As the 30th anniversary of Brian Jordan’s MLB debut approaches, let’s look back on a forgotten star of the 1990s.
Jordan began his career in the NFL, playing three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. He was a higher draft pick in the MLB draft (first round compared to seventh round), but he found top-level playing time with football first. Jordan played 36 games, intercepting five passes and recording four sacks. In 1991, he became one of 19 players in NFL history to have a pair of safeties in a season. Only four players have done so since. In 1992, Jordan transitioned to playing Major League Baseball, never playing in the NFL again.
Four years after the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him, Jordan made his MLB debut. The 25-year-old laced two hits, driving in four runs. He also stole a base. Jordan’s rookie season had mixed results. He brought a solid speed element, but his batting average hovered around .200 across 204 plate appearances.
In 1993, Jordan returned with a new approach. He raised his slugging percentage by 170 points, launching 26 extra-base hits in 67 games. His OPS+ of 139 would be the best of any season of his career.
1994 split the difference. He walked more than he ever had, but he had the lowest ISO of his career to that point. However, he began to shine as a defensive player, earning +0.7 dWAR.
In 1995, Jordan played in 131 games, and his all-around game took a massive step forward. Jordan laced 20 doubles and 22 home runs. He stole 24 bases, and he earned +20 Rfield. All told, Jordan racked up 5.2 bWAR. While his walk rate plummeted, he had the best home run rate of his career.
Jordan had another excellent season in 1996. He led the NL with a +28 total zone, but he did not win a Gold Glove. At the plate, Jordan hit 36 doubles and 17 home runs. He stole 20 bases for the second consecutive season. He even had a .310 batting average. Jordan posted an OPS+ of 119. He drove in 104 runs. Jordan placed eighth in NL MVP voting.
While Jordan continued to be excellent in the field in 1997, he struggled at the plate. Across 161 plate appearances, Jordan posted an OPS of .580 including an on-base percentage that was higher than his slugging percentage. He only had five extra-base hits in 47 games with zero triples or home runs.
Jordan responded with a monster season in 1998. In 150 games, Jordan mashed 34 doubles and 25 home runs. His .902 OPS was the best of his career. For the third time in four years, Jordan posted at least +20 total zone runs. Jordan racked up 7.0 bWAR, a mark higher than 1998 NL MVP Sammy Sosa. After the 1998 season, Jordan signed with the Atlanta Braves.
Now sharing an outfield with Andruw Jones, Jordan continued to be one of the best defensive players in baseball despite his lack of Gold Gloves. He led all NL right fielders in total zone in 1999, 2000, and 2001, but he was glossed over in the Gold Glove each season.
Jordan never quite regained his hitting form from his Cardinals days, but he was 32 years old by the time he signed in Atlanta. He became a first-time All-Star in 1999 for the eventual pennant winners. He had 55 extra-base hits and a career-best 115 RBI. Jordan finished 19th in NL MVP voting as fellow Brave Chipper Jones won the award.
In his first stint with the Braves, Jordan played in six playoff series including the 1999 World Series. He had an excellent .471/.474/.706 playoff debut, helping the Braves knock off the Houston Astros in the 1999 NLDS. He launched a pair of home runs in the subsequent NLCS. While he drew four walks in the World Series, he went 1-for-13 with one total base.
Jordan had a down season at the plate in 2000, slumping to an OPS+ of 86. He had 43 extra-base hits, but he proved to be inconsistent in his age-33 season. The glove was as excellent as ever, but he was once again overlooked.
Jordan bounced back in a big way in 2001, returning to MVP ballots. Across 148 games, Jordan hit 25 home runs and 32 doubles. He had a .496 slugging percentage, the best he had in a full season. He tacked on an extra 4.4 bWAR. In the 2001-2002 offseason, the Braves sent Jordan in a package to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Gary Sheffield. Sheffield would play two seasons in Atlanta, finishing third in MVP voting in 2003.
Jordan had two productive seasons with the Dodgers. He posted a collective 116 OPS+, the best he had with any franchise. He hit 18 home runs in 2002, and he had his career-best on-base percentage in 2003. In 194 games with the Dodgers, Jordan was worth 4.3 bWAR. He seamlessly made the move to left field, playing the position full-time in both seasons despite not having played it since 1994.
Even at age-35, Jordan continued to be a strong defensive player. In 2002, he earned +7 total zone runs in left field. In 2003, he was +4 in total zone and +4 in defensive runs saved. After the 2003 season, Jordan became a free agent and signed with the Texas Rangers.
Now 37, Jordan struggled at the plate. He had a disastrous OPS+ of 60 across 61 games and 233 plate appearances. Despite his sturdy defense, Jordan finished with a negative bWAR for the first time since 1993. After the season, Jordan returned to the Braves in free agency.
Return to Atlanta
In a natural end to his professional sports career, Jordan was back in the city he first started with. He struggled at the plate, and the Braves’ legendary streak of division titles was snapped in his second season. Nevertheless, Jordan still contributed +3 Rfield in his two seasons. On September 30, 2006, Jordan went 0-for-1 in his final MLB game.
In 2012, Jordan was one of 27 players on the BBWAA ballot. He received zero votes and fell off the ballot.
Similar to Deion Sanders, the question with Jordan is what if. In an alternate universe, perhaps Jordan enters the Majors before his 25th birthday. Perhaps he would have everyday playtime before his 28th birthday.
While Jordan deserved to win several Gold Gloves, he never won one. He is 15th in MLB history in total zone runs. Naturally, his neighbors are 13-time Gold Glover (and Hall of Famer) Ivan Rodriguez and two-time Gold Glover Jesse Barfield. Of the 14 players ahead of him, all but Cal Ripken Jr. (two) and Jim Piersall (two) have at least five Gold Gloves.
Defensive stats might not be perfect, but Jordan is the outlier in the group. His contemporaries in this stat are often listed as the best fielders ever. They were showered with (in some cases) more than a dozen Gold Gloves each. Jordan earned zero.
Beyond the glove, Jordan racked up 32.9 bWAR. This seems like a low total for a 15-year veteran, but Jordan played 81 games in just seven seasons. He also lost time to the MLB strike in 1994 and 1995.
In a different era, perhaps Jordan would have been recognized with more accolades. As it stands, he was a good player for most of his career while being a criminally underrated defender. Of the 25 players in MLB history to accumulate 150 Rfield, only Andrelton Simmons and Barfield have played fewer games than Jordan.
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