Before Braves management hastily muzzled Chipper Jones yesterday afternoon, the third baseman and Hooters aficionado strongly suggested that he would be retiring at the end of this season. Chipper has long said that he would hang up the cleats once he felt he was unable to significantly contribute at the Major League level.
After looking at his splits from the last season and a half, Chipper’s retirement should come as no surprise then – his numbers have deviated significantly from their long-term averages and his injuries have drastically hampered his on-field performance. Understandably, perhaps the game just isn’t fun for Chipper anymore. And, as Umpbumper Nick declared in an email thread last night, respect should be given for wanting to go out on top, even if it means walking away from guaranteed money.
Well, as a Braves fan and Chipper enthusiast, I’m not ready to mail it in on the swashbucklin’ 3B yet. Actually, I think there’s one simple move that Bobby Cox could make in order to boost Chipper’s self-worth and capitalize on his redefined skill set: move Jones, a career .406 OBPer, to the 2-hole in the Braves lineup.
It’s no secret that Chipper’s power numbers aren’t what they used to be. A plethora of injuries to both of his feet appear to have limited his ability to dig in at the plate and generate the core power necessary to consistently drive the ball out of the park. His HRs per year have declined over the past four seasons (29, 22, 18, 11(proj) ) and Chipper has surpassed the 100 RBI mark only once since the Braves lost their last true leadoff hitter (Furcal) after the 2005 season. These aren’t promising observations for a guy who has been entrenched in the 3-slot for over a decade. Still, to this day, Chipper will claim that he’s always good for a quality at-bat, and I happen to agree. Defining a “quality” at-bat is overly subjective and difficult to statistically quantify, but consider the following:
1. For his career, Chipper averages 3.77 pitches seen per at-bat, which Umpbumper Paul roughly assesses would put him in the top 35-40% of MLB players. Good, not great.
2. Chipper’s Pitches Per At-bat statistic suggest that he’s selective, but not overly so:
i. Chipper sees the second fewest number of first pitches in the strike zone. Using the pitch f/x zone, the average is 42% and Chipper’s 32% is second only to Prince Fielder.
ii. Chipper enters the top ten swing rate on first pitches in the zone. In other words, when he sees a hittable pitch, he swings at it.
3. Chipper has a career on-base percentage of .406. This career percentage would rank him third in the NL this season behind only Albert Pujols (.425) and Josh Willingham (.422). For note, Chipper’s OBP in 2010 is a respectable .376.
4. Chipper is a switch-hitter who successfully hits to both fields and can routinely hit behind runners.
5. Chipper’s walk per strikeout rate is 1.43, first in the NL this year.
Taken collectively, these attributes perfectly define a successful #2 hitter (in my opinion). With a small tweak of offensive philosophy, it seems that Chipper’s significance within the Braves offense could be immediately bolstered by a move up in the lineup, perhaps adding some fun to what has otherwise been a difficult year-and-a-half for the future Hall of Famer. Chipper can still contribute to this Braves offense if he’s ready to relinquish his three-slot to Jason Heyward who, despite the peaks and valleys of his rookie season, has remained a seemingly proven run producer.
I’m not sure that Chipper is ready to embrace a redefined role within the Braves offense – if anything, he’s certainly earned a right of refusal if he doesn’t like the idea. But I’d prefer to keep one of this generation’s best third baseman around for one more season by giving him the opportunity to shine in a different capacity. At the very least, he’d still drive the Mets crazy.