Braves retire Andruw Jones’ No. 25, teammates say his next stop should be Cooperstown

ATLANTA — Terry Pendleton played with Andruw Jones for the first two months of Jones’ career in 1996, and was the Braves’ hitting coach for Jones’ final seven seasons with the team, including 2005 when the Gold Glove center fielder led the majors with a franchise-record 51 homers and led the National League with 128 RBIs.

So, Pendleton saw up close how great of a player was Jones, whose No. 25 was retired by the Braves in a pregame ceremony Saturday. He’s the 11th former Brave to have his number retired.

But for those who might not fully understand the magnitude, specifically of Jones’ defensive reputation among players — ones he played with and against, and others long retired before he came along — Pendleton shares a moment he’ll never forget, when Willie Mays, the center fielder many long considered the greatest to ever play the position, approached Jones to tell him something privately.

“I was standing by the batting cage in San Francisco, when I heard Willie Mays tell Andruw Jones that he’s the best he’d ever seen,” said Pendleton, who was Atlanta’s hitting coach at the time. “So I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness, did I just hear what I just heard?’ Yes, I did hear what I just heard.

“If that don’t tell the story right there, just shut the door on it.”

Pendleton, a former NL MVP and member of the Braves’ Hall of Fame, believes that praise from Mays should be more than enough, on top of Jones’ 10 consecutive Gold Gloves with the Braves and 434 home runs hit during a 17-year MLB career, to secure a spot for Jones in Cooperstown at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

So does Chipper Jones, a first-ballot Hall of Famer and teammate for all of Andruw Jones’ 12 seasons with the Braves through 2007.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Chipper Jones said of the Braves retiring No. 25. “I’m happy for him. I told him to get his speech ready, because the next one’s going to be up in Cooperstown. I still feel like we’re going to get him in up there as well. But yeah, (the retired number) will be a nice little addition to the facade (at Truist Park).”

Andruw Jones’ No. 25 joins the retired numbers of Dale Murphy (No. 3), Chipper Jones (10), Warren Spahn (21), John Smoltz (29), Greg Maddux (31), Phil Niekro (35), Eddie Mathews (41), Hank Aaron (44), Tom Glavine (47) — and Bobby Cox (6), the legendary former manager whom Jones made a special point to thank in his speech Saturday.

Cox, a Hall of Famer who retired after the 2010 season, continued as an advisor with the Braves before suffering a major stroke in April 2019.

“I played 12 seasons in Atlanta, and I only had one manager, Bobby Cox,” said Jones, the first player from Curaçao to have his number retired by an MLB team. “Bobby pushed me to be the best I could be. Without him, I would not be here tonight.”

Advanced defensive analytics from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference back the assertion by Mays and many Hall of Famers, including Braves pitching greats Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux, that Jones was the best defensive center fielder they ever saw.

Jones finished with about 50 more DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) than Mays and 30 more than the iconic, cannon-armed right fielder Roberto Clemente. Mays and Clemente, with 12 Gold Gloves apiece, were the only outfielders with more than Jones’ 10.

Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Schmidt were the only players other than Jones to finish with at least 10 Gold Gloves and 400 home runs.

“I still watch his highlights, everything he’s done in the outfield and at the plate as well,” said current Braves center fielder Michael Harris II, an Atlanta-area native who was 4 when Jones was the NL MVP runner-up in 2005. “I know what he’s done and what he did at a young age, so I guess I kind of relate in a way. I wouldn’t say I necessarily modeled myself after him, but some pieces of my game relate to his in a way.”

When I mentioned that Jones won 10 straight Gold Gloves and hit over 400 homers, Harris smiled and said, “Yeah, it’s not a bad model.”

Harris was 21 when he debuted last season and won NL Rookie of the Year. That’s two years older than Andruw Jones when he hit two home runs in his first World Series game in 1996. He was the youngest to hit a homer in the Fall Classic, 1 1/2 years younger than Mickey Mantle when Mantle set the previous record.

