Detroit — Maybe a few years ago, JaCoby Jones and a bunch of his friends would be making the trek up to New Orleans Monday to cheer on his LSU Tigers and take part in the NCAA Championship Game festivities.
Not this time.
“Nah, I’m going to watch it from my couch,” Jones said in a phone interview with the News Tuesday. “Too hectic for me.”
Jones’ couch is in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. His home-built batting cage is there, too, as is a sparkling new indoor training facility that he works out at every day. Close by is a local high school where’s he shagged fly balls and taken batting practice the last six years.
You get the picture?
Jones loves his alma mater. And he will be rooting like a madman for them on Monday. But the Tigers team that pays his salary is the baseball club in Detroit. And going into his age-28 season, Jones is laser focused on re-establishing himself as the everyday center fielder.
“Last year was very frustrating, only playing a half a year,” he said. “All my career I’ve been durable and been able to stay on the field. Last year was just kind of a fluke thing. This year I want to do everything I can to stay on the field for 150 games.
“I don’t know what their plans are, but when we get to spring training, I’m going to tell Gardy (manager Ron Gardenhire) that I want to stay out there every day.”
Jones started and ended the season on the injured list. He sprained his shoulder diving for a ball in one of the final exhibition games in Lakeland. That cost him two weeks and 11 games. His season ended on Aug. 8 when a 95-mph fastball from Royals right-hander Jorge Lopez fractured his left wrist. That cost him the final two months and 48 games.
In between, he missed games with a hamstring injury and back stiffness.
All told, he played in only 88 games. He got fewer than 300 at-bats.
So, what do we make of his numbers? He raised his OPS by 110 points and his OPS-plus by 23. His slash-line was the best of his career (.235/.310/.430). He was a plus-15 on the bases and scored 38 percent of the time he got on base (39 runs, 103 times on base).
For one glorious, 36-game stretch after he started calming his hands by laying the bat on his shoulder in his set-up, he hit .320 with a .960 OPS.
“I have a few years under my belt now and I know what I can do,” Jones said. “That month, month and a half, really helped me out so much, showing me that.”
Still, the sample size seems insufficient. He understands that. He knows that while he’s penciled in as the starting center fielder, he’s coming to camp with a clean slate. Which is why he’s been working so hard this offseason.
“I’ve been full-go for a quite a while now, just conditioning and hitting,” he said. “Trying to get my body in shape for next month. The wrist isn’t bothering me at all. It’s not restraining me. It’s just like it was before I got hurt.”
Hitting will always be the x-factor for Jones. What needs to be constant for him to keep his starting role, though, is his defensive play in center field. And, again, what do we make of his numbers in an 88-game season?
In 2018, he led baseball with 21 defensive runs saved — the majority of those coming when he played left field alongside Leonys Martin. Last year, playing exclusively in center field, he ranked near the bottom of the league with minus-13 defensive runs saved.
Is that metric indicative of how badly Jones played last season? General manager Al Avila, during the winter meetings last month, said the numbers shouldn’t be ignored.
“The eye test will tell you he didn’t play as good defensively, in my opinion,” he said. “The metrics showed it, but the eye test showed it. You could tell he didn’t go after the ball like he normally does. Can it be correctable? Sure. He did it really well before.”
Avila believes the injuries took a toll on Jones. Manager Ron Gardenhire, though, had a different theory. He said the metrics got skewed by poor positioning and by the fact that Jones had to cover more ground than most center fielders because of the limited range of left fielder Christin Stewart and former right fielder Nick Castellanos.
Jones, loathe to make any excuses, admitted he had to position himself deeper than he would normally so he could cover more of the gaps, which at Comerica Park is a vast expanse of land.
“Look, I know my defensive numbers were down; I heard it all year,” Jones said. “But I felt like my speed was still there. Everything was there. They just hit it where I wasn’t and I had to run a lot farther. Christin was playing his first year at Comerica. Victor Reyes was playing his first full year. I had to help those guys out.”
When Martin was traded to Cleveland in 2018 and Jones moved full-time to center, he told outfield coach Dave Clark that he preferred to play in a few steps. Clark told him that would be fine, if there were outfielders on either side of him that could protect him in the gaps.
There were none.
So, especially last season, Jones had to be the one playing deep, especially to protect Stewart in the left-center gap. Thus, Jones was not only chasing a lot of balls into the gap, but balls were dropping in front of him that likely could’ve been caught had he been aligned in a normal depth.
“I like to play deep on some fields, but 70% of the balls that are hit are hit in front of you,” Jones said. “If they hit a ball 419 feet, then you just tip your hat. It’s going to be a homer in most parks and off the wall at Comerica. The only reason I caught some of those balls at the wall (and two that were heading over the wall) is because I was playing pretty deep.
“I was protecting the gaps for Stewart and whoever else was out there.”
Stewart is projected to be back in left field this season. Reyes will likely battle non-roster invitee and former Royal Jorge Bonifacio for the right field job. Still, Jones will likely have to expand his range again.
“It’ll be different this year,” Jones said. “I am not going to say it will be easier, but it’ll be different. Christin and Reyes will know what to expect and I will do everything I can to help this team field better. And we should have a better idea of what we want to do out there when we line up.”
Jones, eligible for salary arbitration for the first time and projected to get $1.4 million if it goes that far, knows he has to wear that ugly minus-13 number until he changes it.
“There’s a lot of people in this game who know what I can do out there,” Jones said. “But numbers don’t lie, I guess. People will look at that and say whatever they want to say. But I know Gardy has trust in me, the players have trust in me and the pitchers, they want me out there.”