Is Andruw Jones Overrated?

I first became aware that Andruw Jones was going to be the lead story in Jayson Stark’s new book The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History during a radio interview several months ago. In the discussion Stark mentioned that Andruw Jones is not as good as people think he is and that he would be explaining why in his upcoming book. I was anticipating what he had to say when, lucky for me, ESPN.com published an excerpt from the book on Jones.

What does Stark mean by overrated? Well, that is a tough one, which he admits. It is certainly subjective, and while some people might think Andruw Jones is the greatest center fielder in history this is not the consensus. Stark clearly doesn’t think the public sees Andruw in this class, just in a class higher than he should be.

What does the baseball public think of Jones? Well, in his 10+ year career he has made five All-Star teams, all during excellent offensive seasons (OPS+ > 120). His career OPS+ is 117, which is good, but not outstanding, offensive production for a center fielder. On defense Jones is considered to be one of the best in the game winning nine straight Gold Gloves. I’d say the baseball watching public considers Jones to be a good hitter and an excellent defender. So, how does Jones stack up to Stark’s case?

Luckily, Stark gives up a reference point for judging excellence in center field.

[Center field is] the position of Mays, Mantle, and DiMaggio. Of Cobb, Puckett, and Griffey. Those aren’t just names on a lineup card. Those are names that conjure up magic. This is the glamour position in baseball. Nothing else is close.

Did you catch that? Read over the list of names again. Kirby Puckett? Are you kidding me? Don’t get me wrong. Kirby Puckett was a very good player, but is nowhere close to the class of the other players on the list. In fact, Andruw Jones’s career OPS of 117 is quite similar to Puckett’s 124—and don’t forget that Puckett was forced to retire near the top of his game. Hey, I’ll grant that Puckett was the better player, but I’m a bit uneasy saying that Jones falls well short of of Stark’s own standard. Puckett is more similar to Jones than he is to the other players on the list. Maybe Puckett would have been a better choice for an overrated center fielder if people really do consider him to be as good as Mays, Mantle, DiMaggio, and Cobb.

Let’s look at offense first. Stark quotes a scout who describes Jones’s offense as “not very good.” Now, I’m not sure how to interpret the quote. Taken literally, Jones is not a very good hitter; but, when I’m at a family reunion and someone says, “this congealed salad isn’t very good” I skip it. It’s not like Jones is known for his bat: he’s garnered only one Silver Slugger award, and three are handed out every year. While his offense wouldn’t be anything special for a corner outfielder, he’s more than adequate for his position. For the previous three seasons he’s finished second in OPS among center fielders (2004, 2005, 2006), and I have little doubt that he will finish this season near the top.

Now let’s move to defense. Here is where Stark makes most of his case. He acknowledges that Jones was once one of the best defenders at his position, and he believes he is living off a reputation that is no longer deserved. As he did for offense, he cites the opinion of a few scouts that Jones’s defense has declined.

“I first noticed it two or three years ago,” he said. “Just from sitting there, scouting, watching balls dropping in that should have been caught. I’m not talking about balls that needed to be dived for. I’m talking about balls that should be caught.”

I surveyed other scouts. They’d begun to see the same things. Not getting the same jumps. Not reacting. Not putting in the defensive effort he used to. His body getting thicker. A sudden obsession with home-run hitting over everything else.

Stark doesn’t just believe these words, he goes to some numbers. There is no denying Andruw’s putouts are down from the mid-400s to the 370s—though Jones is on a pace for around 450 putouts in 2007. Stark says this can’t be because the composition of his pitching staff as changed, because his zone rating has fallen. Here is where Stark’s argument falls apart. There is no denying Jones isn’t a zone rating wonder, but zone rating doesn’t tell us much about defensive prowess.

Zone rating is a seductive statistic because it seems like a batting average for hitters. How many outs did you generate from chances withing an a somewhat objective zone? What a nice idea! The problem is that zone rating is very sensitive to balls that players catch outside of their assigned zone. It’s one of the reasons that the inventor of zone rating, John Dewan, abandoned his creation and developed an entirely new method for evaluating defense—more on that in a moment.

Three years ago I wrote a post, Thoughts on Zone Rating, using Jones as an example of why zone rating is flawed (it comes up number one in the Google search for “zone rating problems“). The basic problem is that defensive shifts allow fielders to catch more balls outside of the zones, but also causes them to give up balls hit in zones. Fielders are asymmetrically punished and rewarded for players made and not made in and outside of the zone. I’m not going to rehash the argument, but the quick summary is that the way outfield defense is played today, zone rating has some problem evaluating players, especially when they are catching balls outside of assigned zones.

