Is Adam Jones Pulling a Matt Kemp?

On Tuesday, Adam Jones took a 1-0 fastball from CC Sabathia in the second inning and launched it out to left field. On Wednesday, in the 15th inning, he destroyed a curveball from Nate Adcock, breaking a 3-3 tie and giving the Orioles a go-ahead run that led to their extra inning win. Yesterday, the victim was Luke Hochevar, whose 4th inning slider didn’t break far enough out of the zone, allowing Jones to deposit it over the center field wall for his third home run in as many days.

The power surge continues Jones’ strong start to the season, and his 13 home runs are now just six fewer than he had in both 2009 and 2010. The long ball barrage has raised his overall season line to .295/.345/.604, and his 159 wRC+ puts him in the top 20 in offensive performance to begin the year. Once you add in the fact that Jones is a center fielder who also runs the bases well, Jones has been a top five player in the sport so far.

While it’s still early, his strong start is evoking memories of Matt Kemp‘s breakout year last season, and the two might be a bit more similar than you think.

Through their age 25 seasons, their numbers shared quite a few similarities. Kemp had 2,469 plate appearances to Jones 2,419, so their playing time through their first four years was pretty close to a dead heat. Kemp racked up two more singles, seven more doubles, six more triples, and 14 more home runs, so while he did show more power than Jones, remember that these totals are over four full seasons worth of playing time, so the per-season gap isn’t all that large.

The area with the most significant difference is also the area where Jones draws the most criticism – walk rate. Through his age 25 season, Kemp had drawn 159 unintentional walks, good for a mediocre 6.5% UBB%, but Jones’ walk rate (111 in 2,213 PA, or 4.6% UBB%) made Kemp look downright patient. In fact, of the 162 batters with at least 2,500 plate appearances since 2006, Jones’ walk rate ranks 151st, just above Freddy Sanchez and right below Jeff Francoeur. Every batter who was walked less often than Jones since he began his career is either a middle infielder or a catcher, with the exception of Kevin Kouzmanoff (not in the majors) and Delmon Young (who may be playing and offending himself out of the league).

Jones’ refusal to take a free pass has been a problem, and despite his natural talents, his low walk rate has translated into a .319 on base percentage and a good helping of scorn from the analytical baseball community. When I mentioned in my Wednesday chat that I expected Jones’ next contract to be for more than $100 million, the queue filled up with jokes about spending that much money on a guy who makes so many outs.

But here’s the thing – as Kemp showed last year, these types of players don’t need to become that much more selective to see their walk rates spike in a hurry.

Last year, Kemp set a career high with a 10.4% walk rate, easily the highest he’s ever posted, but he didn’t actually change his approach all that much.

In 2010, Kemp swung at 30.9 percent of pitches that PITCHF/x classified as outside the strike zone, a mark that was 1.6 points above the league average. In 2011, he swung at 32.9 percent of pitches that the algorithm calculated as outside the strike zone, 2.3 points higher than the league average. He swung at more strikes too, so his swing rate actually jumped from 45.4 percent in 2010 to 48.0 percent in 2011. The data shows that Kemp actually got more aggressive during his breakout season last year.

So, how did he set a career high in walks while swinging even more regularly than the year before? He began intimidating pitchers for the first time. Through his age 25 season, Kemp drew a total of 17 intentional walks. He received 24 IBBs last season alone, more than doubling his career total, and the upward trend was obvious as the season wore on – he was intentionally walked just five times total in April and May, but then received 19 over the final four months of the season.

Kemp’s 7.5% UBB% was an increase over his 2010 total, but it’s pretty likely that a decent number of those unintentional walks were still somewhat planned. As Kemp began destroying strikes, pitchers just started throwing him fewer pitches to hit, so even though he swung more often, the walks came as the result of his power surge.

