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JaCoby Jones takes steps forward at the plate

Things appear to be looking up for him, but will it last?

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at Detroit Tigers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers had high hopes for JaCoby Jones when they acquired him from the Pittsburgh Pirates at the 2015 trade deadline. But despite success in the minors and solid defense in the majors, Jones struggled immensely at the plate during his first stints in Detroit, recording high strikeout rates with little power or ability to get on base.

After posting a monster spring training in 2018 (.354/.415/.542, .957 OPS), there was hope that the first year of the rebuild would see Jones get some more reps with the Tigers to help him turn a corner. And that very well may be what’s happening. Albeit through a short time so far, Jones has shown improvement at the plate in the early goings of the 2018 season.

While Jones’s batting average of .176 isn’t impressive, it is also somewhat deceptive. As of late, he is noticeably hitting the ball harder. His soft contact rate of 8.3% sits well below the league average while his medium and hard contact rates (58.3% and 33.3%, respectively) are above league averages. Even without examining the deeper statistics, the classic eye test has shown this as well, most recently during Friday night’s contest against the New York Yankees as he caught two pitches right on the screws, only to have these line drives quelled by perfectly positioned defenders.

His ability to put the bat on the ball is continuing to blossom, as he’s making contact on 90% of his swings at pitches in the strike zone, as well as a 69.2% contact rate on swings outside of the zone. Both are marked improvements on his past rates, which is further encouragement to those who have been waiting to see Jones come around.

The biggest and most noticeable improvement has come as Jones has increased the quality of his at-bats. Exhibiting a more selective eye at the plate, he has worked to get ahead in the count more often. And it has paid off, as he’s drawn three walks and worked his way to an early on-base percentage of .364 when he’s done so. He’s less trigger happy at the plate swinging at 44% of pitches he’s seen (as compared to past rates of 55.7% and 48.1% in 2016 and 2017, respectively), with 26.5% of these pitches being out of the strike zone (compared to 2016-17 rates of 44.6% and 35.5%, respectively).

However, as much as his development at the plate is good news for the Tigers, it would still be wise to take it with a grain of salt.

It’s still very early in the season. Jones has appeared in only nine games and made 22 trips to the plate this season. The lack of games played is hardly his fault, given Mother Nature’s recent power trip that canceled the remainder of this past weekend’s series against the Yankees, but his lack of playing time is likely to change.

With Mikie Mahtook struggling early out of the gate and being sent to the minors, Jones is set to get extended playing time in left field as he and Victor Reyes will likely split the workload in Mahtook’s absence. It is this stretch that will either expose Jones as a still-fledgling project or confirm his small streak of improvement as a legitimate sign of things to come. Only time will tell.