Keeping up with the Joneses
They used to be practically inseparable, Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, in the minds of fans and in the middle of the Braves' lineup. The Jones boys -- that's what a lot of people in Atlanta called them -- were All-Star cornerstones of the Braves franchise when they were winning a division title every year and everybody was happy.
Chipper arrived first, in 1995, as a tobacco-chewing, home-run smashing switch-hitter who instantly became a fan favorite. Andruw followed a year later, a teenager burdened with immense expectations, but blessed with a fantastic glove and a perfect smile.
Now, for the first time in eithers big league career, they've gone their separate ways. Andruw signed with the Dodgers last winter as a high-priced free agent, while Chipper remained behind with the Braves, probably for the rest of his career. And they've continued to move in different directions, too. Where Chipper is off to a sizzling start, one of his best in a career that looks each day as if it will end up in Cooperstown, Andruw -- younger, more spectacular defensively and, at least at one time, more powerful -- is tumbling the other way. Lost at the plate, probably several pounds overweight, booed already in his new home, there are serious doubts as to whether Andruw ever will be the player he once was.
Of his ex-teammate, Chipper says, "He has such unbelievable, God-given talent."
"He's a great hitter," says Andruw of his erstwhile teammate. "He's always been a great hitter."
Keeping up with the Joneses has never been so difficult.
When a hitter is this hot, you can see it way before bat meets ball. You can see it in the way the hitter steps to the plate, in the pitches he doesn't swing at, in the balls he fouls off. Chipper has had only two games this season, out of 21, where he hasn't had a hit and just one -- it was Tuesday night in Atlanta's 19th game of the season -- where he hasn't reached base.
In his 13-game stretch between those 0-fors, he hit .469 with a .509 on-base percentage and a 1.366 OPS. He had five home runs and 13 RBIs. He hit lefties and righties, hard throwers and soft ones. He hit to every conceivable part of the field. He was rarely fooled. His batting average climbed to a baseball-best .458 on April 20. Before Thursday's games, it was still the highest in the majors. By 24 points.
"It's just a situation where everything's clicking for me right now," says Jones, who's hitting .422 with six home runs, 19 RBI, a .462 OBP and a 1.149 OPS. "My timing is good, I'm seeing the ball. And in the back of my mind, I'm mentally prepared for every pitch. I walk up there thinking I can cover every pitch that he's got. And if I don't think I can hit a certain pitch, then I'll eliminate it and look to put in play something else."
By eliminating pitches, Chipper doesn't mean simply fouling them off. He is so confident right now that he'll take a pitch, even willing to fall behind in the count, rather than chase a pitcher's pitch. "I won't even offer at it. If a guy's got a big curveball and he throws you a good one, you're not going to hit it anyway," he says. "So, if in any way it comes out of his hand and you buckle, just take it."
This streak might be passed off as a a simple good roll by a good hitter, but for the fact that this isn't even as hot as he's been at the plate. Two years ago, he went on a 20-game hitting streak during which he had an extra-base hit in 14 straight games, tying a Major League record. His line for those 20 games: .512 with eight homers and 24 RBIs, a .570 OBP and a 1.509 OPS.
So if he looks as if he's been there before, there's a good reason. He has.
"This is my job. This is what I get paid to do. I hit in the middle of the lineup, hit homers, hit for a high average, high on-base percentage," Chipper says. "I would be proud of myself if it were my second or third year. But I've been around the block. It's just a situation where, if you don't walk up to the plate expecting to get a hit, chances are you won't."
Chipper, after all, is a lifetime .308 hitter. He's only the third hitter in history to start his career with 13 straight 20-homer seasons (Eddie Matthews and Billy Williams were the others). And Chipper, without a whole lot of debate, seems to be getting even better with age. (He turns 36 on Thursday, by the way.)
Since the beginning of the 2006 season, you know who has the highest batting average in either league? Chipper, at .339. The rest of the top five consists of Matt Holliday, Ichiro Suzuki, Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter.