Sunday Notes: Rays Prospect Greg Jones is Mellow (and Tooled Up)

Greg Jones has a quiet demeanor and loud tools. The former rang apparent when the 22-year-old shortstop called himself “kind of a mellow guy” in a recent phone conversation. The latter is why he’s No. 12 on our Tampa Bay Top Prospects list. Last summer, the Rays tabbed Jones 22nd overall as a draft-eligible sophomore out of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

He’d bypassed an earlier opportunity to turn pro. In 2017, the Baltimore Orioles had taken Jones in the 17th round out of Cary (NC) High School. He didn’t think he was ready. Moreover, his family wanted him to further his education. It would have taken more than the Orioles were willing to offer to change that.

“I had a number in mind, but they weren’t going to come up to it,” Jones explained. “So I was like, ‘I’ll just go to college.’ I took my talent to [UNC-Wilmington] and molded it into what I really want to be.”

The self-described late-bloomer went on to log a 1.034 OPS in his second, and final, collegiate season. He could have returned for a third, but given how much his stock had risen, bargaining power was now on his side. In what he called “a position to get the most money I possibly could,” Jones landed a signing bonus just north of $3M.

After putting pen to paper, he made the nine-plus-hour drive from the Tar Heel State to Fishkill, New York, where he joined Tampa Bay’s short-season affiliate, the Hudson Valley Renegades. Upon arriving, he ambled into the clubhouse and found his locker. A uniform top was hanging there, but no pants. “I had to go pick them up,” Jones recalled. “Luckily they had some that fit me.”

The 6’ 2” 175-pound infielder — some project him as a centerfielder — got dressed and walked onto the diamond as a professional for the first time. It all happened in a flash. As Jones put it, “We had a practice that day, so I was pretty much thrown right into things.”

Between the white lines, his acclimation to pro ball went swimmingly. Once the season started, the fleet switch-hitter came to the plate 218 times and slashed a splendiferous .335/.413/.461 against New York-Penn League pitching. Not surprisingly, he professed to having “seen the ball really well.”

Blake Butera saw to it that Jones also acclimated smoothly outside the white lines. Short-season managers are entrusted with making sure that their fresh-faced charges feel comfortable, and the 27-year-old former infielder was no exception.

“He’s a younger guy, so he kind of understood where we came from,” Jones said of Butera. “Maybe not where we come from, but rather our thoughts behind things. He had just come from playing pro ball, and while he’s obviously knowledgable about the game, our conversations about baseball were actually pretty minimal. He mostly talked to us about other things, getting to know us as people.”

Jones didn’t get a chance chew the fat with any veteran Rays players this spring, but he has gotten to know the team’s — and baseball’s — top prospect.

“All of the camps I went to, Wander Franco was there,” Jones told me. “He speaks decent English, so I’ve had a chance to talk with him a little bit. He’s a good dude. And really talented.”

Jones is talented as well. A little on the quiet side, but definitely talented.

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Who was/is better, Mike Trout or Mickey Mantle? I asked that question in a Twitter poll earlier this week, and the contest wasn’t close. With recency bias likely influencing the results, a resounding 76.6% cast their votes for the Los Angeles Angels superstar. The New York Yankees icon, who played from 1951-1968, garnered a paltry 23.4%.

Was recency bias indeed a factor? Or is Trout truly the better of the two? Eras and career lengths —Trout is eight-plus in years and counting — obviously muddle the equation, but I don’t think he is. At least not yet.

Trout has 73.4 WAR, and 285 home runs to go with a 172 wRC+, through his age-27 season. At the same stage of his career, Mantle had 67.9 WAR, 280 home runs, and a 172 wRC+. In terms of at-this-age comparisons, Trout has a razor-thin edge.

But what happens going forward? Trout is obviously still in his prime, but will he be able to match what Mantle did from age 28-32? Over that five-year stretch, “The Commerce Comet” averaged 6.4 WAR and 35 home runs annually, with a 186 w.RC+. And while Trout is facing a truncated 2020 season, it should be noted that Mantle played just 65 games in 1963 due to injury.

