All was going according to script for JaCoby Jones, the Detroit Tigers’ talented 28 year old center fielder, until he was drilled on the hand by a pitch in a game against the Atlanta Braves on September 1, 2020. He suffered a fractured hand, which ended his breakout season, and put his ascent to prominence on hold.
Jones was slashing .268/.333/.515 for a wOBA of .358 with five home runs and 14 RBI in 108 plate appearances when his season was prematurely halted. This is the third time that being hit by a pitch put him out of action. His 2019 season was done when he was drilled on the wrist by a pitch in August, and he was hit in the face in April, 2017, putting him out with a lip laceration. While these incidents would not cause one to conclude that he is “injury prone”, Jones has dealt with numerous ailments that have included nagging back and hamstring injuries that have kept him out of action.
Jones has an impressive array of skills that include power and speed, leaving observers to wonder just how well he can put them together. His bat, and contact ability in particular, has come along slowly but surely as he has hit .170, .207, .235, and .268 in parts of four seasons. Likewise, his slugging percentage has followed the same trajectory from .270 to .364, .430 to .515. When his 2020 season ended, he had posted 0.8 fWAR, which was second only to Jonathan Schoop in the Tigers’ lineup.
It is no sure thing that he will continue to improve his contact ability. He still struck out 31.5 percent of his plate appearances and his average benefited from a .356 batting average on balls in play that is probably unsustainable. On the other hand, he has shown raw power, with an ISO of .247 and an OPS of .858 that translated to just five home runs in 2020. The small samples are playing tricks, to be sure.
Detroit acquired Jones at the trade deadline in July, 2015 from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for closer Joakim Soria, in one of Dave Dombrowski’s last moves as Detroit’s General Manager. He missed 50 games in the minor leagues being suspended for use of a non performance enhancing substance (translation- marijuana) and made his major league debut in 2016 as a utility player.
All the signs were that Jones was on the right trajectory, albeit a bit late and not without concerns about making contact and his ability to stay healthy. The Tigers have few, if any players in their current lineup who are above average producers for their position. JaCoby Jones is one player who has a shot at giving them average or better results in center field- if he can stay off the injured list.
Jones earned a salary of $1.575 million as a super two player in 2020 and that will increase next season. The projection is up to $2.8 million for 2021. He has three seasons of team control with two options remaining. He figures to be the Tigers’ opening day center fielder as the club is much more likely to add needed offense in a corner outfield position.