• Exclusives

    Hoss not ready for pasture just yet

    By Jonathan Michael Knott

    As you have no doubt heard by now, veteran third baseman Chipper Jones recently ended speculation that he might retire after this season by announcing his intention to play one more year at the “hot corner” for the Braves.

    While I was pleasantly surprised by the news–I honestly thought he would hang it up after this season–I was even more surprised by the mixed reaction within Braves nation.  Many fans, like me, are delighted to know that we’ll see old “Hoss” in the lineup for at least one more year.  There were other Braves fans, however, who weren’t nearly as pleased by the news.

    The naysayers feel he’s too often injured and too many miles past his prime to be worth the kind of cash he pulls down. They argue that the 13 mil due Chipper next year is simply too much cheddar, given his current production, and that money could be better spent on younger talent if he would step aside.  Some go as far as to say he OWES it to the team to step aside and let someone else play.  But would the Braves really be better off without him?

    We all know what he has meant to this team through the years. Have a look at this Hall of Fame resume, starting with his career numbers: .305/.403/.533/.937, 2,589 hits, 519 doubles, 449 homers and 1,549 RBI. And those stats would look even more impressive if not for a catastrophic knee injury, which sidelined him for a year and half in the prime of his career.  Among switch hitters, he is second all-time in RBI’s and third in homeruns. Only two switch hitters, Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray, have accomplished more on a baseball diamond than Chipper Jones, and they’ve both been enshrined in Cooperstown.

    Jones' 1,549 RBI are 2nd-most all time among switch hitters

    His trophy case is well stocked. He was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1999, and a strong case could be made that he deserved to have at least one more MVP trophy on his mantle than he was ever awarded.  He’s earned 2 Silver Slugger awards, a batting title, and he’s been named to 6 NL all-star teams.  And then there was the crime of the century in ’95, when Chipper was robbed of Rookie of the Year honors. The ROY award that year went to an experienced professional Japanese pitcher, Hideo Nomo (to call Nomo a “rookie” is akin to calling Kobe Bryant an “amateur athlete” when he suits up for the U.S. Olympic basketball team).

    But yes, I know… none of that matters NOW, right?  In this era of the stat-driven fantasy baseball fan, the question is almost always “what has he done for us lately?”

    Glad you asked. For the month of August, he’s hitting .386 with a 1.059 OPS in 57 at-bats. Obviously, the old man is still quite capable of going on a tear.

    I will concede that his year-to-date stats,.281/.352/.472/.823 with 13 HR and 58 RBI in 97 games, while solid, fall well short of his career averages.   But a closer look at the numbers paints a clearer picture of his value to this ballclub.  He’s batting .221 with the bases empty. Not pretty. And that, in and of itself, may support the contention that he ought to retire.  HOWEVER, add a baserunner to the equation and we get a different hitter. Chipper’s currently hitting .365 with runners on base, .397 with runners in scoring position, .370 with RISP and 2 outs, and .500 with the bases loaded.

    By Chipper’s own admission he’s not quite the player he used to be, but he still possesses the same 20-15 vision for which the legendary Ted Williams was known, and there is nothing wrong with his bat speed.

    He can still play the field too. He’s no DH, folks.  While he’s lost a little range from side to side, he compensates with great instincts, and he still makes the charging-barehanded-pickup play as well as anyone in the game.

    At 13 mill, is he overpriced? Maybe. Maybe not.  But how many other hitters at that salary level would you rather have with a bat in his hands with the game on the line?  Anyone?  Take Yankees Shortstop Derek Jeter, for instance.  Jeter, who will earn several million more than Jones next year, is nowhere near the clutch performer at age 37 that Chipper is at age 39.  Jeter’s teammate, Mark Texieria, earns nearly twice as much as Chipper, and while his overall numbers are better… with the game on the line, I’d still rather have #10 in the box.

    And let us not forget the intangibles.  Chipper is the leader of this team, the face of this franchise and the unofficial assistant hitting coach.  Chipper is the elder statesman and a valuable mentor to younger players, who is skilled at offering up both encouragement and tough love, each in just the right dose.  On a team with 10 players who are 25 years of age or younger, what do you suppose that’s worth? 

    And to those who suggest it’s somehow greedy for Chipper not to retire at season’s end… “greedy”?  Really? Are we talking about the same “greedy” player who voluntarily restructured his contract to take less money so the team could add more talent? The same “greedy” all-star third baseman who once offered to relocate to left field (an offer the team accepted), so the Braves could add the bat of fellow heavy-hitting third baseman Vinny Castilla to the lineup?

    Chipper has bloody well earned the right to play out the remainder of his contract. Braves fans should appreciate that. We owe him our love, respect and support.  To suggest that he’s playing solely for a paycheck would be inconsistent with everything we’ve learned about him over the past 17 years.  He’s not returning for one more season merely because he has the contractual right to do so. He’s playing because he feels he can still help this Atlanta Braves ballclub. And he’s right.

    But if you’re still anxious to see Chipper clear the way for a younger replacement, don’t worry; you’ll get your wish soon enough.  For now, though, do yourself a favor and drive down to “The Ted” to watch this man play while you still can.  Bring your kids, and make sure they understand they’re watching one of the greatest third basemen and one of the greatest switch hitters to ever play the game.

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