Mantle’s age 33-36 decline phase is also to be considered. His final four seasons yielded 12.3 WAR and 82 home runs, with a 149 wRC+.

One last numerical look: Trout’s five best wRC+ seasons have been 198, 186, 185, 179, and 176. Mantle’s best were 221, 210, 206, 196, and 195.

Trout is the most dominant player in the game, and he has a chance to go down as one of the best ever. That said, Mantle was once the most dominant player in the game, and with 112.3 WAR and a plaque in Cooperstown, he’s already one of the best ever. As great as he is, Trout isn’t Mantle just yet.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Dave Bergman went 7 for 17 against John Farrell.

Barbaro Garbey went 7 for 17 against Neal Heaton.

Larry Herndon went 7 for 17 against Bob McClure.

Ron LeFlore went 7 for 17 against Bart Johnson.

John Wockenfuss went 7 for 17 against Ken Holtzman.

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Left on the cutting room floor from Friday’s interview with Zac Gallen was his move from the first-base side of the rubber to the third-base side. That happened a handful months after he was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Miami Marlins. And only with urging. Presented with the request, the righty was anything but eager.

“It was in spring training of 2018,” explained Gallen, who was subsequently swapped to his current club, the Arizona Diamondbacks. “I actually fought hard not to do it, because I’d had so much success coming through college and in my first [full] year of pro ball. I got to Miami and the first thing they wanted to do was change me. I was like, ‘You guys have hardly even seen me pitch.’ But I’d had a few rough outings that spring, so I didn’t really have a leg to stand on.”

There was an adjustment period — Gallen needed to reset his sights for each pitch in his repertoire — but once he did, the results spoke for themselves. The righty increased his deception, and both his four-seamer and curveball began to play better. Fifteen months later, he was in the big leagues.

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My interest was piqued last weekend when Toyko-based baseball writer Jim Allen mentioned that Hideki Matsui was forced to hit left-handed as a boy “because he was too good.” I asked Allen if he could elaborate, and he told me the following:

“Neither Matsui’s older brother, nor his brother’s friends, could drive the ball like the right-handed-hitting Hideki, so he was talked into batting lefty,” Allen explained. “Hideni’s favorite team growing up was the Hanshin Tigers, and their star third baseman, Masayuki Kakefu, had actually done the same as a youngster.

“The final part of the story is that when Matsui started playing rec ball in Manhattan after retiring, he was asked to hit right-handed as a handicap.”

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A quiz:

Carl Yastrzemski won the American League batting title with a .301 average in 1968. Which player has had the lowest league-leading batting average since that time?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS ITEMS

The first round of this year’s amateur draft will reportedly take place on June 10, beginning at 7 p.m. EST. The second through fifth rounds will then be held on June 11, beginning at 5 p.m. EST. The draft will be held remotely.

Bowling Green University announced on Friday that they are eliminating their baseball program. The MAC school’s baseball history dates back to 1915.

Bob Watson died earlier this week at age 74. A first baseman/outfielder who played for four teams — primarily the Houston Astros — from 1966-1984, Watson went on to become a coach, MLB’s first African-American general manager, and the Vice President of Major League Baseball. During his prime, Watson had a 10-year stretch where he slashed .304/.371/.455 with a 133 wRC+.

Larry Gowell, whose career consisted of two games with the New York Yankees, died on Monday at age 72. The Lewiston, Maine native allowed one run over seven innings, but his claim to fame was with the bat. On October 4, 1972, Gowell recorded the last hit by an American League pitcher before the designated hitter rule was instituted.

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The answer to the quiz is Tony Gwynn, who led the National League with a .313 average in 1988. Gwynn also boasts the highest batting average since that time, having batted .394 in 1994.

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Baseball was introduced to Korea early in the 20th century — 1905 is often cited as the year — and the sport became increasingly popular as time passed. Even so, the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) wasn’t formed until December 1981. Why was professional baseball so long in coming to the East Asian nation? I asked that question to a Seoul-based scribe, and while I didn’t get a clear answer, I did get a fascinating glimpse at the KBO’s birth. By and large, it was a political tool.

