Ever since the Baltimore Orioles acquired Adam Jones as the centerpiece in that ill-fated trade involving Erik Bedard and the Seattle Mariners back in 2008, Orioles fans have dreamed about what Jones could become. He was that rare type of outfield talent, blessed with speed, potential for power, and a rangy athletic ability. That Jones has now begun to fulfill his youthful promise partially obscures the fact that he was, by no means, a sure thing.
For three seasons, from 2009-2011, Jones batted a solid but unspectacular .281/.326/.455 for the Orioles. Granted he was just 25 years old in 2011, but his 108 OPS+ and average of 2.2 fWAR during that stretch didn't necessarily indicate he would become the franchise-type player Baltimore was hoping for. Moreover, the fact Jones walked only 23 times and struck out on 119 occasions in 2011 didn't calm any worries over his future prospects.
But after a 2012 in which he posted a 125 OPS+ and compiled 4.4 fWAR (along with his .331/.352/.521 start to 2013), Jones has become the type of high-impact player that his precocious talent foretold. And although Jones still walks infrequently and strikes out a fair amount (24 walks versus 126 strikeouts in 2012), his approach at the plate has matured in recent seasons.
In many ways, Jones is exemplary of the study done by Jeff Zimmerman and Bill Petti at FanGraphs in 2012, which shows that plate discipline generally improves among major-league hitters as they age into their late twenties. While Jones' walk rate has not significantly increased in recent years, his overall swing habits demonstrate that he is a hitter who has learned to pair patience with his aggressive approach.
The centerfielder's O-Swing%, for example, has dropped in three straight seasons, from a high of 40.4 percent in 2011 to a 38.3 rate in 2013, according to Pitch F/X data from FanGraphs. Similarly, Jones' Z-Swing% and overall Swing% have experienced noticeable dips over the past few years. This slightly more patient approach has coincided with a significant rise in the 27-year-old's line-drive rate, which reached a career-high in 2012 at 21.5 percent and has only continued to rise, currently sitting at 24.2 percent through 29 games in 2013. Such batted-ball data shows that Jones has begun to make more quality contact, likely arising from the fact he is laying off more pitches outside the strike zone, and therefore, getting better pitches to hit.
Hit charts from Baseball Prospectus and Brooks Baseball also show this trend visually. In 2011, Jones offered at far more pitches outside the zone, as indicated by all the red in his hit chart.
But in 2013, Jones' hit chart shows he has been more patient and instead really gone after pitches inside the strike zone.
As his batted-ball data shows, this more patient approach has enabled Jones to make better contact and greatly improve as a hitter the past couple seasons. An individual player's plate discipline doesn't always improve in a linear direction like Zimmerman and Petti's study suggests, but Jones' approach has certainly matured as he has grown into his late twenties. He has become a dangerous hitter who simply hits the ball hard, and since the beginning of last season, possesses a .294/.337/.507 line for Baltimore in 822 plate appearances. Combine Jones with Matt Wieters, the red-hot Chris Davis, and 20-year-old wunderkind Manny Machado, and the Orioles have their most formidable lineup in years.
All stats, including WAR figures, courtesy of FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted. Hit charts courtesy of Brooks Baseball and Baseball Prospectus.
Alex Skillin is the proprietor of www.ballgamebanter.com, a blog on the AL East.