Righthanded Hitting, Righthanded Throwing Centerfielder
Seasons With Braves: 1996-2006
Stats With Braves: .267/.345/.505, 342 HR, 1023 RBI, 962 RS
Andruw was the second-easiest player to rate. I never seriously considered ranking him ahead of anyone in front of him, and I never seriously considered ranking him behind anyone behind him.
Andruw was signed in 1993, at the age of 16, though he isn’t listed as playing until the next season, when he started slow in the Gulf Coast League, then broke out in Danville. In 1995, he established himself as one of the two top prospects in the game (with Vlad Guerrero) with a breakout season in Macon, winning the Sally League MVP. In 1996, he started in Durham and beat the Carolina League to a pulp for 66 games. They put him in Greenville, and he did the same thing to the Southern League for 33. Then it was Richmond, where he hit .378.391/.822 in 12 games and basically forced his way onto the major league roster, even though there wasn’t really a spot for him. He wasn’t a dominant player in the majors, hitting only .217, but his power and defense made him valuable right away, and then he hit two homers in the World Series.
Andruw played mostly right field in 1997, even though he was obviously a better centerfielder than Kenny Lofton. He hit only .231/.329/.416 and there was a feeling he had been rushed, which is probably true, but how are you going to keep them on the farm? Anyway, he was still fifth in the Rookie of the Year balloting, and I wonder where he would have ranked if he’d played center full-time.
He started doing that in 1998; he also began what has been the rule for his career: frustrating offensive inconsistency during the season combined with astonishing season-to-season consistency, plus gold glove defense and almost never leaving the lineup. He won the Gold Glove that year, as in every year since. He hit .271/.321/.515 with 31 homers; while the OBP was on the low side, the batting average and slugging percentage were just about at his norms, and from 1998 to 2004 he hit between 26 and 36 homers every year.
The 26 was in 1999, his low for a full season, but he walked a bit more for a .275/.365/.483 line and played in every game and put up an astonishing range factor of 3.13 — in other words, he was averaging over three putouts a game. In 2000 he had a batting average spike (.303/.366/.541) which fooled people into thinking that he might be a .300 hitter from then on. He made his first All-Star team.
2001 was really his only bad season (.251/.312/.461) and his OPS+ was only 96, but he was still a valuable player with his defense, and it was mostly a fluke, though he did strike out a bit more. From 2002-2004 there’s really little variation; batting averages in the .260-.275 range, homers, some walks, defense.
In spring of 2005 (with help from Willie Mays) Andruw tinkered with his batting stance. It looked great in spring training, but he got off to a terrible start. He picked it up in May, then went nuts in June, hitting 13 homers. Just when it looked like he’d slacked off, he came back and hit 11 more in August. At the end of the season, he stood with a team record 51 homers and an Atlanta record 128 RBI. He finished second in the MVP voting, becoming the first National Leaguer to lead the league in homers and RBI and not win the MVP.
His 2006 wasn’t quite as impressive, but 41 homers is still awfully good, and he broke his own record with 129 RBI. As I write this, the NL Gold Gloves have not yet been announced, but it would be shocking if he didn’t win again. JC would probably like me to mention that Andruw has in both of the last two seasons seemed to be unlucky and probably “should” be hitting 20 or 30 points higher, in which case he’s even more impressive.
Andruw has 99 points on the Hall of Fame Monitor; 100 is supposed to mean likely selection, but the offensive standards have changed, and probably 125, or even 150, would be a better guide now. Despite the fact that he isn’t Willie Mays and yet was held to a Willie Mays standard for most of his career, I expect Andruw will eventually get into the Hall. Perennial Gold Glove centerfielders with 342 career homers at age 29 don’t grow on trees. My back-of-the-envelope projection is for 532 career homers, and that is probably too low; I’d be surprised if he doesn’t at least approach 600, and 700 is actually fairly likely. 3000 hits isn’t out of the question either, though he’d probably have to play until he’s 40 and would have one of the lowest career batting averages of any 3000-hit man. Helps to come up at 19.