Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #9: Chipper Jones

Larry Jones Jr.'s father was a baseball coach, and when the boy took to baseball at a young age, his family saw it as a sign that he was a "chip off the old block," which is why they began to call him Chipper. Two players still to come in this countdown are the sons of former Major League players, and a number of others on the list had a father or other close family member who played college or semi-pro ball. I wonder how much more likely a child is to become a great player if they grow up with someone who was a great player. And whatever the difference is, how much of it is the actual genes, how much of it is having someone in your life who can teach you the skills, how much of it is the connections that family member may have, and how much of it is having someone who's trying to bend your life in that particular direction?

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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My dad took me to games, and played catch with me, and brought me to the batting cages every once in a while. He was happy to have me playing baseball, but I think he'd have been just as happy to have me playing soccer, or learning the piano, or to paint, or ay number of other things. He just didn't want me doing nothing. Our neighbor and the father of two of my friends, Mr. Coughlin gave me a few pointers along the way, but mostly I remember getting basketball advice from him ("You're dribbling the ball at your waist; you need to keep it lower."), which may explain why one of his sons is now the basketball coach at our high school. Mostly my baseball ability came from whatever my coaches were able to pass along, and from whatever knack for the game I may have had. I managed to make my hometown's travel team, and I sometimes wonder if it had been a bigger priority to me, if I'd had a little more of a push from the right people, if I might have been able to play college ball at a small school or something.

I also think of this in the context of knowing that in the next month or so, I'm going to become a dad. (To my wife, who may or may not be reading this: Don't worry, I don't plan to harass our children into becoming professional baseball players.) Even without children of my own, I've spent time over the years considering the parent who pushes too hard, but I've also begun to worry about pushing my children too little, not necessarily in terms of playing baseball (or any sport), but in terms of doing something and sticking with it. I have a sense that it shouldn't feel like I'm pushing them at all, and I wonder about how one finds that sweet spot.

Jones was drafted with the first overall pick in 1990**, and made his MLB debut late in 1993, but missed all of the 1994 season after tearing his ACL during spring training. He came back in 1995 and led all National League rookies with 23 home runs, 87 runs scored, and 86 RBI. He finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting behind Hideo Nomo, who was considered a rookie, but had played professionally in Japan for five years. The Braves won the World Series that October, with Jones batting .364 in the postseason, including two home runs in his very first postseason game. The following year he made the All-Star team for the first of eight times in his career.

**The Braves wanted to select Todd Van Poppel, but he'd said he wouldn't sign with them, so they took Jones instead. Van Poppel posted an ugly 5.58 ERA in 907 innings spread over 14 years. Sometimes it's nice to have someone save us from our own bad judgement.

Jones had a number of excellent seasons, and there isn't one stands clearly above the rest, but his best year was probably 1999, when he became the first third baseman in Major League history with 40+ doubles and 40+ home runs in the same season, posted a .319/.441/.633 batting line, and won the NL MVP. That was the only season he ever finished higher than 9th in the league in home runs, but he finished his career with 1,055 extra-base hits, which is the most by any infielder in National League history. His 1,619 career runs scored are the most by any third baseman (meaning players who played more than half their career games at third base) in MLB history, as are his 1,623 RBI (though Adrian Beltre could pass him in RBI in 2017) and his .930 OPS.

Jones was great when he was young, he was great in the middle years of his career, and he was great when he was old. He won his only batting title in 2008, batting .364 at the age of 36. Since 1957, when Ted Williams and Stan Musial each did it, Jones, Barry Bonds, and Tony Gwynn are the only players to bat .350 or better at the age of 36 or older. Jones had a fantastic on-base percentage of .470 that same season; the only other players his age or older in MLB history with an OBP so high were Bonds, Williams, Babe Ruth, and Tris Speaker.

Jones reached the postseason with the Braves 12 times, but they didn't win another World Series after his first trip in 1995. His 94 career postseason games are the most for any National League player, and his name is scattered liberally throughout the postseason leaderboards. Among 223 players with 100+ plate appearances in the postseason, Jones' .411 on-base percentage ranks 9th, and none of the 8 players ahead of him had as many plate appearances as he did.

Along with his general excellence and his postseason success, something that jumps out about Jones is that he did it all while playing for just one franchise, a rare thing anymore. Only five players on this countdown were with the same team their entire career, and Jones ranks the highest of those five. (Apologies to Cal Ripken, whose entire career would rate slightly ahead of Jones', but whose first few seasons came before I was paying any attention to baseball.)

Push a child too hard, and you run the risk of burning them out, turning them against whatever it is you're pushing them towards, maybe turning them against you. Don't push a child hard enough, and you run the risk of them missing out on the opportunities and joys that can come from reaching one's potential, not only (or most importantly) in sports, but in any area. As a teacher I've seen students falling on both sides of that fine line. I'll soon begin to try and figure it out as a father. Larry Jones, Sr. found that sweet spot, and any parent ought be delighted to raise a child who finds even a fraction of the success in their chosen field that Chipper Jones found in his.

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