James Jones is not the type of player that is likely to be remembered for generations to come. The 26-year-old outfielder accumulated 328 appearances last season, and it wouldn't be surprising if he didn't have another 328 in him at the major league level.
While Jones is currently slotted in as the Mariners' fourth outfielder, his 68 wRC+ and -12.6 UZR in 2014 could have Seattle looking for an upgrade during the offseason. It's unfair to say we've seen the last of him, but it's also unreasonable to assume the best is yet to come. At this moment Steamer is projecting a 76 wRC+ in 107 PA.
Despite his rather poor level of production Jones was on the verge of history last season, specifically with his legs. Speed is Jones' trademark tool, and he put it to good use in 2014 by racking up 27 stolen bases in about a half-season's worth of action.
While a 50+ stolen base pace is impressive, it's far from historic. What made Jones special was his efficiency. He picked his spots effectively and was caught stealing only once over the course of the year. In and of itself there's no record there; what there is, tantalizingly, is quite the almost-record.
Since 1951, when we have accurate caught stealing numbers, there have been only five players who have stolen 20+ bases without being caught over the course of a season:
It is interesting that we think of base running as such a young man's game, but all of these players were at least midway through their careers. Perhaps experience plays a role in this kind of hyper-efficiency. The sample is far too small to say.
Coming back to Jones, the Mariner outfielder was only one failed attempt away from not only joining but leading this group. For a guy with his kind of career prospects it might have been his only chance to make a mark on baseball history.
So, what went wrong on the one fateful day that Jones got caught? The date was May 28th 2014, it was the top of the first, and Jones had led off the game with a single. He then decided to try and take second when this happened.
To understand this play it's important to know that the odds were heavily in Jones' favor. The following table shows the battery he was up against and how they've historically done with the running game.
|Player||SB against||CS||SB% against|
Even though Wilson is a southpaw, he has been absolutely ordinary holding runners, and it's safe to say that Conger's arm isn't the best.
How did this mediocre pair get a guy who would go on to steal 23 in a row after this attempt? There are a couple of factors. First, it's possible this is a hit-and-run try by the Mariners.
After all, Stefen Romero did swing weakly through a pitch with which he was unlikely to make great contact. However, Romero was a terrible hitter last year with a 13.1% swinging strike rate, so human error is definitely a suspect here. Additionally, it seems unlikely that the hit-and-run would be put on with such a weak contact hitter at the plate in a 1-1 count that hardly guarantees a fastball.
It's impossible to say for certain, but it appears that this was a straight steal attempt. The make or break moment for such an attempt is usually the lead/jump, and it appears that Jones is off to the races here.
It's tough to tell with much precision from this angle, but the commentator notes that Jones had a good lead, and we'll have to take him at his word. Jones isn't quite away on Wilson's first movement, but it's pretty close. This lead and jump is normally going to get you where you want to go, especially against Hank Conger.
However, on this particular day, Conger did something decidedly unCongerian.
The now-Astros catcher delivered the ball exactly where it needed to be on a line and Howie Kendrick made the easy tag.
At the time this play seemed pretty inconsequential. Jones had stolen only four bases in his MLB career at this point, and he had only a 69.2% stolen base percentage in the minor leagues to begin with. The fact he got thrown out was not a shocker.
In hindsight, it is. Jones would go on to steal 23 bases in a row, and if it hadn't been for Conger's uncharacteristically good throw on May 28th he would be the MLB record holder for most stolen bases in a season without being caught, something the more hardcore baseball fans among his grandchildren would've been seriously into.
Jones is unlikely to get another chance at putting his name in baseball's record books. Considering his minor league track record, the fact he ever came close is amazing. His improbable run of stealing efficiency was derailed by one improbably good throw from a normally inept backstop. In a way, there's some symmetry to it.
Baseball is a game obsessed with its numbers, records, and history. It is easy to forget that history almost happens all the time. If it weren't for Hank Conger it would have happened to James Jones.
Considering Conger's arm isn't going to make any history, perhaps it's appropriate that it should prevent it from being made.
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Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.