What Mike Petriello wrote in July, continues to be true in August: the Orioles are tough to figure out. What is objectively true is that Baltimore is leading the American League East by a substantial margin, and that it unlikely to change.
As Mike noted in July, the Orioles are doing this despite many things not going as expected. However, one player is pretty much the same as he always: Adam Jones. From 2010 to 2013, Jones’ cumulative wRC+ was 116. To date in 2014, his wRC+ is 115. Jones’ offensive production so far this season may be a bit down from his 2012 and 2013 performances, but he is still pretty much the same hitter: good (not great) production based on average and power despite a low walk rate.
Although everyone ages differently, most players tend to add walks as they age. Jones is different in this regard as well. This walk rate is actually down for the third straight year. However, his power remains basically the same. In 2014, Jones has second lowest walk rate in baseball behind Ben Revere, although Jones is tied with Chris Johnson and Matt Adams (whose seasons deserves its own post) at the moment.
Adam Jones seems to generate occasional controversy. Some people think he is a below-average center fielder, others see him as one of the better outfield defenders in baseball. Focusing just on his bat, Jones’ combination of (non-) walks, strikeout rate, and power is pretty unusual. The worry about such players is that they will not age well. Let’s look at some other players who have put up something like Jones 2014 (or 2013) peripherals to see how they did it and how they aged.
There are various ways of generating player comparisons, statistical and otherwise. I make no claim to using the best or even a very scientific method. Given our focus on Jones’ hitting, I looked at some of the more obvious peripherals: walk rate, strikeout rate, and isolated power using 2014 as a rough baseline. Since the general run environment and specific hitting averages have changed over the years (for example, hitters struck out far less in 1974 than they do these days), I use rates relative to league average as a basis for comparison. It isn’t terribly sophisticated, but I think it is a helpful adjustment.
To get close to what Jones is doing this season, I used a baselines of a walk rate of less than .4 of league average, a strikeout rate of greater than .8 of league average, and an isolated power of greater than 1.3 of league average in player seasons with at least 500 plate appearances. I got a few hits, but many of them were either for very young players or older players who h ad fluke seasons. When I narrowed the search for players in what is typically considered a hitter’s prime (25 to 29), I only got one result. So I loosed up the search a bit using something closer to Jones’ 2013 peripherals.
Let’s begin with the four players who met my looser, 2013-based criteria:
Rip Repulski, 1957, age 28. Hey, remember Rip Repulski? Repulski was a regular outfielder for the Cardinals in the mid-50s, but was not that great. Even during his prime, he was a league-average hitting corner outfielder. His career peaked with a 109 wRC+ (.270/.333/.467) performance for St. Louis in 1955. He did make the All-Star team in 1956. His 1957 season, his first after being traded to the Phillies, was the only one that really looked like Jones, at least when adjusted for era (hitters struck out far less often in the 1950s). The 1957 season turned out to be Repulski’s last as a regular, and he turned into a part-timer pretty soon after. He is probably not a great comparison to Jones, but perhaps worth keeping in mind — not so much for the quality of his play, but for his aging path.
Butch Hobson, 1977, age 25. Butch Hobson, a third baseman for the Red Sox in the late 1970s, does meet the parameters, but just barely. In 1977 Hobson was in just his first full season in the majors, so in that respect he does really quite fit in the same category of an veteran like Adam Jones. Hobson’s 1977 was one of his better years, but after 1979 he was done as a full time player. Outside of 1979, Hobson also struck out far more often than Jones.
Juan Samuel, 1986 age 25. Now here is a player with a long career. Samuel originally played for the Phillies and had over 3700 plate appearances with that team, but also had stints with the Dodgers, the Blue Jays, the Royals, the Tigers, the Mets, and the Reds. In his prime, although Samuel was not as good a hitter as Jones relative to league average, he had a somewhat similar profile. In his mid-20s, Samuel hit for good power and did not take many walks (although he was almost league average in 1987). He did strike out a fair bit more than Jones. Samuel’s walk rate did improve a bit in his late-twenties as he reached Jones’ current age. The 1986 season, the one that resembled Jones 2013-2014 approach, was actually a low for Samuel in terms of walks. It was his second full season in the majors. By the time Samuel was 31, he was no longer as a full timer. He did have some nice seasons as a bench bat in the mid-90s, however.
Joe Carter, 1987, age 27. Carter is probably best known for the award partially named after him, but I think he also had a big postseason hit at some point. In 1987, Carter was around the same age as Jones was at the beginning of the 2013 season (the baseline he met), and was established as a major leaguers. Those who remember Carter from his famous Toronto years may not know that in his younger years he stole a good number of bases (including 31 in 1987), although even in 1987, he split his time between first base and outfield.
