I never really understood displacing Chipper Jones from his established spot as the Braves third baseman for Vinny freaking Castilla. Away from Coors Field, Castilla was a merely adequate major league baseball player. His first year with Atlanta, 2002, was abysmal and his second season he was, again, adequate. He certainly wasn’t the type of guy who forces you to move one of your superstars to a new position. Yet, for the second season in a row, Chipper Jones found himself as the Braves starting left fielder.
The Castilla acquisition wasn’t the first time the Braves asked Chipper Jones to move to a new position. As he came up through the Braves minor league system, Chipper was look at as the Braves shortstop for the future. He had the pop in his bat of a Cal Ripken, but he could fly on the base paths. When Chipper looked ready to make the jump to the majors to start the 1994 season though, the Braves had Jeff Blauser and Rafael Belliard at short and Terry Pendleton at third. They did, however, have an opening in left field, and that’s where Chipper set about making his first big league roster out of spring training.
Of course, we all know the story. Trying to beat out a ground ball, Chipper tore his ACL and his rookie year was delayed. When he arrived at spring training in 1995, it was as the Braves presumptive starter at third to replace the aging and departing Pendleton. During Chipper’s second year, the Braves were looking for an offensive boost to replace the injured David Justice and Jeff Blauser, and traded Roosevelt Brown to the Marlins for T.P. and now Chipper found himself at the position we all thought he’s play at, shortstop. The experiment was ultimately a disaster. Pendleton was finished and the Braves were probably worse off with him in the everyday lineup. (It’s one of those baseball ironies: without the success that Pendleton helped usher in, the Braves would not have been in a position to win the 1995 World Series, but with him, there’s no way they win that year and he hurt them in 1996.)
In 1997, Pendleton was gone and Chipper was back where he belonged, at third base. When Castilla departed Atlanta for Colorado after the 2003 season, Chipper remained in left field as the Braves experimented with the idea of Mark Derosa as the everyday third baseman. That didn’t work out, and once again, Chipper was back at "his" position. We’ve all seen how Chipper’s numbers compare to the great third basemen of the past. You can make a convincing argument that, behind the great Mike Schmidt, he’s the second best offensive third baseman of all-time.
Yes, I felt I had to clarify his rank among third baseman. It’s the one part of Chipper’s game that none of us like to talk about. It’s his defense. There’s a certain segment of Braves fans that believe Chipper Jones is one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. That group includes many of the Braves announcers. The truth is far more complicated. I think the most accurate thing we can say about Chipper’s defense is that it has been slightly below average. There’s a reason that Chipper Jones was the player the Braves asked to move to left field.
Of all the "new" stats, none are as controversial as UZR. UZR is, essentially, an attempt to measure a player’s defensive contribution in runs allowed or runs saved. A UZR of zero indicates that a player is about league average at his position, while a positive number is how many runs he’s saved over league average, while the inverse is true for negative values. Taking this stat in isolation suggests that Chipper has been wildly inconsistent in the field. UZR suggests he was awful in 2006 (–15.4 UZR), 2009 (–9.0 UZR) and 2011 (–12.4 UZR), but played fine defense in 2004 (2.9 UZR), 2005 (3.7 UZR), and 2008 (3.5 UZR). One season does not tell the entire story. The numbers have to be looked at year to year, and year to year, they tell us that Chipper has been slightly below average.
I’m curious as to how other Braves fans view Chipper in the field at third base. To my eye, he’s makes the play coming in as well as anyone in major league baseball. On the other hand, he’s never seemed like he has great instincts at third and his range is limited. I’ve always thought he play’s olé with hard hit balls a bit too much.
I’m not looking to bag on Chipper’s defense. Most baseball players have holes in their game, and there are good to great everyday players at every position in the game who are below league average at defense. There’s certainly a difference in being below league average and being awful. So, I think it’s undeniable that the Braves would have been better off if Chipper has never played shortstop late in the 1996 season and left field for the 2002 and 2003 seasons.
It would be easy to look at Chipper Jones 2004 season and see it as a season of great player beginning his inevitable decline. If you know anything about Chipper, you know that seeing that .248 batting average on the back of his baseball card has to eat him alive. Still, in the season in which he posted his worse batting average as a big leaguer, he managed to post an .847 OPS. His value was measured as 3.5 by fWAR. In other words, he was still pretty darned good. In 2005, he rebounded and managed to post an outstanding fWAR of 5.1 despite missing over 50 games.
Like most players who age and fight injuries, Chipper had to fight inconsistency. He fought that battle pretty well. Even when scuffling, Chipper was better with the bat than most. Still, what none of us could have predicted after the 2005 season, was that Chipper’s peak was still in front of him.
Cards Pictured in this Post
- 2003 Donruss Diamond Kings Studio Series #DK15 ($2)
- 2004 Upper Deck Power Up #30 ($1)
- 2005 Upper Deck All Star Classic #8 ($1)
- 2003 Topps Finest Relic ($5)
- 2003 Topps Heritage Clubhouse Collection Relic ($8)
- 2003 Donruss Team Heroes #36 ($2)
- 2003 Leaf Game Used Home Patch ($12)
- 2003 Upper Deck Superior Sluggers #2 ($2)
- 2004 Playoff Honors Piece of the Game Relic #PG7 ($15)
- 2004 Leaf Certified Fabric of the Game Auto Relic ($350)
- 2004 Topps Total #25 ($1)
- 2004 Topps Chrome Black #390 ($4)
- 2004 Upper Deck R-Class #71 ($2)
- 2005 Upper Deck Reflections Relic ($12)
- 2005 Upper Deck #308 ($1)
- 2005 Fleer National Pastime #27 ($1)
- 2005 Bowman Chrome #113 ($1)
- 2005 eTopps ($10)