Friday, March 23, 2012

A tribute to Chipper Jones, the greatest #1 draft pick of all time

As you've no doubt heard by now, Larry Wayne Jones announced that he is retiring at the end of the 2012 season. Unless the voters are stupid (sigh), he'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. A fair argument can be made that he's one of the 50 greatest players of all-time, but this space isn't going to be used today to evaluate him relative to, say, George Brett or Wade Boggs. Instead, we are going to consider Chipper in the context of June, 1990, when the Atlanta Braves made him the first overall pick in the draft. No team has ever done better with the pick.

For all of the hype that comes with being the first overall pick, it's a mixed bag. Somewhat tragically, the same month that Jones announces his retirement comes news that the two worst #1 picks of all time, Brien Taylor and Matt Bush, were arrested on charges of purchasing a large amount of cocaine and a DUI hit-and-run, respectively.

Whenever a player is taken #1 overall, it's a career filled with hope and expectations. Some, like Alex Rodriguez and Bryce Harper are considered can't-miss phenoms. Others, like Joe Mauer and Bryan Bullington are roundly criticized as "signability" picks. In every case, though, the drafting team makes their pick hoping for a future MVP who will lead his team to a World Series championship, multiple playoff appearances, and eventually retiring to a certain Hall of Fame plaque with that team's logo on his hat. The drafting team is hoping for Chipper Jones.

In terms of production for the drafting team, I wasn't totally surprised that Chipper Jones shows up as the best. I was slightly surprised, however, when I read ESPN's Dave Schoenfield's piece and realized how great the margin was. Here are the top #1 draft picks all time, in terms of WAR (per

1. Chipper Jones, Braves, 1990: 82.7
2. Ken Griffey Jr, Mariners, 1987: 67.6
3. Joe Mauer, Twins. 2001: 40.3
4. Darryl Strawberry, Mets, 1980: 37.3
5. Alex Rodriguez, Mariners. 1993: 37.1

Only Ken Griffey, Jr. has been even HALF as valuable to his team as any other #1 draft pick as Jones was to the Braves. Additionally, of these five, only Jones amd Strawberry won World Series with their drafting teams. Jones, Mauer and Griffey all won MVP awards for their drafting team (and Rodriguez won three after leaving).

Of course, in terms of career value, Rodriguez is the greater player. Is that what a team is looking for in a #1 pick though? Let me ask that question a slightly different way, to elucidate my point. Did the Nationals draft Bryce Harper in hopes that he'll win the 2022 MVP with the Yankees? I'll wait patiently for your answer.


It's hard to answer that question without using a curse word, right? OF COURSE they don't just hope he's great, they hope he's great AND stays with the Nationals. There's not any way to argue that Rodriguez was as valuable to the Mariners as Jones has been to the Braves. 

Aside: Griffey's worth to the Mariners does deserve a special mention. Not due to his production, which, while impressive, doesn't measure up to Jones'. Instead, Griffey really did save baseball in Seattle. If Griffey, who was tremendously popular and marketable, didn't break out in the early 1990's for the Mariners, it's quite likely they would have moved. Jones was a greater player who led his team to greater things on the field. Griffey kept his team in existence. Would the less charismatic Jones have had the same effect on the Mariners? Who knows? I'm not going to attempt to quantify the value in that, but it does need to be mentioned. 

What's been remarkable about Jones is his consistency. While he's rarely been the very best player in his league (he DID lead in offensive WAR during his MVP season), he has NEVER had a Sub-2.0 WAR season. His worst OPS? .803, as a rookie in 1995. Even in his decline phase, his last three injury-plagued seasons, he's hit .268/.371/.444. That .371 OBP would've placed him 10th in the NL in 2011. So, while he's far from his thirteen-year (!) peak of .314/.411/.555, Jones' playing time recently has not been coming out of charity. The dude can still hit. 

Another remarkable thing - Jones wasn't a pick of the can't miss variety, like Griffey, Strawberry and Rodriguez. In Baseball America's top 100 for the 1991 season, he was the #44 prospect. The consensus top prospect in the 1990 draft was a pitcher named Todd Van Poppel. However, Van Poppel was supposedly committed to going to the University of Texas. Was he serious, or bluffing for a big pay day? We found out the answer to that question when the A's took him with the #14 pick overall and gave him a then-record $1.55M signing bonus. The question we'll never know is this - would the Braves have taken Jones anyway? It's possible that the always-cagey Bobby Cox (who was GM at the time) was perfectly happy to let Van Poppel slip away and take the less heralded player he truly wanted.

So congratulations to Chipper Jones on a fantastic (and still unfinished!) career, and to the Atlanta Braves, for making the greatest draft pick of all time.