The trend has continued this year. His five IBBs in 139 PA would project out to 24.6 over the same number of plate appearances as he had last year, and he’s seen a precipitous drop in number of pitches that PITCHF/x calculates as strikes – 42.9% this year compared to 47.0% last year. Kemp has responded to the pitches out of the zone by reducing his swing rates and taking even more walks, but it’s important to note that the power came first and the walks followed, not the other way around.

Adam Jones is still an aggressive hitter, swinging at 51.7 percent of the pitches he’s been thrown this year, but for the first time in his career, he’s starting to give pitchers reasons to fear throwing him a strike. As long as he sustains some of the added power he’s showing right now, pitchers are going to adjust, and they’re going to start pitching around him more often. And the walks will come. Right now, Jones has yet to be issued an intentional walk this season, and he’s only drawn six in his entire career. That’s going to change, and the “unintentional intentional walks” will follow as well.

Through age 25, Kemp hit .285/.336/.472, then busted out a .324/.399/.586 line that made him one of the game’s premier offensive players. Through age 25, Jones hit .275/.319/.437 against better competition, and while he’s probably not going to reach the heights that Kemp reached last year, the power surge suggests that there’s been some legitimate improvement, and he’s likely to perform significantly better than he has in the past.

If you judge Jones by his career on base percentage, you’ll probably think he’s an overrated hack due for regression. He almost certainly is due for some regression, but don’t be surprised if he keeps hitting for enough power to start drawing the fear walks that get his on base percentage up to a more respectable level.

And, realistically, $100 million for Jones might have been a low estimate for what kind of extension he’ll be able to ask the Orioles for. Just a year and a half from free agency, he’s not going to command Matt Kemp money, since he hasn’t performed at Matt Kemp’s level, but he can make a pretty strong case that he’s Matt Kemp Lite and deserves 80-90% of the deal that Kemp signed a few months ago. If the Orioles want to keep Jones in Baltimore – and they should – than they’re probably looking at coughing up around $120 to $140 million in order to get him signed long term.

Yes, that’s a lot of money for a guy who has made a lot of outs over his career, but it didn’t take long for Kemp’s deal to look like a relative bargain, and Jones has the ability to make that kind of contract look like a steal as well.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

41 Responses to “Is Adam Jones Pulling a Matt Kemp?”

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  1. sixto says:

    LaHair, Morse, Jones. eff you, bill bavasi.

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  2. Matt P says:

    120 to 140 million doesn’t tell me much without the years. If he gets 8 yrs at 120(15 per year) that’s much different than 6 at 120(20 per year).

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  3. Casey says:

    Nice writeup–an enjoyable read. Just a thought, but do you think IBBs are more common in the NL than in the AL (AL East especially) given the strength of lineups?

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    • TKDC says:

      In this case, the lineup in question is the Orioles. I’m not sure what the rest of the AL East has to do with this.

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  4. nik says:

    Unrelated comment, but how does Soriano lead the NL in fielding WAR? He’s one of the slowest Left Fielders

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    • Brad says:

      Maybe he’s in the best shape of his life!

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      • kozilla says:

        The Cubs announcers have been talking about Soriano’s dramatically improved defense. They were saying people kept laughing when they would mention it but he really has looked like a different defender out there.

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      • Johnny Come Lately says:

        Soriano does look better out there. Although I’m not sure he looks THAT MUCH better that Brenley and Casper should continually comment on it. Unless they’re being “encouraged” by Theo to talk up his newly found defensive prowess in order to make him more tradeable. They want to bring up Rizzo soon. The only place to move LaHair would be left field. So either Soriano sits or they trade him. And what do you know, look at that vastly improved defense!

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    • The Rajah says:

      He’s taking less BP so he can really concentrate on his defensive play.

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      • Jason B says:

        Which makes complete sense; I mean, his offensive production is coming along just swimmingly…

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  5. DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy says:

    I was just about to ask you guys what ever happened with the “the Orioles don’t have the WAR/$ ratio to hang in the AL East” line? These pesky teams in first place, who do they think they are!

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    • Nick says:

      Oh yeah, teams that are in first place on May 18th never miss the playoffs.

