Is JaCoby Jones developing into part of Detroit Tigers' long-term future?
Jones owns 1.217 OPS over last 15 games
DETROIT – JaCoby Jones is trying to re-cement himself as a part of the Detroit Tigers' long-term future after bouncing back from a brutal start at the plate.
The 27-year-old center fielder was one of the coldest hitters in baseball the first month, hitting .137 with a .430 OPS and 18 strikeouts in 15 April games. He only had seven hits, one home run and one double. Jones was on base so rarely, he couldn't capitalize on his elite speed.
He overhauled his swing when the calendar turned to May, and there was a modest improvement. In the first 21 games of the month, Jones hit .203 with a .673 OPS, but he added three home runs and six walks. It was still below average production, but it was a step in the right direction.
Recent hot streak
Now, Jones is one of the hottest hitters in all of baseball. Since May 24, Jones is batting .407 with a 1.217 OPS in 15 games.
While Jones is still striking out too often -- 17 times in 60 plate appearances -- he's drawn five more walks and added 10 extra-base hits, including four home runs.
Jones is now the team leader with eight home runs on the season and a perfect six for six in stolen base attempts.
His season slash line is suddenly up to .250/.319/.457, giving him a solid .776 OPS despite the slow start.
It's one of the most sudden turnarounds in baseball this season, but since Jones made a clear change to his swing in May, there's something to point to as a possible explanation for his improved numbers.
Jones obviously isn't a .400 hitter, or even a .300 hitter. But can he keep his season average at .250 and provide some power and speed in the meantime?
Legitimacy of turnaround
Positive regression was bound to come for Jones when he was batting .137 with no power, however, he's certainly not as good as he's shown the last two weeks. Jones' season will be defined by where he settles in between where he was in April and where he's at now.
Jones has always had a strong batted ball profile when he makes contact, and that's the case again this season. Of the 109 balls he's put in play this season, only 12.7 percent have registered as soft contact while 43.6 percent have registered as hard contact.
His soft contact rate is down 4 percent from his career rate, while the hard contact rate is up 6.6 percent. Those numbers support Jones' elevated .327 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) -- by no means an unsustainable number.
For reference, Jones owned a .288 BABIP in 2017 and a .281 BABIP last season, both of which seemed low for his batted ball data.
While that positive regression feels sustainable, his home run rate does not. Nearly one-fifth of Jones' fly balls have gone over the fence, and that's even with a 12.2 percent infield fly ball rate.
Jones is currently on pace to hit more than 20 home runs, but if his home run-to-fly ball rate falls to his career levels, he'll likely finish closer to 15 unless he can start hitting more balls in the air. Jones currently has as many ground balls as fly balls this season.
Over the last 15 games, Jones owns a .545 BABIP, meaning more than half the balls he puts in play are dropping for hits. His hard-hit rate certainly contributes to that, but that number will drop at least 200 points for the rest of the season.
Jones has always been the type of prospect who flashed plenty of offensive potential. Even though he's on an unsustainable hot streak right now, his season numbers -- on pace for about 20 home runs, 15 steals and a high-.700s OPS -- are exactly what the Tigers hope to see going forward.
Just as surprising as Jones' offensive explosion has been his bad defensive metrics.
Last year, Jones was arguably the best defensive outfield in baseball. He led all outfielders with 21 defensive runs saved while posting elite range numbers and an above-average arm.
His defense was so strong, he finished the season with a 2.0 WAR despite batting .207 with 142 strikeouts and a .630 OPS in 129 games.
This season, Jones has been the second-worst qualified center fielder in baseball, in terms of defensive runs saved. In 437 innings, Jones has been worth minus-seven runs with much worse range and well-below-average throwing metrics.
Only Ian Desmond, who plays in Coors Field and isn't known as a strong defender, ranks behind Jones in defensive runs saved.
These numbers are strange because Jones still has elite speed, and defensive numbers are typically much more stable than offensive numbers. Jones was a plus defender in 2017 and took a jump to elite last season, so this certainly isn't the expected trajectory.
Defensive numbers can sometimes be skewed by a handful of bad plays and Jones has earned the benefit of the doubt, especially now that he's hitting. If his defensive numbers still look bad at the end of the season, it'll be something to revisit.
Jones has long been the type of player who shows flashes of greatness but doesn't quite put it all together, and that's been the case so far this season.
For the first time, everything has come together for a long stretch offensively. He's hitting for average, hitting for power and utilizing his speed on the base paths. If he was playing defense like last season, he'd be a borderline all-star candidate.
Jones is a four-tool player who can get really hot when he makes consistent contact. If the defense returns and he continues to be a solid presence in the lower third of the order, Jones will have a place in the team's long-term plans, even as some of the top outfield prospects break into the big leagues.
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