John Jaso isn’t much of a household name. A year ago, he was traded for felon-turned-reliever Josh Lueke, as the Rays decided that Jaso’s deficiencies rendered expendable. The Mariners picked him up as a depth piece, and then Eric Wedge buried him on the bench to start the season, as he watched Miguel Olivo and Jesus Montero do most of the catching at the start of the season. An injury to Olivo opened the door to some actual playing time in May, however, and he was able to work his way into the catching platoon over the rest of the season.
But, because he played in Seattle, and wasn’t an everyday player, and because his skillset isn’t all that flashy, you might not have noticed how good John Jaso was last year. For reference, here’s a list of every hitter who had 300 or more plate appearances in the big leagues last year, and posted a wRC+ between 140 and 150.
|Jose Bautista||Blue Jays||399||15%||16%||0.286||0.215||0.241||0.358||0.527||0.378||140|
That group is basically a who’s who of baseball’s best hitters, and then Jaso and Ruggiano. With Ruggiano, though, it’s pretty easy to dismiss his performance as completely unsustainable, given that most of his offensive explosion was driven by a .401 BABIP. With Jaso, though, BABIP isn’t a factor at all. In fact, of the 18 guys on that list, only three — Quentin, Willingham, and Bautista — posted a lower BABIP than Jaso. His success was based on excelling in each of the three true outcome areas – drawing a lot of walks, hardly ever striking out, and hitting for a decent amount of power.
The walks and strikeouts aren’t anything new. Jaso has always had fantastic plate discipline, and had a similar season in 2010 in terms of controlling the strike zone. His minor league career was littered with these kind of BB/K ratios, and his plate discipline stats back up the idea that Jaso is one of the game’s most selective contact hitters. The big change was the power, though, as he had never translates his plate discipline into actually driving the ball once he got into hitter’s counts before.
In 2010 and 2011, he combined for 677 plate appearances and hit 10 home runs. His ISO was .121, and his BABIP was .266. His line drive rate was 17%. This is not a guy who hit the ball hard with regularity. Last year, though, his line drive rate jumped to 25%, and he hit 10 home runs in 361 plate appearances despite playing half his games in the park that suppressed offense more than any other in 2012. His ISO spiked to .180, putting him within shouting distance of guys like David Wright and Billy Butler in terms of power output. The combination of David Wright’s power and Joe Mauer’s plate discipline makes for a pretty fantastic offensive performer, of course.
But, of course, there are a number of caveats here. We’re talking about rate stats for a part-time player, and we can’t simply assume that those would scale up to 600 plate appearances without taking a bit of a dive. Especially considering Jaso’s large platoon splits, which suggest he probably isn’t worth playing against left-handed pitchers. And, of course, there’s just the fact that Jaso was a 28-year-old who had never hit anywhere near this well before, and even the “three true outcome” stats require regression. While Ruggiano’s success is more obviously a fluke, Jaso’s success can’t just be taken at face value either.
But, it’s definitely harder to have this kind of fluke season than it is to just have a bunch of balls fall in for base hits in half a season. To show how often this kind of season happens, here’s every season in the last 10 years where a player has accumulated at least 300 PA with a BB% between 13-17%, a K% between 12-16%, and an ISO between .160-.180.
|2008||Ken Griffey Jr.||575||122||14%||16%||0.176||0.269||0.249||0.353||0.424||0.336||99|
It’s happened 13 times in the last decade, and usually, it’s fantastic hitting talents having these kinds of seasons. Griffey. Chipper. Edgar. Beltran. Not bad company, and besides 2009 Beltran, Jaso’s season was better than any of them by wRC+.
Of course, there are some less stellar names on the list. Gregg Zaun had a bunch of seasons similar to this, and he topped out as a part-time catcher who only got 400 or more plate appearances once in his career. Dan Johnson impressed Major League teams so much in 2007 that he spent almost the entire 2008 season in Triple-A, and hasn’t gotten another regular gig with another big league team since. Kosuke Fukudome’s 2010 performance was his last decent one as a big leaguer. And, you may notice that a lot of these seasons came near the end of a long career: Griffey was 38 in 2008, Martinez was 40 in 2003, Chipper was 37/38 in 2009 and 2010, Bernie was 35 in 2004… high walks and good-but-not-great power can often be a sign of a great hitter in decline.
John Jaso probably isn’t going to keep putting up 140 wRC+ seasons. The power could very well have been a fluke, and he could go right back to putting up ISOs in the .120 range again next year. But, here’s the rub – even with significantly reduced power, Jaso is still a pretty good hitter. Over the last three years, Joe Mauer has a 12% walk rate, a 12% strikeout rate, and a .121 ISO, and his wRC+ is 130 over that span. Of course, Mauer hits a ton of line drives, and his BABIP over that stretch is .348, but you don’t have to hit for a ton of power to be a strong offensive performer if you control the strike zone.
Or, you could also just see this by looking at Jaso’s career numbers. He’s now at 1,048 plate appearances in the big leagues, his overall ISO is just .139, and yet he’s managed a 116 wRC+ simply by drawing walks, not striking out, and occasionally knocking a double into the gap. A 116 wRC+ is equal to the offensive performance put up last year by Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Alfonso Soriano. It’s one point ahead of what Adrian Gonzalez gave the Red Sox and Dodgers, and one point behind what Derek Jeter gave the Yankees.
If Jaso just regresses back to his career averages, he’ll be a good offensive performer. If any of Jaso’s improvement from 2012 held, he’d be one of the better hitters in the American League. Oh, yeah, and he can catch.
Not very well, mind you, but a team doesn’t have to forfeit a game out of embarrassment if Jaso has to go behind the plate for nine innings. His arm isn’t very good, and the Mariners coaching staff has talked about how his fundamentals fell apart if he had to catch multiple games in a row, but he’s capable of squatting behind the plate and catching most things thrown his way. And, of course, if you just want to get his bat in the line-up without having to deal with his defensive issues, he could always DH.
In many ways, Jaso is Scott Hatteberg reborn. After spending his time in Boston as a part-time C/DH, the A’s decided to give him a full time job at first base. At 32, he got 500 plate appearances for the first time, and he rewarded Oakland with a +3 win season, including a 120 wRC+. You’ve probably heard about those 2002 A’s. They made for a pretty good story.
11 years later, Billy Beane is at it again. Jaso was born to be on Beane’s team. The A’s probably won’t be turning Jaso into a first baseman, given that he’s likely more valuable to them as a part-time catcher, but this has been a skillset that has been aligned with the A’s for quite some time. For good reason, too. Billy Beane knows that these kinds of hitters are often better than their former teams realized.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.