So, what has kept Jones from receiving baseball’s highest honor, election to the Hall of Fame? Some voters cite his modest career .254 batting average, .337 OBP and 111 OPS+, which is a mere 11 percent better than the league average. Others cite the extreme drop in Jones’ performance after his age-30 season, his final season with the Braves.

He hit .210 with 66 home runs and a .740 OPS and 95 OPS+ in his final five seasons with four different teams after leaving the Braves.

But a number of factors have caused many voters to reassess Jones’ career and reconsider his Hall of Fame resume. The increased use of advanced defensive analytics has brought more attention and perspective to Jones’ fielding excellence. Several Hall of Fame candidates who had “clogged” the ballot for a decade got dropped after exhausting their 10-year eligibility windows for consideration on the writers’ ballot.

Also, as many of his contemporaries including former teammates have been elected, their testimonials to Jones’ elite defense have increased. After barely getting enough votes to stay on the ballot in his first two years of eligibility — 5 percent is required, and he got 7.3 and 7.5 percent in 2018 and 2019 — Jones has seen his voting percentage climb steadily to 19.4 in 2020, 33.9 in 2021, 41.4 in 2022 and 58.1 in this year’s election.

He has four years of eligibility remaining, and if his current uptick rate continues he should reach the 75 percent required for election in two or three years.

“Regardless, if he does go to the Veterans Committee, he’s going to be a shoo-in,” Chipper Jones said, referring to a committee comprised mostly of Hall of Famers, who consider worthy players who didn’t get elected by writers. It’s how Fred McGriff, another former Braves teammate of the Joneses and Atlanta’s Big Three pitchers, was voted into the Hall of Fame this year.

However, Andruw Jones’ vote percentage already is much higher than the 39.8 that McGriff received in his 10th and final year on the writers’ ballot, and momentum favors Jones getting in before his eligibility on the ballot runs out.

Some voting writers also appear to have considered that, while Jones’ performance slipped precipitously after age 30, it should be taken into account that he debuted at 19 instead of, say, 22 or 23. So if the 10-year window in which he averaged 34 homers, 103 RBIs and 158 games played per season had happened in his ages 24-33 seasons, instead of ages 21-30, that fall-off at 30 wouldn’t be cited nearly as frequently as it has been by some.

“To each his own as to whether it means more, coming from the writers or the people who were actually there,” Chipper Jones said of being elected to the Hall of Fame, “but bottom line is, he’s going to get there, and we (Braves) are going to have another (Hall of Famer). It’s gonna be great.”

Jones added, “I’d be shocked if — say there’s 60 living Hall of Famers — I’d be shocked if he didn’t get 90-95 plus (percent) from those guys. That’s the biggest feather he’s got in his cap. But this (retired number) is step No. 1. I think this will go a long way toward hopefully swaying enough people to get him in (the Hall of Fame).”

To repeat, Andruw Jones averaged 34 home runs and 103 RBIs from 1998, his second full season, through 2007, while hitting .266 and slugging .504 in that span. He won a Gold Glove in each of those 10 seasons including 2005, when Jones hit four more home runs than legendary Braves sluggers Aaron or Mathews ever did, and six more than Chipper Jones.

“Doesn’t get any better than that,” Chipper Jones said of that 10-year run by the teammate he affectionately calls “my brother from another mother.”

“The defensive metrics were off the charts,” Chipper Jones said. “That right there, that’s the big key. Let alone the fact that he hit 400-plus homers, had 1,300 RBIs (1,289) or whatever he had. Not only was he a premier defensive guy, but he hit in the middle of one of the best lineups in baseball for a long time. And people talk about, ‘Well maybe he didn’t have a 10-year shelf life — but he did. I mean, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.”

(Top photo of Andruw Jones at the Braves Alumni Home Run Derby on Aug. 19: Matthew Grimes Jr. / Atlanta Braves / Getty Images)

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