The 2015 trade deadline was supposed to shape the Detroit Tigers’ rotation for years to come, yielding Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, and Matthew Boyd. Less heralded was JaCoby Jones, a prospect with potential but many question marks, and one that was slapped with a 50-game suspension soon after joining the organization.
Over the next two seasons, Jones spent the majority time in the minors, playing almost exclusively in center field. In the 69 games he spent with the Tigers, he hit just .178/.236/.278 with 35 wRC+ and a 42.3 percent strikeout rate, casting doubt on his ability to ever adequately play at the major league level.
Nevertheless, Jones made the 2018 Opening Day roster and stayed in Detroit all season, aside from a quiet rehab stint. While he still has a ways to go to become even borderline productive at the plate, Jones brought something to the outfield that the Tigers have not seen in years.
One big stat: 21 Defensive Runs Saved
Defense has long been a struggle for Detroit, and the outfield has been no exception. With a spacious center field in Comerica Park, there is a need for quality defenders at the position, but this has rarely been the case as of late.
Whether or not Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) or Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is the “best” advanced defensive metric does not change the story: the Tigers have been hurting defensively in the outfield. The team has ranked below average almost every year in the last decade, and the strategy has always been for great offense from the outfielders to outweigh questionable fielding.
Putting Jones in center field switches this narrative sharply. His 21 DRS this season was the best by a Tigers’ outfielder since 2011, and his 12.3 UZR was the best since 2015. Among 210 outfielders across baseball with at least 100 innings in 2018, he ranked first in DRS and second in UZR. In terms of newer metrics, he ranked 16th in Outs Above Average as well.
The eye test matches the numbers, as Jones was no stranger to highlight-reel catches and home run robberies. He played a decent number of games in left field in addition to center, providing the Tigers with an elite defensive option at multiple positions. Aside from Leonys Martin — who is no longer in Detroit — no other outfielder option was even close to good at any spot.
JaCoby Jones with an AMAZING catch at the wall. pic.twitter.com/FwzadN6p2M— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) July 7, 2018
Jones’s fielding ability is undeniable, which should keep him on the major league roster for the next few years. However, his playing time will likely be determined by his ability at the plate. Detroit has no shortage of outfielders available within the organization, and even elite defense could land Jones on the bench if he does not hit enough.
A .207/.266/.364 line is far from inspiring, but Jones did homer 11 times in 2018 and dropped his strikeout rate by 12 percentage points. He still did not generate a ton of walks, and his low on-base percentage is disappointing given his speed; Jones was one of the best Tigers on the base paths per FanGraphs’ base running metric.
Quality contact does not appear to be Jones’s issue, as his 36.2 percent hard-hit rate and 88 mile-per-hour exit velocity are tolerable. Rather, it is his contact rate which is a bigger problem. A 71.3 percent contact rate represented a decent jump from his 2017 efforts, but was still near the bottom of the league.
At 26 years old, Jones still has time to develop at the plate, and hopefully he can find a way to get on base and utilize his speed. His excellent defense will bide him some time, but there are too many outfield alternatives for him to simply coast by, so the electric defender will need to creep closer to league-average offensively from his 70 wRC+ in 2018 if he wants to keep a full-time starting role.
What grade would you give JaCoby Jones’s performance in 2018?
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