JaCoby Jones takes aim at being Tigers' center fielder
Surprise, Ariz. – The first thing JaCoby Jones did when he got the news that Cameron Maybin had been traded to the Angels was to send him a text message.
“I just told him thanks for everything,” said Jones, who is part of the Detroit Tigers’ contingent playing for Salt River in the Arizona Fall League. “He was like a big brother to me. I wished him the best.”
The second thing he did was to ask the Tigers if he could have Maybin’s jersey number (4) – which he is proudly wearing here in Arizona.
Next up, he wants Maybin’s old job – playing center field for the Tigers.
“(The trade) opened up a lot,” Jones said before taking pre-game batting practice Monday. “There’s a chance I could be on the Opening Day roster and I am going to do everything I can to be there.”
Tigers general manager Al Avila made it abundantly clear that, as the Tigers are presently situated, Jones will go to spring training with an opportunity to win the job, or at least share it with Tyler Collins.
“If he has a strong Arizona Fall League, comes in spring training and really has a good spring, I can't rule out that he might not be the guy,” Avila said last month in his post-season press conference. “Particularly if you can match him up with another guy that hits from the left side (Collins) and can give him some days off on some tough right-handed pitchers.
“That's one option.”
Avila said there was a second option, as well, which Jones is well aware of. The Tigers could acquire a veteran center fielder in a trade.
“I just know there’s another outfield spot open,” Jones said. “With TC and (Anthony) Gose, it’s going to be fun, spring training, competing – we’ll see what happens.”
Jones, playing exclusively in center field in 14 games this fall, entered Monday with a .308 batting average, a .383 on-base percentage and a .806 OPS. And, by all accounts, he’s roaming center field almost flawlessly.
“That they’ve put me in center field full-time, it’s great,” said Jones, who played third base and center field during his September call-up last season. “That they want me in center, that’s perfect for me. I love it.”
It won’t be his defense that keeps him from making the Opening Day roster, or his athleticism. It will be his hitting – specifically, his ability to adjust to off-speed pitches and breaking balls. It took two games for big league pitchers to discover that particular flaw in Jones’ game.
After going 4-for-8 in his first two games with the Tigers, he went 2 for 20 with 11 strikeouts in the next 11 – seeing a steady diet of breaking balls and off-speed pitches.
“That’s exactly what our discussions have been about here,” said Phil Clark, who is the Tigers’ hitting coach at Double-A Erie and is working with the Salt River staff this fall. “He’s definitely seeing breaking balls here. And we’ve spent a lot of time, more on his mindset and approach to the guy who is pitching on that particular day and making adjustments as the game goes on.
“That’s been a lot of the work we’ve been doing – on the mental side.”
Clark is teaching Jones how to stay balanced at the plate. How to recognize breaking balls and off-speed pitches quicker out of the pitcher’s hand. He is teaching Jones how to anticipate when a pitcher will likely throw a breaking ball. He’s getting him to understand that in the big leagues, he’s not always going to see a fastball in fastball counts.
“He’s making it,” Clark said. “It’s a new approach all together. Things tend to come easy for him because he’s such an athletic kid. But he’s been challenged. And it’s good that he got a chance to see that at a higher level.
“The biggest thing is, he realizes that this is part of his game that needs to improve. It’s to the point now where he’ll come back to the dugout after an at-bat and say, ‘I knew that pitch was coming.’ He’s learning from all these situations.”
Clark is trying to get Jones to slow himself down at the plate, stay balanced and stop being in a rush to attack the ball. The mantra Clark repeats is, “Know what you’re going to get and prepare for what you’re going to do with it.”
Jones believes it’s working, and the quality of his plate appearances bears it out. He has struck out 10 times in 52 at-bats and walked five times.
“I feel like once I get ready, in a ready stance and I’m balanced with my feet, I feel I can recognize it earlier,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been doing out here. I’ve cut down on my strikeouts more than I had in the past. I feel good in the box and I’m recognizing pitches.”
The quality of breaking ball he’s seeing in Arizona, he well knows, isn’t nearly as wicked as those he saw in September. So the process will be ongoing.
“It’s an issue many, many players have, particularly young ones moving to the big leagues,” said David Littlefield, Tigers director of player development. “You can’t duplicate the quality of talent and competition you see in the big leagues.
“Historically, contact is something he needs to continue to work on – tracking the ball, following breaking pitches. But this guy is a ballplayer. He made the adjustments at Triple-A after a slow start. We think he’s just going to continue to get better.”
Jones fully understands the opportunity the Tigers have given him. As he walked up to the batting cage Monday, he wasn’t in a squandering mood.
“If they want me to go back to Toledo for whatever – that’s fine,” he said. “But I’m going to do whatever I can to make the team on Opening Day. I want to be there. That’s my mindset – to be the Opening Day center fielder. I want to be there.”