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      • Llewdor says:

        The Orioles once went 4-32 over their last 36 games. O’s fans should embrace the motto of Mariners fans everywhere

        “There is no floor.”

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  6. jpg says:

    Where are all the braves fans who were busting Dave’s balls all winter over the potential Jurrjens and Prado for Jones swap that Baltimore declined? Talk about deafening silence…

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    • TKDC says:

      Braves fan here, two points:

      1. Prado has 2.0 WAR this season, compared to Jones’ 2.5

      2. That trade also included 2 top prospects

      I mean, honestly, what sense would it make for the O’s to trade one guy with 2 more years of team control to another team in exchange for 2 guys with 2 more years of team control? The O’s wanted prospects. The trade made no sense from either side.

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      • Matt P says:

        According to the rumors, the Braves offered Prado and Jurrjens. The Orioles countered with Prado, Jurrjens and two of your top pitching prospects. Most Braves fans argued that the second case was ridiculous while they wouldn’t even make the first trade.

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      • Dan says:

        Jones has a positive UZR for the fist time since 2008–that seems unlikely continue. We also know that his HR/FB rate is unsustainable. When he inevitably regresses in these areas, he’ll be lucky to carry a 4 WAR performance rate the rest of the season. Because of the hot start it will likely be a 5-WAR year though, which is nothing to sneeze at.

        On the other hand Prado’s bounce back year is being fueled by a regression to pre-2011 BABIP and an increased walk rate. Both of those things seem more sustainable than Jones “newfound” power.

        I’d expect Prado and Jones to be roughly equal in value the remainder of the season.

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        “Jones has a positive UZR for the fist time since 2008–that seems unlikely continue”

        Why? He’s always been fast yet had negative range ratings with positive arm and average error ratings. I see no reason to say it is unlikely he has become an above average defender, as he’s always had the skills to succeed.

        Sure, a 25% HR/FB rate is unsustainable, but 17-20% may not be. After all he posted a 16.7% rate last year.

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      • cable fixer says:

        dan, you’re glossing over the 5.9 UZR that prado currently has, which rates him as the 4th most valuable defender in all of baseball this year. last year, he accumulated 6.1 runs saved.

        if you want to regress jones’ uzr…fine, but don’t forget to regress prado’s as well. his uzr/150 projects at +35 or something which strikes me as very difficult to sustain, even for someone who is a true talent “exceptional” fielder (which is probably not the case).

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    • Van says:

      Where are the O’s fans who were saying Prado was done?

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  7. Xeifrank says:

    Help me out, what is the legacy left (players that they wouldn’t otherwise currently have) from the Mariners trade of Adam Jones?

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    • Michael Barr says:

      it was Jones, Sherrill, Tillman, Butler, and Mickolio. Sherrill and Butler are actually Mariners again. Mickolio is a Diamondback, I think.

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    • Piccamo says:

      They still have Tillman and Mickolio (who is no longer in MLB) helped Reynolds (who is still there) and Hester (who is no longer with the O’s). George Sherrill turned into Josh Bell (who turned into Michael Belifore) and Steve Johnson (still in the minors). Tony Butler is still there, too, but he’s also in the minors.

      So if you just want the actual players from the Bedard deal, the O’s still have Jones, Tillman, and Butler. If you want to include trickle down players from ensuing trades thanks to that trade, the O’s still have Jones, Tillman, Butler, Reynolds, Belifore, and Johnson.

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  8. hairball says:

    One of the best FG articles I’ve read!

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  9. Brian says:

    I never really comment on posts, but I had to on this one…just to say it was a great post

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  10. Snoth says:

    Ugh, I traded Jones for Carlos Gonzalez in my fantasy league (H2H points) because I desperately needed a LF and had depth at CF with Trout and Jackson. And now you’re telling me he could be the next Kemp (lite)? Poopy…Still don’t think it was too bad given my needs tho.