Compared to Jones, Carter struck out a bit more relative to the league, although at this point his his career, that was unusual for Carter. He was never far worse than league average. Carter walked a bit more often than Jones, even in a down year for walks for him like 1987. Carter also had a bit more power in his late 20s than Jones does. Still, this might be the best comparison (in terms of plate discipline and power) that we have for Jones yet. Despite the low walk rates and average-ish contact, Carter was an above-average hitter into his mid-30s (outside bad bump in 1990 for San Diego). Although Carter would never have been mistaken for Bobby Abreu at the plate, his walk rate improve a bit as he got older, as one generally expects.
All of the above player-seasons met the loosened query parameteres. Only only player-season between ages 25 and 29 met the requirements more closely based on 2014:
Alfonso Soriano, 2002, age 26. Soriano was released by the Yankees last month after a miserable 238 plate appearances (61 wRC+). But honestly, he held on longer than many people expected. After 2009, when he managed just an 83 wRC+ for the Cubs, he looked done. But he was then above-average three of the next four seasons. Let’s go back in time.
In 2002, Soriano was in this second season a full time player with the Yankees as a stone-gloved second baseman. He had shown flashes in 2001 (and was almost the World Series hero). In 2002, he had what turned out to be the best season of his career by wRC+ (131, .300/.332/.547, 39 home runs, 51 doubles, and also 41 stolen bases). What Soriano did not do was walk very much: his 3.1 percent walk rate ended up being his lowest full season walk rate overall until 2014. He was a hacker, but with that power swing, he was not a slap hitter, and his strikeout rate was worse than league average, as it would be throughout his career.
Soriano had his struggles, and seemed (as one might expect) very streaky. However, it was not as if 2002 was a complete fluke season. Soriano was mostly good for many years. He arguably peaked in 2006 and 2007, his one season with the Nationals (when he shifted to the outfield) and his first with the Cubs when he was 30 and 31, respectively. In 2006, his walk rate was even above average. Over his career his walk rate improved, not just from the low of 2002, but generally, even if he was never an on-base machine.
Compared to Jones in 2014 thus far, Soriano so walked even less compared to league average. Soriano also hit for more power, and did so most seasons compared to what Jones has done the last few years. On the other hand, Soriano struck out far more than Jones. Soriano’s plate approach was thus even more extreme than Jones. It was the issue that make Soriano look like he would decline early, but despite a few hiccups, Soriano actually managed to be a very useful player into his mid-30s.
Of the five players we briefly examined, two had relatively short careers and three had very long careers, at least two of which were very successful. Butch Hobson did meet the parameters, but just barely, and he looked more like a player who had one or two good seasons but could not last with his limited approach. He struck out much more often than Jones. Rip Repulski was more like Jones in his overall profile, but was not as good overall, and so once he began to decline, he lost his usefulness.
Juan Samuel did have a long career, but really was not all that great for much of it. However, like Hobson, he struck out much more often than Jones has. And like Repulski, he was not as good as Jones as a hitter in his either his mid- or late-20s, so once he did not have far to fall before his lost his usefulness, even if he continued to get playing time.
Joe Carter might be the best comparison to Jones as a hitter of the five players. Like Jones, he did not walk much, but did not strike out much, either. He also hit for power. And even after consistently low walk rates in his 20s, Carter still managed to improve in that respect as he got older while retaining his power.
Of course, it was Jones’ 2014 walk rate that sent me down this path originally, and only Soriano matched up with Jones’ in terms of the parameters based on this season. Soriano also had low walk rates, but like Carter he improved that walk rate. He also had better power than Jones. But Soriano’s case, like all of the rest other than Carter, really brings out one thing that Jones has over these other low-walk, good-power hitters: a better-than-average strikeout rate.
In terms of strikeout rate, Jones is not Victor Martinez by any stretch of the imagination, but since 2009 his strikeout rate has been a bit better than average, even as his walk rate has fluctuated and even decreased. Sure, it would be nice if he walked more, but putting the ball into play is almost always a good thing, especially when one hits it as hard as Jones does. Soriano illustrates how a even a player with poor walk and strikeout rates can be productive even over a long career. Jones does not have the same sort of power Soriano did, but he is not a slap hitter, either. In this sense Jones is more like Carter — average or better strikeout rates and aboave-average power offset the below-average walk rates.
As stated earlier, these comparisons are not meant to be definitive. I could have set the parameters to get players with lower strikeout rates, for example. But the general point is worth noting. Adam Jones, even by his own standards, is taking an incredibly low number of walks this season. He will probably “improve” next year simply due to regression. Aging curves are also in his favor. But Jones will probably never be a walk machine. There are no guarantees as to how a player will age. Moreover, one should not exaggerate the significance of what a couple of other players have done. What the examples of Soriano and Carter do show us is how hitters like Jones can not only succeed in their primes, but as they age when they have the contact and power skills to overcome a low walk rate.
Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.