MIAMI – He’s on pace to play 99 of the Braves’ 162 games, or about 25 fewer than Chipper Jones had in mind when he reported to spring training. But other than being out more than he planned for chronic knee problems and surgical procedures that twice put him on the disabled list, the third baseman has flourished in his final season, surpassing the expectations of most observers.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “I thought he was going to have a productive year, if we could keep him on the field and keep him kind of fresh. And so far we’ve been able to do that, because he’s been pretty honest with us about how his body feels.”
Oh, come on. Having a productive year is one thing. Being the team leader in batting average (.313), on-base percentage (.386) and slugging percentage (.495) is quite another.
Did we mention Jones is 40?
And while he’s delivered key hits on creaky knees, Jones has also fully embraced the elder statesman role that shifted ever increasingly to him when others from Atlanta’s division-title run either retired or went away. Now he’s the man. Teammates call him “Battle Axe” and wear T-shirts with that nickname on the front and Jones’ career achievements on the back.
He’s an unofficial third hitting coach with Greg Walker and his assistant Scott Fletcher, in their first year with the Braves.
“He’s part of me and Fletch’s team,” said Walker, who was hired as Braves hitting coach after 8-1/2 seasons in that role with the Chicago White Sox. “We bounce ideas off him. We encourage him to get involved if he sees something. But he also has to take care of himself because he’s still a big part of this offense.”
• Fact: When leading off innings Jones is 22-for-50 (.440) with two homers and a .500 OBP that’s tied with Matt Kemp for third-best in the majors.
The tone for Jones’ relationship with Walker and Fletcher was set in January, when they worked with Jason Heyward in hitting sessions at Turner Field. Where some first-year coaches might have felt threatened by Jones’ presence and clout in the clubhouse, Walker and Fletcher sought his advice and tapped his knowledge.
“I have a rapport with the guys who were here already, and I think we’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t relay to Fletch and Walk what we’ve worked on,” Jones said. “Because the last thing I want to do is contradict something they’re saying, and I’m sure vice-versa. Just as long as we’re on the same page and communication is open and we’re all kind of throwing our two cents in, it’s worked out great.
“I’ve always thought that the more eyes you can have a on a guy who’s struggling, the more apt you are to figure it out, talking amongst yourselves, throwing things around, seeing if it sticks. It’s been great so far….
“The good thing is that they’re open to it. They’re not closed-minded guys that say everybody has to hit their way. It started with bringing Jason in and showing him the mechanics that he was doing correctly when he first got to the big leagues, and how he got away from it. Now he’s gotten back to those mechanics and he’s having himself a good year….
“We’ve had some [previous coaches] who’ve been a little insecure and feel like you might be stepping on their toes somewhat. But as one of the leaders on this club, it’s my job to talk the game. It’s my job to offer advice when I see the need. And that’s not going to change.”
• Fact: Jones has 25 walks and 25 strikeouts in 214 at-bats, the only Brave with as many walks as strikeouts this season. If he keeps it up, it would be his 12th season with at least as many walks as strikeouts.
Walker said he doesn’t do much coaching when it comes to Jones. If the switch-hitter seeks feedback, they’re there.
“We just ask him what he needs,” Walker said. “He asks some questions, very seldom though. He and Fletch talk when he’s not playing and he’s getting ready for a pinch-hit [appearance]…. He’s a really, really intelligent hitter, and that’s an understatement. I think everybody in baseball knows that. He knows his swing. There’s just nothing to do. It’s like when I went to [Chicago], Frank Thomas was a veteran that already knew his game, and there was nothing to do.”
If Jones is talking to Walker and Fletcher about a hitter, it’s almost always about someone other than himself.
“I’ve always used veteran players, guys that know their game and just go about their business,” he said. “I’ve always encouraged them for their input, to help younger players. Chipper’s done a really good job of it. He’s had some helpful things to say during games, before games, he’s been very helpful with me and Fletch getting comfortable.”
• Fact: Jones has hit .318 with an .874 OPS against left-handers this season, and .310 with an .886 OPS against right-handers. He’s hit in seven spots in the order and had more than 10 at-bats in each spot from second through sixth. Batting sixth, he’s 30-for-93 (.323) with four homers. Batting cleanup, he’s 24-for-68 (.353) with 10 RBIs and an .890 OPS.
Jones recently broke the career RBI record for players whose primary position was third base. The record belonged to George Brett, who played his final season at age 40 and hit .266 with a .746 OPS. Brett finished with one more RBI than legendary third baseman Mike Schmidt, who played his final season at age 39 and hit .203 with a .668 OPS.
Ironman Cal Ripken Jr., who switched from shortstop to third late in his career, played his final season at age 40 and hit .239 with a .637 OPS.
To repeat, Jones is hitting .313 with a .881 OPS.
If he maintains anything close to that pace he will finish with an average over .275 for the first time since winning the National League batting title with a career-best .364 in 2006. He has a team-best .881 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He will likely finish with his first OPS above .818 since posting three consecutive plus-1.000 marks from 2006 through 2008.
• Fact: Creaky legs and knees have contributed to his .216 average and .758 OPS in 13 day games. In night games he’s hit .333 — 22 points better than any other Brave — with seven homers, 34 RBIs (tied for second on the team) and a .907 OPS in 47 games. His .508 slugging percentage in night games is 42 points above the team’s next-best, Heyward’s .466.
Jones says he could see himself becoming a hitting coach someday. Walker said he would make a good one.
“No doubt,” Walker said. “I think he’d be a good manager or coach, whichever one he decided to do. No doubt.”
He paused and smiled before adding, “I don’t know that I like him so much that I’d encourage him to be a hitting coach.”
Jones reiterated Wednesday that hitting coach could be in his future.
“I don’t want to manage,” he said. “Hitting is my craft, and I take it very seriously. I enjoy it. It’s just one part of the game that I think about constantly. Even when guys are struggling, I’m looking to see what nugget of information I can give them that might help them out. I wouldn’t necessarily teach my philosophy, but I know what makes people successful at the plate, because I’ve watched and I’ve learned. I know what makes their swing tick, and that’s something that hitting coaches are really good at. I think I’d be a lot better hitting coach than I would a manager.”