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  11. fhyrew says:

    A year ago I would’ve said “no way” to committing nine figures to someone with Adam Jones’ on-base struggles. But I’m beginning to think it’s not only a good idea, but a necessity, for reasons pointed out in this article. Locking up the prime years of a good defender at a premium position who hits for power without having to pay for a bunch of past-his-prime years at the end of the contract is a rare opportunity, and one the O’s should take. It also doesn’t hurt that he seems to truly give a damn about his team, improving his game, and doing things in the community. Get it done O’s.

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  12. dkdc says:

    Don’t forget that Jones gets HBP a lot more than Kemp, so if we’re talking purely about the skill of getting on base, that closes some of UIBB% gap between Jones and Kemp.

    UIBB + HBP Rate:

    Jones Career: 6.2%
    Kemp Career: 7.2%

    Jones pre-breakout: 6.1%
    Kemp pre-breakout: 6.8%

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  13. 300ZXNA says:

    I remember reading USS Mariner at the time of the Bedard/Jones trade and Dave had posited before the trade was made that he would not trade Adam Jones for Bedard straight up. At the time I was new to sabermetrics, and so that seemed like a pretty bold claim at the time. Dave was absolutely correct. What a disaster that trade turned into.

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    • joser says:

      Yes, and he took grief for that stance for years afterward. I don’t expect any of those critics will be coming forth with apologies should (as it seems) he turn out to have been right all along. (And for the folks who talk about WAR-to-date: his whole point was that Jones was young and under team control and would eventually prove to be more valuable).

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  14. Mike Green says:

    Jones reminds me a fair bit of Andre Dawson. In Dawson’s case, the leap forward was first with K rate (at age 25). Jones’ K rate is also down somewhat this year. He is a decent bet to hit .300.

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  15. Sam says:

    Orioles fan here – I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jones moved to LF within the next couple of years. While his offense sets him ahead, his defense in CF is sometimes questionable. At the same time, the O’s have someone no one right now is looking at in Xavier Avery. Avery has had his first cup of ML coffee over the past week, and he’s been decent. No one is going to scream “.230 BA” from the rooftops, but he’s blinding fast, he draws walks, and has developed his ground ball game. He’s also comfortable in the major leagues.
    I wouldn’t be surprised to see Avery starting in CF as early as next opening day.

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    • gobears says:

      Good points, but I’d still like to see Reimold get some more time once he’s healthy. He’s a little old, but he’s had some pretty solid skills over there….

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      • MGM says:

        Pretty much every Orioles fan who would be on this site would agree with you, but for the fact that Reimold just. can’t. stay. healthy. It’s always something nagging with him, and that’s been the cast since he was drafted. I think he can be a league-average defender in left and t-slash a 280/370/490 or so, but he can’t keep himself on the field.

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    • MGM says:

      Couple of problems with this — first off, if the O’s are going to move Jones to LF, they’d have to do it after signing him to an extension, as I’m betting he wouldn’t be willing to re-sign with them after they’d drop his on-market defensive value by moving him off a premium position.

      I do agree with you, though — with the way Avery moves, if he ends up sticking in the lineup I think Jones-Avery-Markakis is a better play than Avery-Jones-Markakis, especially as Nick’s range starts to decline (some would tell you that’s started happening already).

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  16. Dan says:

    Ok, so we all know the 26% HR/FB rate isn’t going to continue. So the question becomes can he keep his FB% up. Looks to me like he has traded some LD’s (and a few GBs) for fly balls this year–combine that with a spike in HR/FB% and you get the current version.

    So if the FB% drops back a little bit, it is likely to be offset by a few more line drives, and a rise in his BABIP. It’s looking like this will be a career year for Jones, but I’m not sold that he’s established a new level of performance. And I think he will have to keep up the power stroke for another month before pitchers look at him as a guy to pitch around like Kemp.

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  17. Tim S. says:

    6/$85 looks like a good deal for the O’s and AJ10 preserves his ability to sign a second big contract for his age 32+ seasons, if he continues to develop.

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