Watching him gallop from center field to some distant outpost in left-center, or right-center, at Comerica Park or at other big-league venues in 2017, was to wonder how many games JaCoby Jones could win for the Tigers with his range, alone.
A batted ball would laser its way up a gap. Suddenly, there was Jones, sprinting, stretching, grabbing, sprawling. Turning a double or more into an out. Stabbing a blooper that might have fallen for a single. Changing a game’s score with his defense.
But whether the Tigers can hand a 25-year-old man regular work in 2018 is a sticky off-season question, all because his weak bat offsets the counties he covers with speed exceptional for an outfielder 6-foot-2, 205 pounds.
But he needs to get significantly better — at the plate. His batting average in 56 games for the Tigers in 2017 was .170. His on-base average was a sickly .240, which wasn’t helped by 65 strikeouts.
He hit three home runs because of another Jones plus — power — but his wins above replacement (WAR) number for 2017 was a negative-0.1 and explains why the Tigers can’t, with certainty, plan on Jones opening the season March 29 against the Pirates at Comerica Park.
Al Avila, the Tigers general manager, acknowledged Tuesday that a front office and its analytics team were trying to balance idealism with realism in sizing up Jones.
“If you project it over 1,000 innings, let’s say he’s a plus-16, and that makes him one of the top defensive center-fielders in the league,” Avila said. “But you’ve got that strikeout rate and other offensive numbers that can make him just above or below replacement-level.
“Being a young player, we’ve got to give him every chance we can. Obviously, he’s a real good defender up the middle. He doesn’t have to be a league-average hitter to provide value.
“So, there’s reason to run him out there and hope the offense does improve.”
The plan: A starter
Avila for now plans on Jones cracking that daily Tigers lineup in 2018. Nick Castellanos appears set in right field after his September rehearsal worked well for all parties. Mikie Mahtook can be a fine option in left field, which like center at Comerica is one of baseball’s largest land masses. Mahtook, like Jones, played at Louisiana State and has decent range, although not on his cohort’s level.
But the alignment, which could get a boost if free-agent Alex Presley returns to the Tigers, very much rests on Jones’ bat surviving. Projections can be tough for baseball’s math whizzes when Jones has played a grand total of 69 big-league games, a point made by Mike Petriello, an analyst for MLB.com and host of the Statcast podcast.
“It’s a little difficult to know for sure what kind of outfielder Jones is,” Petriello said, “because the 362 innings he played in center field is only about 30 percent of what a full-time guy would play.”
Jones finished 2017 with plus-five in defensive runs saved. Byron Buxton of the Twins was tops among center-fielders with 24, followed by Kevin Kiermaier (Rays) with 22, Juan Lagares (Mets) and Kevin Pillar (Blue Jays) at 15, and Aaron Hicks (Yankees) with 12.
Petriello explained that, by comparison, Jarrod Dyson (Mariners) was a plus-10, while putting together a .251 batting average, .324 on-base percentage, and .350 slugging mark, good for a .674 OPS, and spiced by Dyson’s 28 stolen bases in 111 games. It was worth a slightly above-average WAR of 2.6.
Take into consideration, Petriello said, two more players with plus-nine in defensive runs saved: Jackie Bradley Jr., of the Red Sox, and speedster Billy Hamilton of the Reds. Bradley hit well enough to have a 2.8 WAR (2.0 is considered average), while Hamilton, despite 59 stolen bases, had a puny 1.0 WAR.
This is what Jones is up against, even with his terrific range, in becoming any kind of Tigers lineup asset.
Petriello estimates Jones would need an on-base percentage of at least .310, “which is a tall order, given his .236 career on-base percentage.”
In rough agreement is Dan Szymborski, an ESPN baseball analyst and inventor of the ZiPS system for projecting big-league player performance.
“If he truly is a plus-15 defensive player in center,” Syzmborski said, extending Jones’ numbers to a full season, “he can be a big-league-average center fielder overall.
“So, I think a .650 OPS, or somewhere thereabouts, works given the league level of offense.”
But, again, how realistic when an outfielder is striking out nearly half of his plate appearances?
“Jones must make more contact or none of the rest of it will matter,” Petriello said. “Even in today’s strikeout-heavy game, his 42-percent strikeout rate is beneath acceptable.
“Unless he’s going to start hitting like Joey Gallo (Rangers slugger), he’s got to cut that down to below 30 percent, at least.”
The Tigers, though, understood realities two years ago when Dave Dombrowski in his final days as general manager took a chance on Jones in a swap that sent Joakim Soria to the Pirates.
It was all about athleticism. About potential. About skills that, with time, might coalesce. Little has changed.
“One thing you could say is that Jones does have very good speed,” Petriello said, explaining that Statcast has introduced “sprint speed,” measured as feet-per-second in a player’s one-second window.
The big-league average is 27 feet per second.
“The elite guys like Buxton/Hamilton get to 30 feet per second, and the slowest — catchers and designated hitters — are at 23 feet per second,” Petriello said. “Jones came in at 28.6 feet per second, which is very good.
“It’s better than the average center-fielder (28.2) and it makes him the second fastest Tiger.”
The first, perhaps surprisingly: outfielder Jim Adduci at 28.8. Jones was followed by Mahtook (28.4), Presley and Jose Iglesias (28.0), Andrew Romine (27.9), and Castellanos (27.8). At the bottom: Victor Martinez (24.3).
Speed could also make Jones, regardless of how his bat develops, a defensive replacement and appealing pinch-runner, especially if he develops some finesse for running and stealing bases.
They are part of an overall toolkit the Tigers had thought Jones would spend most of 2017 sprucing up at Triple A Toledo.
Then, in spring camp, J.D. Martinez hurt an ankle. In July, Martinez and Justin Upton were traded. Together with injuries to Presley and Adduci, the Tigers had little choice but to take a chance on Jones.
“We’re just keeping our fingers crossed,” Avila said. “We’re trying to help him make more contact. And if that happens, some of those balls hit will get through. Maybe he’ll do well enough to become a valuable player. He’s young. And if you want to take chances on talent, now’s the time.”