Bright spots are a necessity for a team like the Detroit Tigers. Loyal fans have hung in there with the club through two terrible seasons. Only now, in September, has the first wave of potential impact prospects started trickling into the major league roster. The best of the bunch are still a year or two from even their first cup of coffee in the big leagues. The bright spots have been hard to come by.
For most of the season, Tigers center fielder JaCoby Jones has alternated between being one of the brightest, and one of the most frustrating. After years of slugging teams with little speed, it has been striking to see a player who can impact a game with pure athleticism the way Jones can. All season long he has been brilliant defensively and electric on the basepaths, wreaking havoc with speed and aggression. On occasions when he barrels a ball up at the plate, the raw power is obvious. Unfortunately, he hasn’t figured out how to barrel them up with any consistency at the major league level.
At the moment, Jones leads all outfielders in baseball with 24 defensive runs saved (DRS). He has outpaced St. Louis Cardinals rookie centerfielder Harrison Bader by four runs. With 473 innings in center field and 452 1⁄3 in left, Jones hasn’t even gotten enough playing time to qualify for FanGraphs’ leaderboard for outfielders, yet he has saved more runs than anyone else. Mookie Betts grades out a little better among outfielders by the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) system, but Jones is still second by that metric. Defensive metrics are imperfect, but it’s safe to say he is an excellent defender.
The problem, of course, is that Jones has a long way to go just to produce at the plate like Bader has in his first half season, let alone the likes of Betts. He has over 2,500 plate appearances in pro ball. His career batting average in the major leagues is .199, with a dismal on-base percentage of .253. There are just too many strikeouts, too few walks, and a lot of weak contact in his profile. Since graduating from Double-A ball, he has been unable to make any real improvements in his discipline and contact abilities. He gets devoured by breaking balls, and hasn’t even shown good numbers against fastballs — he has a .280 wOBA against the heater in 2018. A batter who can’t make hay off of fastballs is one who may just not have the physical ability to hit major league pitching effectively.
Given the rest of Jones’ skills, however, he doesn’t need to turn into Rod Carew to be an effective player. When he does make solid contact, he has the raw power to multiply the value of those plate appearances. He’s also an engine of chaos on the basepaths. He is more Leonys Martin than Billy Hamilton as a baserunner, but that’s still valuable. Like Martin, occasional decent years at the plate could allow him to post above-average seasons.
A hot month of September for Jones has illustrated that potential perfectly. In 37 plate appearances, he hasn’t drawn a single walk and has a strikeout rate of 32.4 percent. Yet with two home runs and five total extra-base hits, he has a fine .840 OPS and a defensive highlight reel all his own. He has been credited with two stolen bases, and has created at least one run with his feet. Combine a hot stretch at the plate with his stellar work defensively and on the bases, and its easy to get carried away.
Who will play center next season?
The Tigers’ current Center Fielder of the Future, Daz Cameron, needs time at Triple-A before the Tigers even consider bringing him up next season. Victor Reyes needs to recover from being in over his head this season, and will likely be in Toledo as well, at least to start the 2019 season. Former first round pick Derek Hill has stalled out in A-ball. Jacob Robson may be ready to challenge Jones for reps in center field in 2019, but he will have to make a strong case on both sides of the ball next spring. At the moment, Jones feels like he’s the one with the inside track on the job for Opening Day 2019, despite his serious limitations with the lumber.
Things could change this offseason. But, if the Tigers plan to start Nicholas Castellanos in right field and Christin Stewart in left, a premium defensive center fielder is going to be a necessity in 2019 (if only for the sanity of Ron Gardenhire and the Tigers’ pitching staff). Whether Jones ever finds another gear offensively is somewhat beside the point. He can still fill a valuable role for the Tigers in the years ahead. When he is eventually forced aside by more well-rounded center field options, he will capably slot into a utility role. For now, the Tigers may just as well give him every chance to earn a full-time job in 2019 and hope he does everything he can this offseason to squeeze just a little more offense out of his bat.