On Tuesday, Adam Jones took a 1-0 fastball from CC Sabathia in the second inning and launched it out to left field. On Wednesday, in the 15th inning, he destroyed a curveball from Nate Adcock, breaking a 3-3 tie and giving the Orioles a go-ahead run that led to their extra inning win. Yesterday, the victim was Luke Hochevar, whose 4th inning slider didn’t break far enough out of the zone, allowing Jones to deposit it over the center field wall for his third home run in as many days.
The power surge continues Jones’ strong start to the season, and his 13 home runs are now just six fewer than he had in both 2009 and 2010. The long ball barrage has raised his overall season line to .295/.345/.604, and his 159 wRC+ puts him in the top 20 in offensive performance to begin the year. Once you add in the fact that Jones is a center fielder who also runs the bases well, Jones has been a top five player in the sport so far.
While it’s still early, his strong start is evoking memories of Matt Kemp’s breakout year last season, and the two might be a bit more similar than you think.
Through their age 25 seasons, their numbers shared quite a few similarities. Kemp had 2,469 plate appearances to Jones 2,419, so their playing time through their first four years was pretty close to a dead heat. Kemp racked up two more singles, seven more doubles, six more triples, and 14 more home runs, so while he did show more power than Jones, remember that these totals are over four full seasons worth of playing time, so the per-season gap isn’t all that large.
The area with the most significant difference is also the area where Jones draws the most criticism – walk rate. Through his age 25 season, Kemp had drawn 159 unintentional walks, good for a mediocre 6.5% UBB%, but Jones’ walk rate (111 in 2,213 PA, or 4.6% UBB%) made Kemp look downright patient. In fact, of the 162 batters with at least 2,500 plate appearances since 2006, Jones’ walk rate ranks 151st, just above Freddy Sanchez and right below Jeff Francoeur. Every batter who was walked less often than Jones since he began his career is either a middle infielder or a catcher, with the exception of Kevin Kouzmanoff (not in the majors) and Delmon Young (who may be playing and offending himself out of the league).
Jones’ refusal to take a free pass has been a problem, and despite his natural talents, his low walk rate has translated into a .319 on base percentage and a good helping of scorn from the analytical baseball community. When I mentioned in my Wednesday chat that I expected Jones’ next contract to be for more than $100 million, the queue filled up with jokes about spending that much money on a guy who makes so many outs.
But here’s the thing – as Kemp showed last year, these types of players don’t need to become that much more selective to see their walk rates spike in a hurry.
Last year, Kemp set a career high with a 10.4% walk rate, easily the highest he’s ever posted, but he didn’t actually change his approach all that much.
In 2010, Kemp swung at 30.9 percent of pitches that PITCHF/x classified as outside the strike zone, a mark that was 1.6 points above the league average. In 2011, he swung at 32.9 percent of pitches that the algorithm calculated as outside the strike zone, 2.3 points higher than the league average. He swung at more strikes too, so his swing rate actually jumped from 45.4 percent in 2010 to 48.0 percent in 2011. The data shows that Kemp actually got more aggressive during his breakout season last year.
So, how did he set a career high in walks while swinging even more regularly than the year before? He began intimidating pitchers for the first time. Through his age 25 season, Kemp drew a total of 17 intentional walks. He received 24 IBBs last season alone, more than doubling his career total, and the upward trend was obvious as the season wore on – he was intentionally walked just five times total in April and May, but then received 19 over the final four months of the season.
Kemp’s 7.5% UBB% was an increase over his 2010 total, but it’s pretty likely that a decent number of those unintentional walks were still somewhat planned. As Kemp began destroying strikes, pitchers just started throwing him fewer pitches to hit, so even though he swung more often, the walks came as the result of his power surge.
The trend has continued this year. His five IBBs in 139 PA would project out to 24.6 over the same number of plate appearances as he had last year, and he’s seen a precipitous drop in number of pitches that PITCHF/x calculates as strikes – 42.9% this year compared to 47.0% last year. Kemp has responded to the pitches out of the zone by reducing his swing rates and taking even more walks, but it’s important to note that the power came first and the walks followed, not the other way around.
Adam Jones is still an aggressive hitter, swinging at 51.7 percent of the pitches he’s been thrown this year, but for the first time in his career, he’s starting to give pitchers reasons to fear throwing him a strike. As long as he sustains some of the added power he’s showing right now, pitchers are going to adjust, and they’re going to start pitching around him more often. And the walks will come. Right now, Jones has yet to be issued an intentional walk this season, and he’s only drawn six in his entire career. That’s going to change, and the “unintentional intentional walks” will follow as well.
Through age 25, Kemp hit .285/.336/.472, then busted out a .324/.399/.586 line that made him one of the game’s premier offensive players. Through age 25, Jones hit .275/.319/.437 against better competition, and while he’s probably not going to reach the heights that Kemp reached last year, the power surge suggests that there’s been some legitimate improvement, and he’s likely to perform significantly better than he has in the past.
If you judge Jones by his career on base percentage, you’ll probably think he’s an overrated hack due for regression. He almost certainly is due for some regression, but don’t be surprised if he keeps hitting for enough power to start drawing the fear walks that get his on base percentage up to a more respectable level.
And, realistically, $100 million for Jones might have been a low estimate for what kind of extension he’ll be able to ask the Orioles for. Just a year and a half from free agency, he’s not going to command Matt Kemp money, since he hasn’t performed at Matt Kemp’s level, but he can make a pretty strong case that he’s Matt Kemp Lite and deserves 80-90% of the deal that Kemp signed a few months ago. If the Orioles want to keep Jones in Baltimore – and they should – than they’re probably looking at coughing up around $120 to $140 million in order to get him signed long term.
Yes, that’s a lot of money for a guy who has made a lot of outs over his career, but it didn’t take long for Kemp’s deal to look like a relative bargain, and Jones has the ability to make that kind of contract look like a steal as well.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.