bisher wrote of Jones:

I don’t care to get into a spitting fight over his ticket to Cooperstown, but I don’t foresee him as a first-ballot inductee. Nor a second, but somewhere down the line. If he had hit 500 home runs, that might have been the decider. Sorry, but he’ll come in somewhere behind Griffey Jr.

Several forum members objected, calling Jones a certain first or second-ballot pick. I side with Bisher, and I commented:

Five of the 10 batters that Jones compares most to on his Baseball-Reference page are in Cooperstown and only one, Mickey Mantle, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The others: Duke Snider (11th ballot), Billy Williams (6th ballot), Eddie Matthews (5th ballot) and Jim Rice (15th ballot.) Or, to put it another way, if you were filling out a Braves dream team and had a choice between Jones and Matthews at third, could you honestly take Chipper over Matthews? That’s what, in effect, would happen with making Jones a first-ballot inductee.

This attracted opposition. Some forum members suggested voting for worthy players regardless of their ballot and decried penalizing Jones for Matthews’ unjustly late enshrinement. I still wouldn’t give Jones a first ballot vote. To me, these votes are best rarely used, for immortals like Ken Griffey Jr. and Greg Maddux. Jones has fine numbers, but I doubt he’s considered immortal.

Few are. Of the 104 players the BBWAA has voted in (and 292 people elected total), just 44 made it on their first ballot, not counting Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente who were enshrined through special elections. Using Baseball-Reference, I compiled a list of the 44 first ballot inductees. They are:

  • Hank Aaron
  • Ernie Banks
  • Johnny Bench
  • Wade Boggs
  • George Brett
  • Lou Brock
  • Rod Carew
  • Steve Carlton
  • Ty Cobb
  • Dennis Eckersley
  • Bob Feller
  • Bob Gibson
  • Tony Gwynn
  • Rickey Henderson
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Walter Johnson
  • Al Kaline
  • Sandy Koufax
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Christy Matthewson
  • Willie Mays
  • Willie McCovey
  • Paul Molitor
  • Joe Morgan
  • Eddie Murray
  • Stan Musial
  • Jim Palmer
  • Kirby Puckett
  • Cal Ripken Jr.
  • Brooks Robinson
  • Frank Robinson
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Babe Ruth
  • Nolan Ryan
  • Mike Schmidt
  • Tom Seaver
  • Ozzie Smith
  • Warren Spahn
  • Willie Stargell
  • Honus Wagner
  • Ted Williams
  • Dave Winfield
  • Carl Yastrzemski
  • Robin Yount

Interestingly, Jones’ career Win Above Replacement (WAR) rating of 78.4 bests 19 first ballot Hall of Famers: Banks, Bench, Brock, Eckersley, Feller, Gwynn, Koufax, Jackson, McCovey, Molitor, Murray, Palmer, Puckett, Brooks Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Smith, Stargell, Winfield, Yount. It also ties Jones with Griffey, 59th all-time. But I don’t know if enough BBWAA members rely on sabermetrics yet for it to factor. I suspect more voters will employ a subjective sentiment that goes, Chipper was good but he should have been a little bit better… 500 home runs…

Even Roberto Alomar fell short his initial vote in January. Jones and Alomar each may rank among the best-hitting infielders in recent years, but Alomar nabbed 10 Gold Gloves while Jones hasn’t won any. Alomar’s reputation plummeted after he spit on an umpire in 1996, and he still got 73.7 percent of the Cooperstown vote. There are different ways to look at this. Some may suggest Jones, a player with arguably better offensive numbers (and, not that many writers care, better WAR) may receive a sufficient boost without Alomar’s personal baggage to garner the necessary 75 percent of the vote for Cooperstown. Maybe so. But I also think it shows when there’s doubt, the BBWAA votes conservatively.

For what it’s worth, most Hall of Famers needed multiple tries at induction, including Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx and Tris Speaker. Same goes for 14 of the 20 300-game winning pitchers in Cooperstown. And from 1937 until 1962, there were no first ballot selections. I could write more on how voting has changed over the years or what might make a first ballot Hall of Famer today. For now, I’ll close by saying there’s no shame if Jones joins the multitudes in Cooperstown without that distinction.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.