The problems with ZR extend beyond my critique, and its flaws became so obvious that its creator John Dewan developed two new defensive measures: Revised Zone Rating and the Plus/Minus System. Both are presented in Dewan’s amazing book The Fielding Bible. (I’m also excited to learn that a new volume is scheduled for 2008…Yes!) While the latter measure is superior, I want to focus on Dewan’s revised ZR, because of some information presented in the book that shed’s light on traditional ZR.

Rather than include balls out of a fielding zone in the traditional ZR metric, the revised system credits balls caught out of the zone separately. On page 234 we see that from 2003–2005 Jones made 218 out-of-zone plays—40 more than Juan Pierre (in 53 more innings played), 49 more than Johnny Damon (in 10 fewer innings played), 63 more than Vernon Wells (in 92 more innings played), and 64 more than Carlos Beltran (in 53 more innings played). Long story short: Andruw Jones is good at getting to balls outside of his zone, and because one of weaknesses of traditional ZR is handling balls out of the zone we ought to be wary when using it to judge Jones.

Next, let’s go to the Plus/Minus System. This is Dewan’s masterpiece: a system based on objective video analysis of how players field balls according to the speed, trajectory, and location of batted balls relative to other fielders playing the same position. It’s frickin’ awesome. To use zone rating to evaluate fielders when this system is available is like using a wooden tennis racket at Wimbledon today. How does Jones do in the Plus/Minus system? Using the original Plus/Minus metric presented in The Fielding Bible, from 2003–2005 Jones made 26 more plays than the average center fielder, putting him behind only Torii Hunter (+44) and Aaron Rowand (+34). Furthermore, Dewan awards Jones Gold Gloves in all three seasons.

Dewan published a few results from an updated system that more precisely measures fielding in The Bill James Handbook 2007. Jones performs even better in this system. From 2004–2006 Jones made more plays than any other center fielder—48 more than the average center fielder and three more than the next closest player (Corey Patterson). In 2006, Jones finished second only to Patterson (+34) by making 30 more plays than average. He’s still got it!

The funny thing about this is that before the Plus/Minus system came into being I thought Andruw was underrated as a defender. Rumors of Jones’s defensive decline have been discussed openly for years, but I never saw it. I believe that the main reason for this is that Jones isn’t as skinny as he used to be. Hey, who isn’t? And though his speed may have declined some that was never what made Andruw Jones so good. I have never seen any player take routes to balls as well as he does. His defensive gift is less about his legs and more about his ability to know where any ball is going faster than anyone else. It is almost as if he folds space as he runs, because he consistently gets to balls that I expect to be hits.

I was happy that Dewan’s system confirmed my thinking, and I would have been prepared to admit that my eyes had been deceiving me if it had shown otherwise. Quantifying defense is difficult and only now are we coming close to understanding how to evaluate fielders. Zone rating has its heart in the right place, but it has little value. I would rather judge a hitter solely by his batting average than judge a fielder by his zone rating.

So, is Jones overrated? Well, I think it’s pretty clear that he is a good-hitting center fielder who is one of the top defenders in the league. That is how I have him pegged, and I suspect the perception of the public is not much different.

21 Responses “Is Andruw Jones Overrated?”

  1. John W says:

    I thought that was an awfully shaky premise/main chapter…I’d be interested to hear what non-Braves fans think.

  2. Brent says:

    Personally, I had thought that Andruw had dropped off a bit, and I would have ranked Beltran as his equal, at least in today’s game.

    Thanks to Dewan’s +/- system, I guess I can see that my eyes deceived me. Thanks for a brilliant post.

    Any chance Jayson Stark will read or respond to this? Highly doubtful, in my opinion.

  3. Pizza Cutter says:

    Well, I suppose we’ll have a very good chance this winter to see how exactly he is rated when he tests free-agency. It’d be interesting to do a “how much would you pay for Andruw Jones” (or anyone) experiment with baseball fans and compare their answers against some empirical (yours would be a good starting point) measure of his value. That would tell you a bit about his over/under-ratedness.

    By Jove, what a dissertation idea!

  4. Ron says:

    Andruw is still one of the best 2 or 3 defensive centerfielders in the national league and he has more career homeruns than Hank Aaron did at age 30. There is simply no way he can be called the most overrated ever. I don’t get what Jayson Stark, who I generally like, was trying to do other than stir up arguments and draw traffic to ESPN.com.

  5. Jay says:

    Another way to judge whether a player is overrated is to compare his pay with his performance.

