Zach Wilt: Adam Jones’ struggles aren’t a cause for concern

Just over a month into the 2016 season, the Orioles offense is on pace to be one of the game’s best. They’ve hit 36 homers, ranking third in the major leagues in that category (there’s a four-way tie for first) and have baseball’s third-best batting average with runners in scoring position (.295). We knew this club would score some runs this season, so I suppose these early rankings aren’t much of a surprise.

What is a surprise though, is that they’ve been able to put up these numbers while their five-time All-Star center fielder, Adam Jones, has struggled at the plate. Following last night’s loss, in which Jones went 0-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout and grounded into a double play, his slash line is down to .205/.287/.295 in his first 22 games. Jones, who hit .400 with five homers and 19 RBI in his first 20 games last season, typically isn’t a slow starter. Over his career, he’s hit .289/.331/.480 in the first month of the season.

While it’s far too early to panic, Jones has seen a slight dip in his batting average over the past four years. He was also bothered by an oblique injury in mid-April that kept him out of the lineup for six games. I’m not a doctor and I didn’t stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I am an Orioles fan who remembers Chris Davis dealing with an ailing oblique in 2014. Davis played just 127 games that year, slashed .196/.300/.404 and saw his home run total drop from 53 the year prior to 26. In the full, healthy season that followed, he belted 47 homers.

You’ll never hear Jones, the Orioles’ leader in the clubhouse, blame an injury for his results at the plate, so why should I? Let’s assume he’s 100 percent healthy. In his small sample size this season, he’s recorded just a .246 batting average on balls in play which indicates that he’s run into a bit of bad luck. The league average BABIP is currently .296 and typically it hovers right around .300. That’s a good sign for Jones.

There’s also the fact that he’s hitting the ball hard. Sometimes we’ll see hitters plagued by a low BABIP because they’re making soft contact and producing easy outs. According to data from Baseball Info Solutions, Jones has hit the ball hard 33.9 percent of the time, 3.3 percent more than he did last season and slightly above his career mark. His soft contact percentage (21 percent) is also right in line with his numbers from 2013-2015. More good news.

Pitchers haven’t changed their approach against Jones. Data from PITCHf/x indicates that he’s seeing right around the same mix as he has over the past five seasons. We’ve all seen Jones swing and miss at that slider in the dirt over his career. He’s actually seeing fewer sliders this season than usual.

Jones’ discipline at the plate is very similar to his career totals. He swings at just over half the pitches he sees and makes contact 75.4 percent of the time. While we have seen him occasionally channel Vlad Guerrero with a base hit on a pitch out of the strike zone, Jones has actually been more disciplined at the plate this season. So far, he’s swung at 31 percent of the pitches he sees outside of the zone, down from 46.5 percent last season.

With that dip has come a slight decrease in his contact on pitches out of the strike zone and a nice spike in his walk percentage. Jones is taking a free pass in 9.2 percent of his plate appearances, that’s more than double his career walk percentage. Personally, I’ve always argued for Jones’ swings at pitches outside of the zone because he’s been able to produce on them more than an average player. Last year, he made contact with 66.6 percent of the pitches he swung at outside of the strike zone. Perhaps this new-found discipline has actually played a slight role in a low batting average through his first 22 games.

Like most things in baseball, Jones’ results this season are likely a result of all of the reasons I listed above. He might be playing with an injury, he’s run into some bad luck with the BABIP gods and has become a more disciplined hitter. The bright side is that we’re just 16 percent of the way through the 2016 season. So I won’t let Jones’ 78 at-bats this season tell me too much about a guy who has 4,806 under his belt in the big leagues. I think he’ll be just fine.

Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. Follow him on Twitter: @zach_wilt. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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