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Adam Jones’ Offensive Jump

For the Baltimore Orioles, the Erik Bedard trade is the gift that keeps on giving.

In February of 2008, the O’s swapped their talented-but-brittle ace to the Mariners for Chris Tillman, George Sherrill, Tony Butler, Kam Mickolio and Adam Jones.

Tillman will team up with 2008 first-rounder Brian Matusz to give Baltimore a deadly one-two punch at the top of the rotation. Sherrill was shipped to the Dodgers last summer for third baseman of the future Joshua Bell.

Those elements alone would make the Bedard deal one of the great heists in recent memory. But the O’s also snagged one of the most talented young outfielders in the game in Jones.

A supplemental first-round pick in the 2003 amateur draft, Jones was pushed aggressively through the Mariners’ farm system. He reached Double-A by the age of 19, and got his first taste of big league action as a 20 year-old in 2006.

Jones was a shortstop until ’06, but the 6-2, 210 pounder outgrew the position.
Despite being several years younger than his peers and juggling a position switch, Jones faired remarkably well in the minors. He batted a combined .301/.364/.538 at the AAA level in 2006 and 2007, posting a whopping .237 ISO.

Jones’ plate discipline needed some work (he walked in 7.2% of his plate appearances in AAA), and he understandably scuffled in limited playing time with the M’s over those two seasons (.241 wOBA in ’06, .306 in ’07). But it’s hard to find fault with a precocious, up-the-middle prospect beating the snot out of the baseball.

Following the big trade, the Orioles committed to giving Jones the starting gig in center field. In his first full season in the majors in 2008, the righty batter posted a .270/.311/.400 line and a .313 wOBA in 514 PA. This past year, he raised his triple-slash to .277/.335/.457 in 519 PA (.343 wOBA). Jones’ bat went from being worth -7 Park Adjusted Batting Runs in ’08 to +6.1 in ’09. What changed, and what does it mean for his future?

Jones’ walk rate increased from 4.6 percent in 2008 to 7.1 in 2009, while his whiff rate dropped from 22.6 percent to 19.7 percent. The first inclination is to assume that the 24 year-old did a better job of laying off pitches out of the zone while making more contact.

However, that wasn’t really the case. Jones’ outside-swing percentage did indeed fall, but only from 36.2 percent in ’08 to 35.3 percent in ’09 (the major league average is about 25 percent). His contact rate actually decreased, from 76.9 percent to 74.6 percent (80-81 percent MLB average). So, how did he draw more walks and punch out less often?

Opposing pitchers appeared to tread more cautiously when Jones was at the dish in 2009. In ’08, 52.7 percent of the pitches tossed his way were within the strike zone (the MLB average was 51.1 percent that year). In 2009, pitchers gave Jones something over the plate just 48.4 percent of the time (49.3 percent MLB average). His first-pitch strike percentage fell from 66 percent to 57.8 percent (58 percent MLB average).

The reason for that extra care might have been Jones’ increased power output. His Isolated Power climbed from .130 in 2008 to .180 in 2009. Jones cranked 19 home runs this past season, compared to nine the previous year.

He was often tied up by quality fastballs during his rookie campaign, with a run value of -0.81 per 100 pitches vs. fastballs and a lofty 14.5 infield/fly ball rate. In his sophomore season, Jones was average vs. heaters (-0.09 runs/100 pitches) and didn’t pop the ball up near as much (5.6 infield/fly ball percentage).

Jones’ home run/fly ball rate spiked, from 6.9 percent to 17.8 percent. When he hit a fly ball, it did serious damage: Jones slugged .895 on fly balls in 2009, compared to the .603 A.L. average. Compare that to 2008, when he slugged .511 on fly balls (.566 A.L. average).

However, Jones hit far fewer fly balls overall:

His groundball rate soared from 46.8 percent in 2008 to 55.4 percent in ’09. Jones’ rate of grounders hit in ’09 eclipsed such power luminaries as Cristian Guzman, Nyjer Morgan and Emilio Bonifacio.

Despite not being a huge stolen base threat, Jones does possess quality speed. His career Speed Score is 6.2 (the MLB average is about five). That could help explain Jones’ career .256 batting average on ground balls, well above the .241 A.L. average over the past few seasons. So, Jones has the wheels to beat out more worm-burners than the average hitter. But hopefully he can learn to loft the ball more often, given his raw power.

Jones has experienced a few minor health problems, though nothing to really lose sleep over. He served a DL stint in 2008 after fracturing his left foot on a foul ball, and a sprained left ankle ended his 2009 season in early September. He’s already good to go, though.

Overall, Jones’ 2009 season was very promising. He learned to fight off big league fastballs, not getting jammed nearly as much as in his rookie season. Jones also hit the ball with more authority, which may have helped him get in more hitter’s counts. If he can hone his strike zone control and take full advantage of his strength, Jones could emerge as a full-fledged star in 2010.