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Tigers’ JaCoby Jones is having a weird season so far

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Jones could be a solid contributor if he can just find some consistency with the bat.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It is easy to look at simple baseball statistics at face value and make general assumptions about a player at first glance. It is typically how all-star voting is completed, “good” players are determined and fantasy teams are built.

So when someone glances at JaCoby Jones’ numbers, they are going to assume that he is a pretty bad player: his .202 batting average, .264 on-base percentage and 19 career home runs over 798 plate appearances are all easy to scoff at. However, there is more to the 6’2 center fielder than meets the eye.

Since May 15, Jones is hitting .333 with a 1.010 OPS and four walks (compared to six between April 11 and May 14). A change in his batting stance has seemingly rekindled the home run power he flashed last season with 11 homers, as he has hit three dingers in the aforementioned stretch.

Oh and the pitchers he hit them off of are Justin Verlander, Caleb Smith, and Noah Syndergaard.

The home run off Syndergaard went 447-feet; the longest allowed by Thor in his career.

Not bad.

Jones’ 2019 barrel percentage (9.4%), exit velocity (91%), launch angle (16.1%) and hard hit rate (45.9%) are all above-average marks and the best he is shown in an extended period yet. Jones has also shown improvements in his plate discipline, offering at 3.7 percent less balls this year, while trimming his swinging strike rate to 12.8 percent, 1.8 percent less than the year prior. All good signs even if those numbers remain pedestrian. The important part is that they’re currently trending in a positive direction.

The key component remains whether he can consistently make contact as opposed to striking out in nearly one out of every three at bats as has been his custom to date. This has remained an issue even during his recent hot streak, as he has 18 K’s in the 49 plate appearances since May 15. That’s still a pretty ugly 36.7 K-rate, though the improved patience has provided a few more walks than we’re used to Jones collecting.

In our preseason piece on Jones, we also identified his terrible production against fastballs as being one of our central concerns. In 2018, Jones posted just a .284 wOBA against the hard stuff. League average was .344, and you simply can’t hang in the majors with that kind of weakness. So far in 2019, Jones has been much more effective against fastballs with a .326 wOBA.

As long as Jones continues to hit the ball hard when he does make contact, his season numbers could continue to climb. All things considered, he does not necessarily need to be an outstanding hitter to provide overall value. Simply putting more balls in play following something like the approach Cameron Maybin took in 2016, would be enough make Jones a viable starter.

Jones is an above average center fielder with a knack for making highlight plays. His long frame, quick instincts, and natural speed allow him to cover ground and take away plays that others might not.

He has more career outfield assists (nine) than errors (four). His defensive metrics are admittedly weaker in 2019 with -7 runs defensive runs saved above average compared to those from the rest of his career — including 21 runs saved above average in 2018, so simple math suggests that those will likely even out. Overall, his defenses projects as a strength that will allow him to play whether his bat is working or not.

So, what exactly is JaCoby Jones?

He’s a toolsy yet streaky outfielder whose bat will occasionally show the flash that once made him a solid prospect in both the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tigers systems. At worst, he’s a ninth-hitting strikeout-prone speedster who hits .180 and never walks, capable for an occasional bomb and plays a solid center field. Potentially that version of Jones rides the bench in the coming years as a defensive replacement or pinch-runner.

At best, he will hit in the mid-to-low .200s, striking out often but drawing a walk every now and then, regularly making hard contact when he’s not whiffing while locking down the vast Comerica Park outfield. Because Jones does a lot of damage when he does make contact, and because of his baserunning abilities, it wouldn’t take major improvements in his contact and on base ability to make him a viable part of the lineup.

We might expect him to fall somewhere in-between with a cold streak here and a hot one, but Jones is starting to define a range of performance. However, it’s a pretty wide range, and it bears remembering that his 798 career plate appearances accounts for little more than a full season’s work in the major leagues. He’s certainly still a work in progress, it’s just a question of whether he ends up at the higher or lower end of that range.

However, it is completely fair to be skeptical; his production has not necessarily shown that he is worthy of taking playing time over typical league-average players. The 2019 season is probably Jones’s last good opportunity to seize a full-time role. If it doesn’t happen for him this year, prospects like Daz Cameron, Derek Hill, and Jose Azocar are all going to be angling for his playing time next season.

JaCoby Jones is an interesting case worth following. His recent outburst will keep the embers of hope warm and earn him consistent playing time for a few more months. Just do not be surprised if he flames out of the league or becomes an everyday guy... or likely lands himself somewhere right in-between by remaining maddeningly inconsistent.