    I wonder if the perception that Andruw is overrated will influence his value as a free agent? Will GMs over or underrate him? Any ideas about Andruw’s “worth” over the course of his next contract?

    As a Braves fan I do sorta hope this kind of thinking could keep Andruw in Atlanta.

  6. Kent says:

    Great post.

    Are rankings from Dewan’s +/- system available on-line anywhere? Thanks.

  7. Bill from Houston says:

    I’ve been pouring over my Bill James Handbook for 2007, looking at the John Dewan Fielding Bible Awards for 2006 and unless Andruw has changed his name to Carlos Beltran he didn’t get the 2006 award. That said, I still rank Andruw Jones among the very top Center Fielders both offensively and defensively, certainly among the top 3, and we in Houston hate to see him come to town (unless he’s playing for our side in the All-Star Game). Overrated? I think not!

    By the way, the 2004-2006 numbers quoted in the article don’t match up either, though no different conclusions would be reached. But then, I had to pay for my copy….

  8. JC says:

    The GGs were awarded in TFB not TBJH.

    Thanks, I shorted AJ by 2 plays.

  9. Ann Loflin says:

    Starks is an idiot. I am a fan of great defensive players, such as Omar Vizquel, whomever they play for. The difference between Andruw Jones and Vizquel is that Andruw has the greatest natural instinct of them all. Torii Hunter goes back as well as Andruw, but not forward. Andruw’s face is on the poster for defensive center-fielder par excellence. My gripe about Andruw Jones is that he is an underachiever–always has been. He could be a great base-stealer if he cared as much as Otis Nixon. Maybe what gets to Stark is that Andruw makes it look so easy; ergo, Andruw gets credit for easy catches. The fact is Andruw is baseball’s Bill Russell. He knows where the ball is going and gets his catches when the ball leaves the bat. Those first steps of Andruw aren’t captured by TV cameras. What a shame.

  10. Josh says:

    As a Braves fan I’ve always found it curious as to why Andruw hit so few doubles – with his power and speed it would seem natural for him to be among the league leaders in this category. Yet of the 18 “active” players with 350+ HRs (on baseballreference.com), Andruw is dead last in doubles. I would tend to blame lack of effort here, but I don’t know. How did Marcus Giles hit so many more doubles than Andruw? Andruw’s homerun totals don’t seem high enough to indicate that he was hitting the ball “too hard” to get doubles.

  11. Gordon says:

    I don’t necessarily disagree that Andruw is still a good CF. But it does appear that he’s making about 50 fewer POs a year now than in his 2000-2001 prime: about 2.5 per 9 now, vs. 2.8 then. Moreover, he’s made significantly fewer POs per inning than his backups the past 2 seasons, where park and pitchers are presumably the same. PO/9 Inn:
    2005
    AJ 2.40
    Others 3.27
    2006
    AJ 2.58
    Other 3.19
    (Of course, “others” is mostly Langerhans, who’s quite good.)

    JC, do you have a theory about this loss of .3 POs per game? It doesn’t seem to be pitchers giving up fewer FBs, as Braves LFs and RFs are making MORE plays now than in 2000-2001. Has Andruw lost a step or two?

  12. Brian J. says:

    Of the players ahead of Andruw in HR, Bonds, Sosa, Griffey, ARod, Thome, Gonzalez and Piazza all have lower 2B-to-HR ratios than Andruw’s .903. The reason Andruw has the lowest number of 2B on that list is that he has the fewest AB (and HR). Also note that among the players on that list, ARod (31) and Andruw (30) are the only players under 35.

    Andruw’s baserunning speed is long gone- he stole double digits for the last time in 2001; his catches are more the product of good positioning and an outstanding break. There’s also his current swing with its awkward landing, which limits his baserunning.

  13. Brent says:

    Has anyone else noticed the “underrated” list? It’s basically Placido Polanco, Kevin Youkilis, and then the 8 biggest small-market stars in the game. Stark’s inability to understand the intelligence of his audience speaks volumes about his writing ability, in my opinion. There are glaring inconsistencies (he uses money as a factor in the overrated, but not the underrated list), yawn-inspiring declarations (apparently Hanley Ramirez, Jake Peavy, and Travis Hafner are among baseball’s most underrated players – if you live in Jayson Stark’s cave), and logical issues – he’s crediting Craig Biggio for taking atbats away from Chris Burke, a better player, just so he can reach 3000 hits. All in all, one of the worst written series I’ve ever seen on ESPN, and it’s not like the Worldwide Leader has been such a shining example of journalism in recent years.

