15 November 2017

How Did Adam Jones Turn Things Around?

Even if you were the biggest Adam Jones fan in the world, you were still met with this fact before the start of the 2017 season: His offensive production was slipping. In pretty steady fashion, Jones's production decreased in each season since 2012 (his best offensive year):

2012: 127 wRC+
2013: 119 wRC+
2014: 117 wRC+
2015: 111 wRC+
2016: 97 wRC+
Data via FanGraphs

As is often the case, you could partially explain Jones's subpar 2016 numbers on injuries. In April of that season, he missed some time with a ribcage injury. Later in the year, he also missed some time with back and hamstring injuries. It's hard to know if those injuries affected him more than in other years, because he rarely seems to miss much time. In fact, Jones hasn't been on the disabled list since September of 2009, when a sprained ankle ended his season. That's hard to believe. Jones has played in at least 137 games in every season since 2009. Of course Jones gets hurt, but he just seems to deal with it and keep moving along. You know, by staying hungry.

In 2017, Jones bucked the trend and increased his offensive output. His wRC+ increased by 10 points, to 107. His BABIP, a career low .280 in 2016, fortuitously jumped back up to .312. He hit three fewer home runs than the year before, but managed to hit nine more doubles.

After seeing those numbers, I expected that Jones hit the ball harder in 2017. But he didn't. Let's look at some Statcast data for the last few seasons:

2015: 87.7 avg. exit velocity (t-242), 176 avg. distance (t-194)
2016: 88.3 avg. exit velocity (t-219), 183 avg. distance (t-146)
2017: 86.6 avg. exit velocity (t-270), 167 avg. distance (t-289)
Data via Baseball Savant

OK, so that's a little surprising, and isn't all that encouraging.

Let's keep digging. Jones still struck out in the 17-18% range, which he's done since 2015. He hit the ball on the ground a bit more than the previous season, and his fly ball percentage dipped as well (for the first time since 2013). How about his distribution of balls in play? In 2017, he pulled the ball about 41% of the time. There's nothing out of the ordinary there. But Jones didn't hit the ball up the middle as much (about 30%) and instead served the ball to right field more (about 29% of the time). It was his highest mark since 2010.

So Jones didn't hit the ball harder, but he did hit it on the ground a little more and punch more balls to right field. Not hitting the ball hard and pulling the ball less isn't a great sign, but it does represent him making the most of the current abilities. His plate discipline changes also reflect that. Jones has always chased a lot of pitches, and that was still the case this past season. While he dialed back his overall swing percentage, there's something more noticeable: His contact rates improved.

Picture an Adam Jones strikeout. Most likely, it involves him chasing a slider down and away. This season, though, while Jones chased just as many pitches, he made contact on 68.5% of them. In 2017, the average major league batter made contact on out-of-zone pitches 62.7% of the time (better than Jones's career average). Jones's previous-best O-Contact% of 64.3% came all the way back in 2008.

Last season, Jones finished tied for 50th in O-Contact% (among all qualified batters). In 2016, Jones finished just 104th. In 2015, he was only 89th.

Does all of this mean Jones is now a contact hitter? Not exactly, but he has sort of been trending in that direction and is closer to the middle of the pack. He's never walked much, and in an era when lots of hitters strike out frequently, he's a few percentage points below the major league average. That's not because he's patient, but because he'll swing early and often. And maybe he'll be able to do things like this:

Or like this:

A little more often.

Or maybe not. Players' ascent and deterioration don't always happen in linear fashion, which is part of what made Jones's yearly slips frustrating. Anyway, he might not hit 30 home runs again, but if he's truly improved his skills to foul off bad pitches and earn himself better ones, or to fight off tough pitches and have some of them drop in instead of him whiffing, then he might be able to stave off his decline for a couple more seasons. At 32, Jones has a lot of wear and tear, but I don't think anyone would say he's done just yet.


Anonymous said...

And he's also not turning into Nick Markakis either. If he can keep hitting around 105 wRC+ and hit 22-28 HRs and move to a COF position then he'll be an asset to have around. Plus his leadership and personality are intangible assets.

Pip said...

I'm not backing down from my opinion that every asset should be treated at the peak of its value, but I really love Adam Jones, he's a quality human being as well as a fine baseball player, and I really hope that he ends his career as an oriole.
Don't trade him,he won't bring back nearly his worth to the team, and he is almost certainly more valued by the city of Baltimore than any other person on the team.
Trade everybody!
But not AJ.

gorav114 said...

It looks like Jones has mad a conscious effort to not flail at that down and away pitch. Resulting in less successful hunting of a pitch but beer ability to recognize and go with the pitch. I would expect he improves upon this season but we see a little more of his power now that he's comfortable knowing he can get to that down and away pitch. Always a professional.