My adoration with baseball could not have started at a more opportune time. I was born in the early 80’s in Atlanta and my interest in America’s past-time picked up right around the end of the decade. Folks in my family were always Braves fans. In fact, my brother was born just two weeks after Hank Aaron hit homerun number 715 back in ’74. My mom was so excited when he cranked it out of old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, she was worried she might go into labor.
Anyway, the Braves weren’t very good when I first became a fan, but I was so interested in learning the ins and outs of the game, I didn’t much care. About the time I started playing and getting pretty good at the game, the Braves started winning, and they didn’t stop. For fourteen years…
Seriously, stop and think about that. I was six or seven when the Braves started acquiring quality players like Glavine and Smoltz. I turned eight when Bobby took the reins in 1990. Then in ’91 everything changed. The Braves went to the playoffs every year after until 2005. When your team wins that much, it spoils you. You just come to expect it, and sort of tune out the meat of the season. You’d tune in when the playoffs rolled around then something would inevitably go wrong (see: Kent Hrbek vs. Ron Gant, 1991 World Series) and the Braves would somehow manage not to win the World Series. Anyway, my senses were dulled by the everyday wins and I missed out on much of the beauty of the greatest rotation to ever play the game. Even more so, I failed to notice that I got to watch one of the best switch hitters play everyday (well almost) from 1993 until now. I’m talking of course, about Chipper Jones.
Last season’s playoff run by the Braves really rekindled my interest in baseball. The Braves had a ton of come-from-behind wins, including several last-at-bat wins. They weren’t a powerhouse, but their excellent pitching kept them in games and somehow they’d manage to claw some runs out of the opposing teams’ relief pitchers. It was a tremendously entertaining brand of baseball to watch. They faded near the end of the season, and coasted into the playoffs on fumes, but they played the Giants closer than any other team in the post-season. Who knows what they could have done if Billy Wagner, Martin Prado, and Chipper Jones hadn’t gotten hurt during the stretch run.
I think the Braves missed Chipper the most. He spent most of the season batting pretty poorly, but he was really warming up during that July-August period before he blew his knee out. Since the 2010 All-Star break, he was batting right at .300, had hit 5 HRs and had 14 RBIs. That’s not a ton, but you’ve gotta have guys on base when you’re at bat to drive them in. He scored 17 times during this stretch, so the guys behind him were doing a decent job of getting him around the bases. If he could have kept healthy and kept swinging the bat the way he was towards the end, I think the Braves would have picked up the one or two more runs necessary to knock off the Giants in the division championships.
But I digress…
Every couple of years, I trot out the old baseball card binders and organize the loose cards I’ve acquired in the time between. I ran across the card you see below in one of the boxes and it got me to thinking just how good a batter this dude is. This is his #1 Draft Pick card from 1990. Check out that line from his Senior year. Not a huge power hitter, but those stats translate into an On Base Percentage (OBP) of roughly .674. That means that 67% of the time he got up to bat, he reached a base safely. That’s an insane stat, and that’s what Chipper has always done. He’s such a smart hitter. He’s patient, and is willing to take his walks, and he doesn’t strike out much. And if you leave it out over the plate, he’s got enough power to put it over the fence.
If you’re thinking, “Damn, he looks like a kid!” It’s because he was.
I have no idea who the last decent player was to play their entire career in one uniform, but I’m pretty sure Chipper will do it. He might have lost a step or two in the power department, but he can still get on base 40+% of the time. As a matter of fact, I think this will be the season that for sure puts Chipper in the Hall of Fame. If the .420 he’s hitting in spring training is any indication, it might just be a special season for the Braves and Hoss.
I think it’s completely reasonable to think he’ll bat around .300 and I’ve got him down for about 20 homeruns. I think the Braves new manager, Fredi Gonzalez, is going to have Nate McLouth batting first and Martin Prado second. Prado will be on base often enough to give Chipper some chances to drive in some runs, but I’ve still got my doubts about McLouth. I’d love to see Chipper in the 100 RBI range, but he’s never gotten much higher than that and in fact, he only drove in 75 in 2008 when he won the batting title. I’m going to err on the side of realism here and say Chipper will drive in 80-85. If he can get out there and play around 130 games, I don’t think these numbers are out of reach. And you never know, he might just take it upon himself to go win another batting title.
Come on March 31st! I’m ready to get this season started!