Staying level: Will swing change lead to breakout year for Tigers' JaCoby Jones?

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
JaCoby Jones

Detroit – Ask Tigers center fielder JaCoby Jones about his mindset heading into spring training and he will give you the same answer he gave you the year before and the year before that: “It’s the same,” he said. “I am just excited to back to spring training, excited to get back to competing.”

But he knows this year is different. He’s heard what general manager Al Avila has said. That one of the organizational tasks in 2019 is to determine if Jones can be the everyday center fielder going forward.

Avila said it again at TigerFest last weekend.

“JaCoby Jones ended up as the best defensive outfielder in the game last year, according to the numbers,” Avila said. “We need to see if he can improve his hitting and become an All Star.”

If he hits, he’s an All Star. If he continues to hit in the low-.200s and strikeout 30 percent of the time, then he’s a fourth outfielder. And, with talented outfield prospects ascending rapidly through the system, the clock is ticking for Jones.

Jones, though, is just 26 years old (27 on May 10). He doesn’t hear any clocks ticking. He just knows what’s inside of him. He knows what his ceiling is and that he’s still not even halfway there.

“I’ve thought about that a bunch,” Jones said. “Last season, seeing my defensive numbers and knowing when I got on base I scored half the time. But I didn’t get on base enough. As long as I can hit, I know I can make a difference.”

Jones led all big-league outfielders with 21 defensive runs saved last season, according to Baseball Info Solutions. He saved 11 in left field and 10 in center – making him one of just five players since 2003 to save at least 10 runs at two positions in the same year.

And he did score nearly half the time he got on base. He reached base 124 times and scored 54 runs. But he hit just .207 with a .266 on-base average, striking out 142 times in 467 plate appearances.

“I know I can hit,” Jones said. “Last year I struggled, then I got angry at myself and got away from what I do best. I’ve been here for a few years now. I know what I can do. I know what to do. I am just going to keep working hard.”

The Tigers, organizationally, got away from emphasizing what Jones and others do best, as well. Like so many other teams driven by analytics that showed more offensive damage was done when the ball was put in the air, the Tigers bought into the launch angle craze.

It was easy to do when the roster was stacked with bombers like J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, a healthy Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. But the launch angle approach did nothing for the likes of James McCann, Dixon Machado and especially Jones – who saw their averages plummet and their strikeout rates soar.

That’s changed now. One of the main emphasis this spring, at all levels of the organization, is making contact at the plate, using the entire field and having a better two-strike approach. It’s the way Jones used to approach hitting earlier in his career. And he’s glad to get back to it.

“They are preaching that now, just doing your best to make contact, especially with two strikes,” Jones said. “I’m not going to hit 35 or 40 home runs. I just need to get on base for the power guys who hit behind me.

“When I get on base, I create a lot of things. The last couple of years we got away from that. They wanted to see the long ball.”

Jones, who began making adjustments at the end of last season, has spent a lot of time this offense retooling his swing. His launch angle, according to Statcast, was a career-steep 12 degrees last season. For perspective, a big launch angle is 18 degrees or more. Joey Gallo has a 21.5-degree launch angle. J.D. Martinez last season was at 10.7.

Al Avila on JaCoby Jones: “We need to see if he can improve his hitting and become an All Star.”

But for what Jones is looking to accomplish – get on base, wreak havoc with his speed -- 12 degrees was too big.

“I’ve worked on my swing path, trying to stay more level,” he said. “I had a long swing and I was under the ball a lot. I missed a lot of fastballs I should’ve hit last year.”

Watching video, Jones also noticed his plate coverage was poor. He has extremely quick hands and coupled with his upper-cut swing path, he wasn’t able to get the barrel to pitches on the outer edge of the plate.

“I’ve worked on some minor things that’ll help me cover the plate better,” he said. “Keeping my swing path level will help. It’s more about balance. For me, it’s staying in my legs and being more athletic, not trying to get under the ball.

“I’m focusing on the top half of the ball now.”

It’s not going to be like flipping a switch. Swing changes are difficult and they take time. It’s easy to forget, too, that Jones is still an extremely raw talent. He only has 649 plate appearances at the big-league level.

And as bad as some of the numbers were – 30.4 percent strikeout rate, 6-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio – they were marked improvements over 2017. His 27-percent line drive rate was a career best, as were his 11 home runs and six triples.

He made strides at the end of last season, too, that went largely unnoticed amidst the team’s struggles. After a miserable July (.159, 29 strikeouts in 70 plate appearances), Jones made a concerted effort to start hitting the ball to all fields.

From Aug. 1 to Sept. 25, he hit .240 with a .417 slugging percentage and a .701 OPS. That’s growth and something positive he could take into the off-season.

“Obviously, I just want to have a better season,” he said. “I want to get on base more. I want to steal more bags. I want to do whatever I can do to help us win ballgames.”

He will let other people worry about timelines and ticking clocks.

Twitter @cmccosky