COMMENTARY | When Chipper Jones retired after 19 years manning the hot corner for the Atlanta Braves, most assumed third base would be the weakest part of the Atlanta roster. Even at age 40, Jones still averaged .287, hit 14 home runs and took his cuts from the pressure-packed No. 3 spot in the order for much of the 2012 season. The Braves have tried to fill their Chipper Jones-shaped hole at third base with the combination of Chris Johnson and Juan Francisco - both of whom have over 1,900 fewer games of wear and tear on their bodies than the former Atlanta slugger. How have the youngsters done so far in their bid to replace a future Hall of Famer?
Through May 11 last season, Jones was hitting .305 with five home runs and 22 RBIs. This year, the "John-cicsco" combination is only hitting .276 when playing third base, but they do have six round-trippers and 19 RBIs. By the numbers, the two have done a more-than-adequate job so far of replacing the Braves' legendary switch-hitter, but it may not necessarily tell the whole story.
The one place where Jones simply cannot be matched is when it comes to putting the ball in play. The game of baseball has evolved to the point that 150 strikeouts in a season has become commonplace amongst the countless batters who seem to be taking an all-or-nothing approach every time they step in the box. Jones was still an old school player, and remarkably, Chipper never struck out 100 times in any of his 19 seasons. Considering the Braves have six players who are on pace to get rung-up more than 130 times, and three of those players (Dan Uggla, Justin Upton and B.J. Upton) staring down the barrel of a 200+ strikeout season, the ability Jones had at the plate, even at age 40, is hard to duplicate.
Through the first 35 games this season, Johnson and Francisco have already struck out 54 times. Chipper got the long face from umpires just 51 times in all of 2012, and on May 11 last year, Jones had tallied just eight total strikeouts.
Given the Braves' struggles getting runners on base, I would not have been surprised to see Chipper hitting second - or even potentially leading off -- had he played this season. His career .401 OBP is better than anyone not named Jordan Schafer right now. Justin Upton has 12 home runs this season, yet 11 of them are solo shots. Situational hitting, and simply having someone who can consistently get on base, is where the Braves miss Jones most of all. On a team full of free swingers, Jones' veteran presence and constant contact would have looked very nice anywhere manager Fredi Gonzalez would have penciled him into the lineup.
Johnson and Francisco are on pace to combine for 27 home runs and 87 RBIs while playing third. If they can collectively come anywhere close to hitting those numbers, they will have succeeded in their attempt to replace an aging Chipper. However, ask me again in October who I would rather have hitting with two on and two out in a tied game in which the Braves need a hit to win. You can't simply replace stats for stats in every situation. I'll take a 41-year-old Chipper Jones every time.
Anthony Schreiber is a freelance sportswriter based in "Braves Country." He has penned articles for a variety of online publications and magazines.
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