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.