The Atlanta Braves of the 1990s were not short on Hall of Fame talent. While several members of those teams are already enshrined in Cooperstown, another could join them.
It's feeling more and more like just a matter of time.
Andruw Jones set the standard for defensive outfielders. In fact, he set that bar so high that it is unlikely any player will be surpassing his accomplishments in the foreseeable future.
Despite a reputation for excellence that earned him 10 consecutive Gold Glove Awards to go along with 434 home runs, Jones found the sledding for Hall of Fame election to be treacherous. The reasons for that are many and underscore the nuanced, downright complicated and sometimes exhausting nature of the voting process itself.
All of that said, Jones has a unique case that should eventually get him there.
The Hall of Fame’s 2024 three-man player class features Adrian Beltre, Todd Helton and Joe Mauer. One-time Atlanta closer Billy Wagner fell just five votes shy of joining them but should pick those up in his final year eligibility. Despite a late push, former Braves slugger Gary Sheffield fell short of the 75 percent of the vote required to gain election on his 10th and final time on the BBWAA ballot. Manager Jim Leyland, who was elected by a 16-person Contemporary Baseball Era Committee back in December, will be enshrined alongside the three players on July 21 in Cooperstown.
The question of whether or not Jones will receive a plaque has seemingly shifted from "if" to "when" in recent years.
Despite falling short again, Jones has made incredible year-over-year gains since his first appearance on the ballot in 2018. After debuting with just 7.3 percent of the vote and following that up with just 7.5 percent in his second year, Jones was listed on 61.6 percent of the ballots this time around. He has three years of eligibility remaining to make the jump to 75 percent.
The Braves took a key step toward bolstering Jones’ case for Cooperstown last season when they finally retired his No. 25 jersey, placing it alongside other Hall of Famers and franchise icons on the façade of the second level down the left field line at Truist Park.
That ceremony offered yet another peek inside how his contemporaries view Jones’ exemplary glovework and penchant for hitting tape-measure home runs. Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Greg Maddux have long sung Jones’ praises for all he did to make their job on the mound easier.
Meanwhile, Chipper Jones has publicly lobbied for the man he jokingly refers to as a brother to find a place in Cooperstown alongside the distinguished group of Braves inducted in recent years.
“The onus of the offense had to fall on somebody,” he said in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2018. “Next to myself, Andruw Jones. Druw, I hope you'll be joining us here soon. Nobody played a better centerfield than you. You've got 10 Gold Gloves to back it up. For a lot of years, pitchers had to go through the Jones boys in the three and four holes to beat us, and we took a lot of pride in that. Druw, I am so proud to call you my brother from another mother.”
While nearly six years have passed since that speech, the tide is definitely rising.
Jones’ résumé has not changed but the way it's being viewed seems to be gaining a deeper appreciation from many writers. It’s also worth noting that the ballot has slowly become less crowded than it was not long ago. With fewer big names hanging around for one reason or another to contend with, a case like Jones’ can get more attention and thus more careful consideration.
Hall of Fame cases vary wildly. And they should. While certain milestone numbers and prolonged dominance displayed by some all-time greats is undeniable, other players build or enhance their case with a workmanlike quality or by total mastery a particular phase of the game. For Jones, his calling card is defense. The fact that he was able to add considerable offensive value only adds to his credentials.
Jones owns the highest defensive wins above replacement of any outfielder in baseball history. That number eclipses Willie Mays and any other outfielder you can name. Jones’ 24.4 dWAR ranks 22nd all-time among all positions and he is the only outfielder to even crack the Top 50 on that leaderboard.
Simply put, Jones is in a class all to himself when it comes to outfield defense.
If there is a place for Ozzie Smith in Cooperstown, a player who built a legacy on defense as a shortstop yet did not approach the Hall's lofty hitting standards, then there should be a place for the best defensive outfielder of all-time and his impressive power numbers.
That combination is rare and is the foundation of Jones’ case.
When Jones was called up to begin his big league career in 1996, there were only two players with 400 home runs who were not already in Cooperstown – Darrell Evans and Dave Kingman. Jones is currently tied for 48th on the all-time home runs list and one of 24 players to eclipse 400 home runs but not yet be elected to the Hall of Fame. Giancarlo Stanton and Nelson Cruz were the only active players above that mark as of 2023.
Nine of those 24 players have more than 500 home runs, though Albert Pujols should be elected on his first try in the class of 2028 and Miguel Cabrera should follow in 2029. The other seven in question, including all-time leader Barry Bonds, have been connected to performance enhancing drugs.
Suffice it to say, home run milestones and the way they are viewed were forever changed in the late 1990s, right about the time Jones arrived in the major leagues.
Further connecting the dots between his power and defense, there are only four players with 400 home runs to go along with 10 gold gloves. The others are Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Schmidt – all Hall of Famers.
Among the statistics on the case against Jones is his .254 career average, which would be the second lowest among all Hall of Famers. The fact that Jones did not age gracefully and decline slowly are also part of the discussion, though that handful of bad years does not outweigh his considerable prime. It is one of many criteria being considered in a rather subjective process of deciding who gets in and who does not.
Nothing about any of Jones' numbers is going to change year-to-year, but the way they are evaluated has seen an increased focus on the advanced metrics – particularly for defense – which strengthen his case.
With three years remaining on the writers ballot and a steady increase in votes, it feels more likely than not that Jones should find the support he needs to eventually get the call to Cooperstown. His support has jumped as much as 16.7 percent between the 2022 and 2023 voting cycles. Another such gain would put him over the 75 percent threshold, though he added just 3.5 percent from 2023 to 2024.
Whenever it happens, seeing the finest fielding outfielder of all-time roaming Cooperstown will be a watershed moment for Jones and the continual evolution of how players are analyzed and value is determined.