  14. Frank says:

    JC,,

    I wonder if Andruw’s declining putouts is related to the decline in the Braves pitching. I’m not referring to a change in the share of outs attributable to ground outs, fly outs, or K’s. Instead, I’m wondering if the departure of pitchers with good control (Glavine, Maddux) has made it more difficult to position Jones and resulted in his catching fewer flies. If having Jones shade a RH batter to rightfield is dependent on having a pitcher who can hit the outside corner, then pitchers with poorer control might made such positioning less useful.

    Consistent with this hypothesis is the team’s BB/IP ratio going from 499/1447 in 2001 to 572/1441 in 2006.

    Just a thought–not sure it’ll hold up.

  15. Brent says:

    Frank – I think your point is quite valid. Andruw has said he starts moving based on where the pitch is located. With Glavine & Maddux, he usually could rely on the location of the pitch as it left their hands. Now, with control on the decline in Atlanta, it makes perfect sense, in my opinion, for Andruw’s instincts to be suppressed as a result.

  16. mraver says:

    Nice read, JC. I think it’s fair to say that, while he’s no longer having season among the top 30 for a CF ever, AJ is still an upper-teir defender. I appreciate the commentary on ZR, as I did not realize its flaws ran so deep. (

    My basic take on Andruw is that, while he wasn’t quite the Ozzie Smith of the outfield, he’s at least the Omar Vizquel.

  17. Michael Procton says:

    It strikes me, personally, that the corner OFs in the last few years are much better than in Andruw’s days of leading the known world in POs. In ’00 and ’01, his corner OFs were BJ Surhoff, Reggie Sanders, and Brian Jordan. The youngest of these guys was actually Sanders in ’00 at 32, and none of them had ever really been regarded as great defensive OFs. In the last few years, they’ve had plenty of young guys with good range. Since ’04, we’ve had a lot of plus defenders in the corner OF spots: Langerhans, JD Drew, Charles Thomas, and Francouer, who IMO is one of the best defensive RFs in the game and will eventually get a couple GGs before things are done. Andruw still makes ridiculous catches that nobody else can (see, for example, 6/9 against CHC), but his area of the field is a lot closer to the 1/3 that’s his theoretical share these days.

  18. Andre' Powell says:

    I’m a 59 year-old ex-New Yorker who’s lived in the ATL since late 1971. I saw Mickey, Willie and the Duke in their primes and Andruw Jones is the best defensive CF I’ve watched on a regular basis. I’ve seen some better individual catches by Willie, Paul Blair, Otis Nixon, Gary Matthews Jr, Kid Griffey and even Endy Chavez; I’ve seen some great throws from the outfield by any number of players including the great Roberto Clemente and by Bo Jackson. As a body of work, especially in support on one of the best starting rotations in modern baseball history, Andruw’s centerfield play cannot be discounted. Baseball is a team sport played by individuals AND an individual sport played by teams. Andruw did his job defensively. They don’t just give away 9 Gold Gloves.

  19. Steve says:

    Stark is insane, all I have to say is that players go up and down in “stats”. And Andruw is ONLY most likely halfway done with his career. HMMM on pace for easily 550-650 homers. And he plays centerfield still. I think stark needs to tune into TBS for a braves game, where he can watch Andruw either hit a homer, make a diving catch, good route, jump on a ball (watch replays carefully) or various others. There the truth will be told.

  20. David says:

    I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the term “overrated” and Andruw Jones in the same sentence until Stark wrote his book. A.J. is simply the a good baseball player all around.

    10 errors are the most he has ever allowed in a single season, and since 2002, has allowed less than 4 a season (News Flash: Turner Field = LARGE outfield).

    On the Offense side, granted he may be a little homerun hungry, but has still driven in more than 90 every season since 2000. Not to mention that 2005, 2006 he was just shy of 130. And even in the midst of a down year, he is still on pace to break 100.

    And then theres a factor that can’t be placed in a statistics book: Awareness. The awareness of every batter who faces the Atlanta Braves, that center field is not a good place to hit a ball… ever. But just to add a stat, his FPCT has been in the .990′s 8 out of his 10 years past.

    Stats from Yahoo

  21. Derek says:

    I just took a look at Andruw’s fielding statistics and one of the main reasons it seems that his Put-outs are lower than a few years back is that he’s had much less “total chances”. Now you can blame him for having less total chances because he can’t make the ball come to himself. The reason he’s put-outs are down is because he hasn’t had the same amount of chances to make those plays as he has had in years before. And he’s still reeling in 99% of those chances with great regularity if not more frequently compared to his “slimmer” days. Just proves Stark doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.