Prospect Evolution - James Jones

Profiling the rise of Mariners prospect James Jones from a collegiate left handed pitcher to a viable lead-off candidate and outfielder.

The MLB First-Year Player Draft is an exciting time for all Major League clubs. Scouting Directors and General Managers draft ballplayers they believe can make an impact in the game for their ball club. There are a number of different draft ideologies, which include, selecting the best player available, establishing organizational depth, and prioritizing youth. And then there are stories like that of the Seattle Mariners drafting OF/LHP James Jones out of Long Island University. Viewed by many scouts as a Major League left handed pitcher the Mariners took a chance on this 6-foot-4 athlete with the 113th overall selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft drafting him officially as a left fielder. While some draft analysts were surprised to see Jones go off the board as an outfielder, truth is, Seattle flew him out the week prior for a pre-draft workout and they got their guy.

The toolsy outfielder would become the second highest drafted player in the history of his university (1966 RHP Donald Cook), a lofty reward for the one-time lanky 140-pound college recruit who was contacted by just two universities upon graduating high school. He added 50 pounds of muscle due to a strenuous commitment to LIU's strength and conditioning program, increasing his velocity on the mound from the 83-85 range to 94-95 with a three pitch arsenal (fastball, slider, change-up). Long Island's recruiting coordinator Craig Noto recalled of Jones in the Northwoods Summer League, "he stood at home plate and threw a ball over their center-field wall flat-footed."

Jones has stated whichever way leads him to the Major Leagues is the path he will take. Judging from the way he swung the bat and fielded his position in 2012 one can imagine being an outfielder has a strong possibility of getting him there.

Power has always been an asset of his. It can get buried behind his plus tools, on the base paths and in the field, but his ability to post a Major League 20/20 season remains a possibility. He posted a career high 14 home runs this season as his bat carried him to be recognized as one of just twelve minor league players to bat for a minimum of ten doubles (28), triples (12), and homeruns (14) while also stealing a minimum of ten (26) bases. This is a distinction he also earned in 2010, his first full season in professional baseball. His arm has been just as tremendous adding 43 outfield assists in 413 games as an outfielder. This averages out to an assist every 9.60 games or 17 assists in a full 162-game schedule.

After an injury shortened 2011 season that saw the promising speedster finish hitting .247 he earned the title of ‘Comeback Player of the Year' for this Mariners system as he hit .306 and established career highs in almost all offensive categories. Let's take a look at how he got here.

As I mentioned above, power has always been a part of his game and although he hit similar home run numbers in 2010 and 2011 (counting his time in the Australian Baseball League) the 14 home runs he put up in 2012 were very different.

Year Home Runs SLG % (Slugging) OPS (Production)
2010 12 .432 .788
2011 13 .437 .802
2012 14 .497 .875

Despite sending just one more ball into the stands he experienced a significant increase in his slugging and production numbers. This can be attributed to a stronger ability seeing the ball into the bat. In 2011 Jones hit 63 outfield flies and converted on hitting just 7.9% of these over the fence. In 2012 the youngster added 20 more flies, for a total of 83, but effectively doubled the amount of home runs hitting 16.9% out of the ballpark. This 16.9% number comes in 5.7% higher than the average batter this season in the home run friendly California League. Additionally he raised his home runs on contact percentage 1.3% from the 2011 season to 3.8%, a respectable number for a potential lead-off hitter.

When a player makes a drastic change in batting average from one season to the next it is often tied to a higher number of quality at-bats, but it isn't that simple with Jones transformation this past season. Despite hitting .311 his inaugural minor league season the young outfielder hadn't found himself back over .270 in two seasons; hitting .269 in 2010 and .247 in 2011. Jones ability to hit .309 this season is a direct reflection of learning to be the type of hitter his skill-set is best inclined to suit. This is a step that I believe Dustin Ackley will take in 2013-2014 in living up to much of the hype that was created of him coming out of college.

While he possesses the ability to hit the ball out of the park his speed and ability to get the bat through the zone best suits him to be a gap hitter, use his baseball knowledge to place the ball off the bat and hustle to get on base. We talked about his success on outfield flies but did not address his regression in moving away from this. In 2011 30.6% of his at-bats ended in outfield flies, minus the 7.9% that went for home runs, and you are left with 22.7%. No player is going to be able to get 22.7% of balls in play down for a hit. In 2012 he lowered his outfield fly numbers to 22.2%, minus the 16.9% he hit out of the ballpark, and you are left with a much more manageable 6.7% of balls to get down.

If he decreased the number of balls in play above by nearly 9%, where did all his at-bats go? Good question.

His line drive numbers stayed nearly equal (16.5% to 16%) while he increased his groundball percentage 7.3%, bunted 0.6% percent more, with unknown data claiming the remaining 1.1% percent difference. His increased use of the groundball and bunting better sustains his ability to get on-base given his skill-set. Additionally I have little doubt that committing to a ‘smaller game' and not over-swinging led to the increase in converting outfield flies to home runs.

One statistic that is often looked at and discarded is K/BB (strikeout-to-walk) ratio. Jones put up a 2.19 K/BB in 2011 and came in a little higher in 2012 at 2.26 despite lowering his overall K% by 5.9%. But even these numbers, when dissected; reflect on the type of transformation we talked about above. In 2011 Jones stuck out swinging 79 times in 344 plate appearances while striking out looking just 13 times for a KS/KL ratio of 6.08. His KS/KL ratio in 2012 was 3.52 as he struck out swinging an additional 16 times in 211 additional plate appearances. These numbers signify a drop in strikeouts swinging by 6.9%. This display of plate control netted him an AB/K (at-bats per K) ratio in 2012 (4.01) nearly a full at-bat higher than in 2011 (3.22).

His game took some big steps towards the Major Leagues in 2012. But I feel there is one more step for Jones to take in 2013, being a full-season hitter. Here are his 2011-2012 numbers:

Batting Average On-Base Percentage Slugging Percentage OPS (Production)
March/April .171 .267 .225 .492
May .284 .361 .481 .842
June .274 .355 .457 .812
July .359 .441 .575 1.016
August/September .313 .386 .477 .863

If I had to pick and choose I would rather a prospect be a late season contributor. This trend shows his endurance, durability, and mentality on the field as those who are less built for full scheduled seasons begin to wane in performance. But as it is with most Major League success stories, you do not have to pick and choose. Expect Jones to be a more even-keel hitter throughout 2013 as he continues to progress with his game at the plate, his new found swing will become easier to emulate as he continues to rack up plate appearances.

He will most assuredly be kicking off his 2013 campaign with Double-A affiliate Jackson as he has nothing left to prove in High-A ball. If he can plant his feet early and keep progressing the way he did this season I have little doubt that he could be a Top-10-15 prospect for this club in 2014 and a viable lead-off option in the future.

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