Monday afternoon, I participated in an Orioles-centric podcast, where one of the things I was supposed to talk about was Manny Machado. I wrote about Machado a couple of weeks ago, and more specifically, I wrote about him suddenly exercising a lot more patience at the plate. From what we understand about plate-discipline statistics, they find themselves pretty fast. It’s unusual when they move around, so Machado’s change was unusual and worth some attention. He seems to be doing the thing we all want prospects to do, but that they only infrequently pull off.
In advance of the podcast, I thought it would be smart to do a little Orioles research. I know some things about them, but I do not know everything about them, since I’m supposed to keep aware of 30 teams until the passing of the deadline renders a few of them irrelevant. Nobody wants to sound unprepared. I checked in on Machado, to make sure things were still keeping up. I checked in on Steve Pearce, out of offensive and defensive curiosity. And it was while scrolling through pages I noticed something about Adam Jones. Machado, as noted, is showing some weird changes in his plate discipline. Jones is, too, in a different way.
This is nothing new to some of you, but I suppose some of you aren’t all of you. Jones, this year, is still swinging aggressively. He’s still hitting the ball harder than average. He’s still not drawing walks, but he’s still on pace to hit 25 or 30 dingers. Jones, in almost all areas, looks like himself. But all of a sudden, there’s contact. Jones is avoiding whiffs like he hasn’t avoided whiffs.
One way we can look at this: table form. Below, strikeout rates and contact rates, since Jones became a major-league regular:
You’ll notice the consistency. Only one of the seasons shown is partial. In all the other ones, Jones batted more than 500 times, and his strikeout rate fluctuated between 18 – 21% while his contact rate fluctuated between 74 – 78%. Given that background, the change this year appears dramatic. Especially for a player who’s months away from 30. With Machado, you can at least figure that sometimes it just clicks for a 22-year-old. Jones would be tougher to explain. There’s a big change in one place. Not much has changed in other places.
These are the biggest changes in contact rate between 2014 – 2015:
Espinosa has shown something like this contact skill before, in 2011. Ichiro has a long record of hitting the ball. Granderson used to be about an average contact hitter. Grandal is back to where he used to be. This is the weirdest for Jones. This is the most unprecedented for Jones. Nor does it come with an easy explanation. Last season, Jones ranked in baseball’s 59th percentile in in-play rate. This year, he’s in the top 10%. Have I told you it’s weird? It’s weird.
There is something that might be driving you crazy. So far, we’ve been comparing a partial Jones season to full Jones seasons. That isn’t fair! Full Jones seasons give unusual things time to even out. We can fix that. This year, Jones has played 35 games. So let’s look at 35-game rolling contact rates, going all the way back to 2008. This can tell us whether Jones has ever done something like this before in his career.
Neat, but, could be more helpful. Let’s truncate that y-axis. It’s a shady thing to do, but only if you don’t call attention to it. I’m calling attention to it. I’m truncating the y-axis! This is what that looks like:
You see a lot of activity around 75% or so. A few peaks jut above 80%. But this current run? By this measure, at least, it’s a career high for Adam Jones. He’s never before had a 35-game contact rate of 84%. Last year he briefly reached 81%. He got up there as well in the middle of 2012. It’s actually an interesting graph — beyond Jones setting a new high, it seems like there’s been more dramatic volatility the last few years of Jones’ career. I don’t know why that would be. I know that baseball is a game of constant adjustments on both sides, but that seems over-simplified.
What’s been demonstrated is that Jones hasn’t done this. Not specifically this. And if you wanted to go a different way, you can calculate that the odds are very low of a player with Jones’ historical contact rate making as much contact as he has over nearly 300 swings. What that validates, I think, is the idea that this is interesting. But it’s ever so much harder to explain. Ultimately, at this point, we’re talking about 25 swings. The difference between old Jones and this Jones is 25 swings that made contact instead of not making contact. What does that mean, really?
A big part of this job — maybe the biggest part of this job — is finding interesting things in the numbers, and writing them up. Often, we’ll focus on players who seem to be making changes, because players are easy to compare against themselves, and change is interesting. Then you get to talk about why the change might be helpful, and you get to speculate on to what degree the player will improve. But if I’m going to be fully honest with you, I don’t know how much else there is to say on this. I don’t know how much I’m supposed to believe in Adam Jones’ new-found contact skill.
It’s unquestionably interesting. It addresses a weakness. Conveniently and curiously, this year the Orioles have a new hitting coach in Scott Coolbaugh. Yet, Jones is 29, and almost 30, and he’s been a good hitter for a while. He’s no less aggressive a swinger than he used to be, so it’s not like there’s a clear improvement with his eye. And I can’t find video evidence of a different swing. Internet searches don’t pull anything up. There’s nothing closely linking Jones and Coolbaugh in a way that would explain a drive for more contact. Everything is practically the same, except for one thing. It’s an important thing, but an awful weird one to just happen.
Which isn’t to say it can’t happen. It can, and maybe it is. But the best explanation I could think of is Jones simply focusing more. And having more of a plan, every time he goes up to hit, and every time he looks for a pitch. Then he might become better at making contact, because he has a better idea of how he’s going to be pitched. It wouldn’t explain why the other plate-discipline numbers haven’t really budged, but this is what I have. Greater swing consistency. Which would make it sort of the hitter equivalent of a pitcher just improving his command. That’s the toughest thing to observe and prove, but it happens for guys, as they ascend to higher levels of performance.
Adam Jones has been up to something. I wish that I could say more. Adam Jones with more contact at the plate would be even more of a star center fielder. Maybe he’d join the game’s elite. I’d sure like to know if he’s getting there. I just don’t have a choice but to wait to find out. Which, I guess, is how it is always.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.