There have been many times in the history of baseball that highly touted prospects have ended up amounting to nothing more than hype. This was after plenty of grooming and coaching in the minors and an adequate chance to prove themselves in the majors. Sometimes young players just don’t have what it takes to make it. It happens.
However in an age of instant gratification, so many teams either rush players through their system to the big leagues or are ready to write off young players who don’t fulfill their prophecy the moment they suit up in their big league threads. Some of these players are pushed aside as teams lose patience before really getting a true chance to prove themselves. This causes organizations to trade or even outright cut players causing teams miss out on players that could have otherwise been a big part of their future.
This is why all the murmurs of Adam Jones possibly not being as good as advertised last season were very shocking to me. How could anyone make a decision on him after such a small sampling? That’s why this season was such a big time in Jones’ career. With 661 career plate appearances over three seasons heading into 2009 (roughly what an everyday player would have in one season), we would finally see if all his tools would start to come together. Good thing for the Orioles they swiped him away from Seattle when they did.
Now before diving into what makes Jones tick, an example of a very highly touted prospect that seems to not be what he was thought to be would be someone like Delmon Young. As a life-long, die hard Twins fan, that kills me to say. Luckily I’m a realist so I can freely admit this. Delmon Young was once the top prospect in baseball. Since having a fairly strong rookie campaign (.288 AVG, 93 RBI, .723 OPS), not only has he not become the hitter or power hitter he was expected to be, his hitting and power have actually regressed each season to the point that he has an OPS of .563 and ISO of .039 thus far in 2009. As truly horrible as that line is, his regression in such key areas after over 1500 plate appearances shows that Young won’t be around much longer if he continues down this path.
Now Jones on the other hand has taken full advantage of the opportunities he has been given. Not only did he work hard with Orioles hitting coaches over the spring, he sought out the advice of stolen base specialist Brian Roberts for help in his base running. Mixing those in with his natural abilities has proven to be just what Jones needed to become a starter in Baltimore and now a fixture in their lineup. Now what exactly makes Jones such a good player today versus before?
For starters Jones has developed into a solid outfielder in center. He plays a shallow centerfield which is ok due to his excellent range. He has shown great improvements in his jumps and routes to balls hit in the gaps or straight back over his head. This helps a lot in cutting down on balls hit to short center as he knows he can get to most balls hit over his head. Jones also has a very strong arm with good life and having him paired up with Nick Markakis in right field makes runners think twice before trying to advance.
Jones’ defense was never really called too much into question as he’s always been a fairly strong outfielder. Where people started getting on him was in regards to his performance at the plate. On the plus side, Jones has always had excellent bat speed and solid strength. Jones also has very good speed which until recently was never utilized properly. Between poor base running decisions and not fully reading a pitcher’s move in order to steal last season, Jones had a lot of room for improvement. This made huge strides over the winter and spring as hard work has helped him start to realize his potential on the base paths.
Now where the knocks on Jones began was in regards to his undisciplined approach at the plate. For starters he has a long swing which can cause a young hitter issues if they aren’t taught how to harness it. Jones is also a fastball hitter and pitchers quickly learned that his Kryptonite was off speed pitches. Pitchers began drowning him in breaking pitches off the plate (and fastballs up in the zone) making his life even more difficult. His stats from last season show it as he posted a 21.0% SO% and 4.70 SO/BB rate. While it was an improvement from his previous short stints in the majors, it still wasn’t anything pretty.
The change in Jones began late last season as he began making adjustments to pitchers who were attacking him with breaking stuff. While it wasn’t a drastic change, he cut his K% in the second half of the season going from 22.3% to 18.1%. Sure it wasn’t huge but it was a start in the right direction.
This season we have seen more of the same from Jones. His approach has improved quite a bit as we’ve seen his plate discipline start to come together. Because of this we have also seen that power he has always been capable of begin to blossom. Here is a quick look at some of his numbers from last year compared to this year:
| YEAR | OPS | OPS+ | ISO | HR% | SO% | BB% | SO/BB | LD% |
| 2008 | .711 | 85 | .130 | 1.8% | 21.0% | 4.5% | 4.70 | 16% |
| 2009 | .974 | 151 | .244 | 4.8% | 19.7% | 6.1% | 3.21 | 22% |
As you can see, he has made improvements in some very key areas. Having him start out with a strong spring, then carrying that over to the season has made a huge difference in his confidence and has landed him at the top of the lineup in a very strong Baltimore offense.
So the question now is whether or not he can keep this pace up. The type of approach Jones had prior to his improvements is the type of approach that can easily creep back into a hitters head, especially if he begins to slump. When a hitter with a long swing who had a tendency to have trouble with breaking pitches begins to struggle, he may try to do too much at the plate which will get him back into the “free-swinging” state of mind which will again cause him to start chasing pitches all over the zone. This is also a tough funk to get out of once you are deep in it. So for Jones to avoid this, he needs to keep his patience at the plate, try not to press too much and if he does find himself in a mini-slump, keep close to his hitting coach and veterans to ensure he keeps on track.
Based on what I have seen from Jones over the past two seasons, I think he is more than capable of being a very strong major league ballplayer throughout his career. I’m not sure if he can keep up the average up as high as it currently is (.335 entering Wednesday) but I do think he can hit around .290 consistently with 20-25 homers and 20-plus stolen bases.
I don’t know about you but I’d take that from my centerfielder any day.