The story behind the formation of the league, according to the scribe, is that the Korean president, who’d taken office through a military coup, “wanted to distract the public and assuage their anger with what came to be called the ‘3S Policy’ — Screen, Sex, and Sports.

“A soccer league formed around the same time, soft-core porn films began popping up, the government started lifting curfews, and prostitution started taking root. The president threw out the first pitch at the first professional baseball game played in South Korea.”

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It is well known that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Many are also aware that Robinson had been playing for the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs when Branch Rickey signed him to a contract two years earlier. Less known is the compensation involved in that deal.

According to renowned Negro League historian Phil Dixon, there was none.

“[Robinson] was essentially stolen from the Kansas City Monarchs,” Dixon told me recently. “The Monarchs never received one dime for his contract. They had two white owners, J. L. Wilkinson and Tom Baird, and Branch Rickey knew that the two couldn’t fight for their players, because if they did, it would signal to America that these white men were trying to stop Negro League players from getting into the big leagues. So the Monarchs didn’t fight that war. They were originally going to file a lawsuit, but instead gave Jackie their blessing.”

Per Dixon, the Monarchs never sold another player to the Dodgers.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Rachael Blount wrote about how Toni Stone was the first woman to play professional baseball in a men’s league. Stone did so with the Negro League’s Indianapolis Clowns, and later the Kansas City Monarchs.

At Sports Illustrated, Stephanie Apstein wrote about how Scott Boras failed at baseball before becoming a billion-dollar sports agent.

Bill Dow talked to erstwhile slugger Mickey Tettleton for The Detroit Free Press.

Former Colorado Rockies catcher Ben Petrick has been battling Parkinson’s Disease since 2000. Thomas Harding has the story at MLB.com.

Did MLB exist before the year 2000? The answer to that question is more complicated that you might think, as Bill Nowlin explained in SABR’s research journal.

At The Detroit News, Lynn Henning wrote about how Ron Gardenhire is handling the pandemic. Challenging his wife to like him has been one of the affable Gardy’s goals.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Two players named Sam Jones have played in the big leagues. Both were pitchers born in southeast Ohio. The one nicknamed “Sad Sam” allowed 151 home runs. The one nicknamed “Toothpick Sam” allowed 151 home runs.

Lou Piniella (102) holds the record for the most career home runs without a multi-homer game. Next on the list are Sam Crawford (97), Nick Hundley (93), Grady Hatton (91), Dom DiMaggio (87) and Del Unser (87). List courtesy of @JamesSmyth621.

Ben Oglivie had three three-home-run games. All came with the Milwaukee Brewers against his former teams. Oglivie victimized the Boston Red Sox once, the Detroit Tigers twice.

In 2007, Detroit Tigers second baseman Placido Polanco had 200 hits and 30 strikeouts. He played 1,209 innings in the field and wasn’t charged with an error.

In 1993, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Mark Leonard had one hit and three sacrifice flies. (Per @ajacksonevans)

On this date in 1996, Chris Hoiles hit a two-out grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Baltimore Orioles a 14-13 win over the Seattle Mariners.

On this date in 2002, Jason Giambi hit a one-out grand slam in the bottom of the 14th inning to give the New York Yankees a 13-12 win over the Minnesota Twins.

Terry Francona made his only big-league pitching appearance on May 15, 1989. Working the ninth inning of a 12-2 Milwaukee Brewers loss to the Oakland A’s, Francona retired all three batters he faced.

Players born on this date include Ozzie Virgil, who in 1956 became the first native of the Dominican Republic to play in the big leagues. Two years after debuting with the New York Giants, Virgil became the first person of color to play for the Detroit Tigers.

Hall of Fame outfielder Kiki Cuyler’s given name was Hazen Shirley Cuyler.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Rays Prospect Greg Jones is Mellow (and Tooled Up) by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Josh
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Member
Josh

That Hideki Matsui fact is mind-bending. Thanks for that – I’ll probably be telling that story for years…if we ever see people again!

rounders
Member
rounders

Then you have Mickey Lolich, a right handed left handed pitcher. And three fingers Brown, who threw the first knuckle curve literally by accident.
If I recall correctly Matui killed left handed pitching.