In what is likely the defining baseball book of our generation, Billy Beane not so affectionately referred to Miguel Tejada as “Mr. Swing at Everything.” Not exactly known for his plate discipline or willingness to take a walk, Tejada never quite fit the mold of the patient hitters who helped shape the Oakland offense of the early 2000’s. Tejada drew just 287 walks during his time with the Athletics, good for a 7.2 percent walk rate.
Those numbers looked awful when compared to Jason Giambi and Scott Hatteberg, two of the faces of the Moneyball approach. To the Baltimore Orioles, though, and their own “Mr. Swing at Everything,” Adam Jones, a 7.2 percent walk rate and .331 OBP would be a marked improvement. While it may be seen as the highest form of sacrilege, there is no denying that at times, Jones, the Orioles’ five-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glover, and the undeniable heart and soul of the recent revival, is a gaping on-base hole in the heart of the lineup.
Jones is in the midst of another characteristic season. He will easily surpass 25 home runs for the fifth time in eight full seasons with the Orioles. If not for a rash of minor injuries in June, another 100-RBI season would be a possibility. Overall, however, 2015 should not be characterized as a strong season for the Orioles’ centerfielder.
Hardly known for his plate discipline, Jones is walking at just a 4.4 percent clip this season. Although that is an improvement from the 2.8 percent rate he recorded last year, Jones continues to hurt himself by repeatedly swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone. In the second half, when the offense needs him most, Jones has walked only five times in 153 plate appearance. Depending on the pitch dataset used, Jones has swung at as many as 47.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. That’s a five-percent increase from last year. Overall, he has swung at over 80 percent of pitches faced this year. This hacking approach has led to many lazy fly balls, popups, and weak groundballs on breaking and offspeed pitches buried low and away.
Since 2012, Jones has seen a marked decline in the percentage of balls hit hard and the percentage of line drives. His line drives have turned into more fly balls, but those fly balls are not turning into home runs at a clip better than league average. In 2012, Jones hit line drives at a 21.5 percent clip. That’s down to 18.6 percent this season. In the same time-span, his flyball rate has climbed from 32.6 to 37.5% with a corresponding drop in hard hit balls from 35.3 to 29.7 percent. It’s not too hard to see why the gradual decline in well-struck baseballs has taken place for Adam Jones — everyone knows he will swing at anything. It is worth noting that despite the increase in chase rate this season, Jones will actually strike out at a career-low rate unless something drastically changes over the final month and change of the season.
The fact that Adam Jones swings at anything within a bat length of the plate is hardly news to anyone. I’m not the first one to question his approach at the plate and its affect on the offense at times. I certainly won’t be the last.
Jones has swung at the first pitch in 73 at-bats, and is batting just .288 when doing so. For most major league hitters, the batting average on first pitches should be well over .300. Swinging at the first pitch is fine, but it has to be a good pitch to hit. If not, the at-bat is wasted. With Jones serving as the primary number three batter, the Orioles have just the 25th best OBP from that spot in the order and have drawn the second-fewest walks.
It’s taken a massive shift in conventional wisdom to realize that a .280 batting average is not that valuable when it is accompanied by a .320 OBP. Jones is productive when he hits the ball hard, but far too many of his plate appearances end without him reaching base. Even an increase in his on-base percentage by 20 points which would put him close to the league average for three-hole hitters would make the Orioles’ lineup infinitely more dangerous. When Jones hits, the Orioles win, but when he doesn’t there’s very little hope. In 55 wins, Jones has a .339/.373/.625 line. In 57 losses, it drops precipitously to .228/.270/.375. There is no in between for Jones and the Orioles. Either he hits and the team wins, or he goes 0-for-4 without reaching base.
Things get even worse for Jones deep into games. From the seventh inning on, when a team needs the heart of its order to produce, Jones has just a .307 OBP. In high leverage situations, it drops to .255. When pressed, Jones becomes even more swing-happy, and that’s not a good thing, as most of the league’s best relief pitchers are able to eat him up with sliders and curveballs at his ankles.
While Adam Jones is an outstanding player, and perhaps the face of the franchise, he is not suited to handle the duties of a three-hole hitter. Swinging at everything worked for one of the all-time greatest talents, Vladimir Guerrero, but Jones is not in the same league as Guerrero. As his skills erode into his thirties, there will be a significant decline in production if Jones does not begin honing his approach at the plate. Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop have both tightened their strike zones immensely this season, and the results have been dramatic. With discipline, both appear on the cusp of making the jump to true superstars in the game. Both Machado and Schoop should have the Orioles wondering if perhaps it is time to shuffle the lineup and move Jones out of the third position in which he has been entrenched for years.
If Machado and Schoop can calm themselves at the plate, Jones should be able to as well, but it will take work, and a willingness to change. In ten years in the Major Leagues, Jones has not shown that willingness. If anything, he has gotten more aggressive, wild, and undisciplined at the plate. The fact that he has never really matured as a hitter is on him, as well as the Orioles’ hitting coaches who have not been able to coax discipline out of their talented star. Within a few seasons, it’s not hard to imagine the Orioles being forced to move him into the lower third of the order. It’s not impossible to teach an old dog new tricks, but the dog must be willing to learn.