JaCoby Jones pulled a neat trick in 2018. Despite another rough year at the plate, Jones was so valuable defensively and on the base paths that he graded out not much worse than a league average regular according to FanGraphs. It was an example of a player who was able to make himself a useful regular based solely on his superior athleticism. Unfortunately, the odds of him managing that feat again in 2019 aren’t great. The footsteps he will be hearing this year belong to a set of younger players looking to depose him as the Tigers’ starting center fielder.
Jones came to Detroit from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a deal for reliever Joakim Soria back in 2015. At that point he was a raw but productive minor league hitter, and an outstanding athlete whom the Pirates were playing in the infield. The Tigers’ decision to convert him to the outfield full-time has proved wise; for two seasons, Jones has put up some of the best defensive numbers in baseball while patrolling the vast lawns of Comerica Park’s outfield. Unfortunately, his ability to hit major league pitching has always been questioned, and the Tigers have received no more answers than the Pirates did.
In the end, what we have is perhaps the most frustrating type of player possible. Jones’ athleticism provides him power and speed that are force multipliers every time he makes contact or reaches base. He has the defensive ability the Tigers have sought in center field since the halcyon days of Austin Jackson’s abbreviated prime. And yet Jones cannot handle major league pitching consistently. Now entering his age-27 season, the hope that he will ever make substantive improvements is almost extinguished.
One Big Stat: .281 BABIP in 2018
At this point in his career, you can all but give up on Jones substantially improving his pitch recognition. He has seen major league pitching for two years now and hasn’t been able to adjust yet. Jones swings aggressively and often, and pitchers don’t have to throw strikes to get him behind in counts. From there, it’s a steady diet of fastballs up out of the zone, which Jones cannot seem to lay off of, followed by sliders and curveballs down and away. Rinse. Repeat. Indeed, he punched out in over 30 percent of his trips to the plate in his second major league season.
There isn’t much point identifying particular weaknesses against different pitches and locations. Jones whiffed on 26 percent of fastballs he offered at in 2018, one of the uglier marks of any qualified hitter. The league average wOBA was .344 against all types of fastballs. Jones posted a .284 mark, so this isn’t just your typical young hitter struggling with a heavier diet of breaking balls. It’s a weakness that makes it difficult to improve against other offerings. When you are routinely overpowered by major league fastballs, it’s hard to adjust to hitting anything else.
Jones is tall and long-limbed. He can generate average power, but the bat speed is lacking, and his mechanical flaws are pretty evident. Jones regularly gets his arms extended too early, leaving him locked up and unable to adjust once he has initiated his swing. While he’s in good shape, he has never found a way to produce a more compact swing and still drive the ball with authority. Instead, for such a sizable human, he is still reliant on quick hands, and doesn’t sync up his big muscles to transfer power into bat speed very well. He needs to find a way to get the barrel to the ball more efficiently.
To that end, Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon has emphasized flattening and shortening up Jones’ stroke, and actively trying to get tougher in bad counts. The Tigers have harped on two-strike approach since Ron Gardenhire took charge. While this emphasis is dubious in some cases, Jones is certainly one who would benefit by putting a few more balls in play.
The Cameron Maybin protocol
That does bring us to the slender ray of hope. Based on his 2018 batted balls data, Jones was unlucky not to have a few more hits to his ledger. A .281 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is a little low. The league average was only .296, so we’re not talking a major spell of bad luck. But Jones also posted an above-average line drive rate of 23.9 percent. Line drives go for more hits, all else being equal.
As the chart below indicates, we’re not looking at a bad batted ball profile for a guy with Jones’ speed. He hits the ball with above-average exit velocity (EV) when it’s on a line or on the ground, but doesn’t tend to do so well in the air. There’s a good chance that if Jones can simply repeat his 2018 performance, he can bring his overall batting average up closer to .230 than the miserable .207 mark he posted last year.
2018 Batted Ball
Don’t expect miracles, though. If we search for a recent model for what the Tigers want from Jones this season, it’s the second tour of Cameron Maybin in the Olde English D. Maybin came back to Detroit in 2016, and adopted some of McClendon’s philosophy. Maybin took more of a “line drive up the middle” approach, and sprayed balls through the defense all season, posting the best offensive year of his career purely on the elusive art of “hitting them where they ain’t.”
The two players are similar in body type and skills. Maybin was a fine defender in his best years, but never really found his touch at the plate. Jones appears on similar course. However, despite his own free-swinging ways, Maybin has always made a lot more contact than Jones does. Therein, our hopes must diverge from this most optimistic comparison.
Still, Jones did swing a little more in 2018, and he made more contact overall too, with his contact percentage increasing by eight percent compared to 2017. He also trimmed his swinging strike rate to 14.6 percent, which is bad, but far from the disastrous 17.7 percent mark he put up in 2017. Jones is still young enough to improve, and he’s made some progress. We’ll have to see if he can take another small step this season.
Who’s got next?
The heir apparent to the center field position, Daz Cameron, seems bound to spend most of the season in Triple-A Toledo. But if Jones struggles at the plate again, there are several other options the Tigers could turn to. Mikie Mahtook seems a little overmatched in Comerica Park’s center field, but would possibly get some time at the position. Victor Reyes has shown no sign of hitting, but played an acceptable center field in limited duty last season and has the Tigers’ eye. Jake Robson had a breakout season in the upper minors last year, flashing a little pop and patience.
In the end, Jones doesn’t need to post a 121 wRC+, as Maybin did in 2016, to stay on the field. His defense, and the hair-on-fire havoc he causes on the base paths, are enough to keep him in the lineup as long as he can squeeze just a little more out of his bat. He will have to put more balls in play to get there. And while he’s only entering his age-27 season, time is starting to run short for him.