DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers have made several trades the last three seasons as they try to restock the organization with young talent. Now, one of the under-the-radar moves is paying off.
The Tigers made big splashes when they traded David Price to Toronto, Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets and Justin Verlander to the Astros. Sending J.D. Martinez to Arizona was a big move, and even the Justin Upton and Justin Wilson trades got plenty of attention.
But one of the moves that didn't make as many waves came at the trade deadline in 2015. Then-GM Dave Dombrowski sent relief pitcher Joakim Soria to Pittsburgh in exchange for JaCoby Jones, a toolsy shortstop prospect who was lighting up the minor leagues.
Jones wasn't regarded as an elite prospect nationally, and when he was suspended 50 games for a substance violation, he fell even further off the radar. But now, at 25 years old, he's showing signs of why the Tigers wanted him.
Despite his impressive numbers in at the minor-league level, Jones struggled in his first two partial seasons at the MLB level.
The biggest problem for Jones has always been putting the ball in play. In his first two years, he struck out 77 times in 69 games and posted a massive 42.2 percent strikeout rate.
To compound his struggles, Jones had a low walk rate, striking out nearly seven times per free pass. That left his on-base percentage at .240 last season, and his .510 OPS made him a well below average offensive player.
Strikeouts have still been a bit of an issue for Jones this season, but he's gotten them under control. His strikeout rate is down 17.6 percent, and his walk rate is up 1.2 percent. While he won't win many batting titles with a 24.6 percent whiff rate, his numbers are up across the board because of the ability to put the ball in play.
Jones is sporting a hefty .343 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) this season, and even though that's well above his career MLB average, it's on par with what he's done in the minor leagues.
It's not unreasonable to expect an inflated BABIP for Jones, because he hits the ball extremely hard.
In 50 at-bats this season, Jones has a ridiculous 51.4 percent hard-contact rate, which means he's been crushing the ball in more than half of his at-bats that don't result in a strikeout or a walk. Even more impressive is his 5.4 percent weak-contact rate.
What does this mean? Jones has put 37 balls in play this season: 19 have classified as hard-hit balls, while only two have been weakly hit. That's a difficult pace to keep up over the course of a 162-game season, but the consistent hard contact is a promising sign for Jones' future.
Because he's making so much solid contact, five of Jones' 14 hits have gone for extra bases this season, including two home runs.
According to WAR -- wins above replacement -- Jones has been a more valuable overall player than Miguel Cabrera and Nicholas Castellanos.
Outside the batter's box
Whether he's hitting or not, Jones has been a valuable player for the Tigers because of his outfield skills. He's played center field and left field this season, and he grades out well above average in both.
Jones has been the Tigers' best fielder in terms of defensive runs saved this season, despite playing in only 13 full games. His arm grades out slightly below average, but he's got great speed and and get to almost any ball hit his way.
For a team that makes so many mistakes defensively, Jones has been a stabilizing force, converting all 30 chances without an error.
The Tigers have also struggled on the base paths at times this season, and Jones excels in that area. He leads the team in base running runs above average and already has three stolen bases in three attempts.
What does he need to do?
There's no doubting Jones' excellent speed and defense, but this season, he's also hitting the ball -- at least so far.
Jones has made one major adjustment to his game, and that is to cut down on strikeouts and put the ball in play more often. The fact that he's done so without sacrificing the quality of contact is the explanation for his excellent start to 2018.
Jones was touted as a possible five-tool player when the Tigers acquired him from the Pirates, and while three of the tools -- speed, defense and power -- have been obvious since day one, his most obvious hurdle is making consistent contact.
When he does, Jones is a special player. These last few weeks have been living proof.