14 January 2016

Chris Jones - Future LOOGY? Or A New T.J. McFarland?

Joe Reisel's Archives

The Orioles acquired Chris Jones when they traded Luis Ayala. Photo courtesy of Les Treagus/Norfolk Tides
Most of Orioles' fans attention has, quite rightly, been focused on the big-name players with whom the Orioles have been linked - Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes. These are players who will account for a large percentage of the Orioles' financial outlays and who will, most likely, have the greatest impact on their 2016 season and beyond. Given that, it may seem trivial to look at left-handed pitcher Chris Jones, a twenty-seven-year-old pitcher who has never pitched in the major leagues and has only twice sniffed his organization's top-prospect lists.
Yet, there are a couple of reasons why Jones is worth examining. First, the Orioles have gotten a lot of mileage out of pitchers with similar or inferior credentials - Chaz Roe, T.J. McFarland, Brad Brach, even Miguel Gonzalez. Second, the Orioles added Jones to their 40-man roster in November, to make sure that he wouldn't be granted minor-league free agency. And third - most intriguing - they have kept him on the 40-man roster while letting go of Junior Lake, Rey Navarro, just-acquired Edgar Olmos, and former top-ten prospect Tim Berry. Clearly, the Orioles believe that Jones is more than the typical career minor-leaguer.

This is the second time Jones has been added to the Orioles' 40-man roster. He was added after the 2013 season and then, in a procedural move, was released and re-signed at the start of spring training 2014. (Nelson Cruz took his roster spot.) The first time he was added to the Orioles' 40-man roster after the 2013 season, I looked at his 2013 season to see if he might be an effective left-handed spot relief pitcher. In that article, I concluded that Jones was substantially more effective against left-handed batters and consequently seemed to have a future as a lefty relief specialist.

Jones, however, was used mostly out of the bullpen in 2013. In both 2014 and 2015 with Norfolk, he began the year as a spot starter-long relief pitcher but moved into the rotation as other pitchers got hurt, called up, or traded. In 2015, Jones worked out of the bullpen in April but moved into the rotation when T.J. McFarland was recalled; he stayed in the rotation the rest of the season and ended up with 22 starts, 8 relief appearances, and 150 innings pitched. He even started games 2 and 4 of the Tides' playoff series against Columbus (Game 2 was stopped by rain after Jones pitched two innings; Jones came back to start Game 4 after two days' rest.)

Pitching out of the bullpen in 2013, Jones was substantially more effective against left-handed pitchers in the games I saw:

.183/.259/.224 vs. Left
.320/.381/.493 vs. Right

In 2015, I saw 214 plate appearances against Chris Jones - 59 against left-handed batters and 155 against right-handed batters. The interesting thing is that working primarily as a starting pitcher, Jones pitched much worse against left-handed pitchers and much better against right-handed pitchers:

.340/.407/.440 vs. Left
.257/.284/.399 vs. Right

Even more interesting is that Jones' BB/K ratio was unacceptable against left-handed batters, but quite good against right-handed batters:

7/9 BB/K vs. Left
6/36 BB/K vs. Right

There is nothing notable in the plate appearances - for example, Jones didn't face obviously better left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters in 2015 - that explains this. It is true that the left side of the Norfolk infield - generally, Paul Janish and Michael Almazar - was slightly better defensively than the right side of the Norfolk infield - Rey Navarro/Sharlon Schoop and Christian Walker. But it's unlikely that the difference was so great as to explain all the difference.

It's certainly a possibility that Jones' true abilities are not as extreme as the data I've gathered would indicate and that his splits were exaggerated by random chance. But it is also possible that Jones had a different approach in 2015 than he did in 2013. In 2013, the Orioles may have concluded that he would fit best as a left-handed relief specialist, and developed him accordingly. He may have adopted an approach that increased his effectiveness against left-handers while diminishing his effectiveness against right-handers. Then, for some reason, the Orioles may have changed their minds and decided that Jones would be more valuable as a swingman/starter (or that the AAA Norfolk Tides needed a starter and that Jones was the most viable option.) And so Jones then may have adopted an approach that sacrificed some of his effectiveness against left-handed batters while increasing his effectiveness against right-handed batters.

But that's just speculation. Given Jones' 2015 performance, my post-2013 conclusion that Chris Jones was unlikely to succeed in the T.J. McFarland long reliever/spot starter role must be discarded. As a rotation starter, he was successful against right-handed batters. In 2013, as a relief pitcher, he was successful against left-handed batters.

However, even if Jones' performance splits would be less extreme - he is truly more effective against left-handers than in 2015 and less effective against right-handers in 2015 - that would be a point in favor of his being able to fill the T.J. McFarland role. He would be more equally effective against left- and right-handed batters, and so would be more effective as a spot starter/long reliever.

Chris Jones is what the Orioles seem to want - a versatile pitcher with minor-league options available who can be called up and sent down as needed. For that reason, we should at least take note of his addition to the Orioles' roster. I expect him move several times between Norfolk and Baltimore in 2016.


Philip said...

Interesting article, thanks.
I'm glad to get some info on the marginal guys. They have a role, too, and the 15 great innings from guys like Roe can't be discounted.
If Jones does well, does that jeopardize TJ or Matusz' spot? There's only room for one specialist, and I'd be overjoyed if we could dump Matusz in favor of someone better and cheaper...or even almost as good and cheaper.

Philip said...

PS can we look forward to any more such articles about guys like Trigg, Bridwell and the other guys who occupy the 35-40 spots on the roster?

Unknown said...

I don't think Jones is in a position to force TJ or Matusz off the roster, even if he has a good spring. It's more likely that if Jones does get a chance in the big leagues, and pitches well, he may keep his big-league job at the expense of one of them.

I can't speak for the staff as a whole, but I generally don't like writing about subjects to which I can add nothing beyond what's published elsewhere. I see games at Norfolk, and so I'd like to think I can add a fresh insight to players who've played there. I haven't seen Lee, or Bridwell, or Triggs, so I don't have anything to add on them.

Philip said...

Thanks for your second answer, I appreciate it.
Regarding Jones, I guess my real question is whether it is a realistic possibility that Jones might pitch well enough to justify a trade of Matusz or TJ, each of whom is in the arbitration years and earning money that would be better spend elsewhere.
I don't know how remote or realistic that possibility is, I should have worded my question better.

Jon Shepherd said...

A healthy Jeff Beliveau is more likely to displace Matusz than either Lee or Jones. Lee and Jones would be considerations mid-season if everything works out for them.