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Adam Jones’ Mysterious Progress

The Baltimore Orioles’ seemingly endless Mystical Quest for .500 is, to the surprise of not many, falling short yet again in 2011. While the Orioles have had many disappointing performances this season, there have also been some bright spots. Among them has to be the offensive contributions of Adam Jones so far this season. Stardom has long been predicted for Jones, who is just 25 years old. But a look at his peripherals raises the (honest) question of just how much progress he has made.

There’s no doubt that Jones is having the best offensive season of his career. Since being traded to Baltimore by Seattle prior to the 2008 season and taking over in center field full time, his previous seasonal wOBA have been .313, .343, and .333, respectively. This season, he’s at .354. The improvement is even more dramatic when compared to league average with wRC+: 85, 103, 103, and now 121. In 2009 and 2010, Jones had 1140 plate appearances worth a total of 9.1 batting runs above average. In 299 plate appearances in 2011, he’s already at 8.2.

This is all easy enough to look up. What is of interest to us is how Jones is doing it and whether he is “for real,” i.e., whether the improvement is sustainable or just random variation. This is of particular interest in Jones’ case because he hasn’t yet become the “superstar” many thought he would. One shouldn’t be taken up too much in “trends,” (despite Jones’ general slow trend upward) while players generally improve offensively as the move through their early twenties, individual players rarely improve in a simple linear fashion. Part of that is that not every player develops the same, part of that is that even seasonal sample sizes are small enough that the player’s true talent could be “really” improving while variation makes it seem otherwise.

Getting back to Jones: the “quick indicators” don’t indicate a lot of “luck” (shorthand for random variation from true talent). His BABIP so far this season is .319, which is right around his careeer average of .321. He is striking out a bit less often this season — and while strikeouts themselves aren’t significantly worse than other outs, the more the ball is in play, the more chances you have for hits, and Jones’ batting average (.293) is the highest of his career so far. Notably, his contact rate is up to almost 78% this season — still below average, but also the best of his career and the likely reason for the slight decrease in strikeouts.

However, simply making slightly more contact does not explain everything (it would be glib [not to mention inaccurate] to simply say “the rest of the league got worse and Jones stayed the same). Jones’ isolated power is up to .176 from his previous three-year average of .156 (although he had a .180 in 2009). Improving power is also something we’d expect from a player at Jones’ age. However, Jones’ biggest problem in past seasons — plate discipline — seems far from being solved. Yes, his 5.4% walk rate is up from last season’s miserable 3.7%, but is still far from good (league average is 8.4%), and hardly better than his 5.0% average from 2008-2010. Indeed, Jones is swinging at more pitches than ever: 57.3% versus a career average of 54.3% and 2011 league average of 45.7%, which goes a long way to explaining the lack of walks.

Swing percentage by itself is simply a peripheral stat, but combined with Jones’ still-unimpressive contact skills, it does raise concerns about how much he’s actually improved regarding his Achilles Heel — his approach at the plate. No one should be complaining about the results Jones is getting so far, of course. A player who held his own against major-league pitching at 22 and was above average at 23-24 holds a lot of promise based on what we know about how hitters usually progress in their twenties (Jones’ trajectory in the field is a matter for another time). While plate discipline is probably the single most important skill for the majority of hitters, there are many examples of hitters who have done well without it. Jones might turn out to be one of those players. Perhaps when he does make contact he just hits the ball so hard that it’s more likely to fall in — or go out (although his 15.9% infield fly rate this season should raise some eyebrows). However, those players are the exception, not the rule.

As I hinted in the introductory paragraph, I honestly don’t know whether this is an “optimistic” or “pessimistic” post on Jones. That is a confession of confusion. On the pure level of results, Jones is having a good season. However, it’s not clear to me from the numbers that his skills have actually improved. If I had to choose, I’d say I’m optimistic rather than pessimistic because of his age. But Jones’ continued struggles with plate discipline have me flummoxed. I’m sure Orioles fans hope that either Jones improves his strike zone judgment or that I continue to be confounded (and it would hardly be the first time).