Dillon Atkinson: It’s early, but Adam Jones looks like a new player

When you think of Orioles center fielder Adam Jones in his prime, what comes to mind? If you asked me, I’d bring up the obvious observations: 25-plus home-run hitter, .280-plus batting average, low on-base skills, free swinger and an all-around above average defender in center field.

Oftentimes as Orioles fans, we took the good with the bad. Jones has been known as a frustrating hitter in two-strike counts, as fans would always point out, “Here comes the 1-2 slider in the dirt, and we know Jones will chase it!” And sure enough, Jones would. But we would take that bad and bury it, as the All-Star center fielder would still consistently put up a batting average above .280 alongside 25-33 homers annually from 2011 through 2014, the four best offensive seasons of his career.

However, it’s worth noting that Jones’ offensive production has consistently dropped each year from 2012 through 2016.

* 2011: .280/.319/.466, 25 home runs, 109 wRC+
* 2012: .287/.334/.505, 32 home runs, 127 wRC+
* 2013: .285/.318/.493, 33 home runs, 119 wRC+
* 2014: .281/.311/.469, 29 home runs, 117 wRC+
* 2015: .269/.308/.474, 27 home runs, 109 wRC+
* 2016: .265/.310/.436, 29 home runs, 96 wRC+

(Weight Runs Created Plus (wRC+) is a representation of total offensive value. 100 is league average, and every point above or below 100 is the same as one percentage point better or worse than the league average, respectively. You can read more on wRC+ here, courtesy of FanGraphs.com.)

Seeing the steady drop in offensive production over the past several years, many would make the analysis that the 31-year-old outfielder is steadily declining. It may be true, or maybe being slightly banged up the past two years has significantly hurt his production. It’s tough to tell. Free-swinging with very few walks has been an approach that has worked for Jones over the course of his career. But those are poor qualities to have in your approach if you are indeed declining. However, Jones is showing that he’s making the necessary adjustments to keep his game at a high level.

So far in 2017, Jones is slashing .284/.354/.500 with four home runs and a 140 wRC+ over 82 plate appearances in 19 games started. He is being more patient at the plate this year than in years past. His on-base percentage is 70 points higher than his batting average to this point, sporting an 8.5 walk percentage. Prior to the 2017 season, his career numbers showed an OBP that was just 41 points higher than his batting average, with a 4.5 walk percentage. PITCHf/x shows that Jones has swung at 55. -percent of all pitches this season, which is down approximately 5 percent down from a year ago.

Not only is he seeing the ball better to be able to draw walks, but he’s also seeing the ball better when he’s hacking. He is swinging at 40.5 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, which is down just 3.6 percent down from 2016. However, he’s making much better contract on those pitches, hitting 70 percent of pitches outside of the zone as opposed to 59.4 percent last season.

And on all pitches, he’s even hitting the ball harder this season. Jones has a 23 percent line-drive rate this year, which is clearly better than his 16.5 and 18.3 percent line drive rates for 2016 and his career, respectively. Also, Jones’ hard-hit percentage is up to 39.3 so far in 2017, better than his 32.6 and 32.0 rates in 2016 and his career. He’s walking more, showing some more discipline, making more contact and hitting the ball harder. You won’t hear any complaints from me.

The Orioles’ All-Star center fielder is even making adjustments on defense. Advanced metrics didn’t like Jones’ performance in center last season, as he recorded minus-10 Defensive Runs Saved and a minus-10.1 Ultimate Zone Rating over 1,300 defensive innings. This year, the front office approached Jones about playing deeper in center field to see if it would help the team on defense. He has been known to enjoy playing a shallow center field throughout his career, but the veteran agreed to make the change. According to MLB.com columnist Mike Petriello, Jones has moved back 17 feet since last season, tied with the Rangers’ Carlos Gomez for the largest change in center field depth in between the two seasons. This will certainly give the opposing offenses more singles, but Jones will be able to stop more balls in the gap and be able to cover more ground in general.

Later in the year, we’ll be able to see - both with metrics and the eye test - if Jones’ decision to play deeper will help his performance as a defender in centerfield. As a hitter, he’s showing the necessary adjustments that he may need to make to stay a good hitter throughout his 30s. It’s still early in the season, however, so it’ll sure be interesting to see if these adjustments are here to stay for the long term or not. But as of now, he looks like a changed player.

Dillon Atkinson blogs about the Orioles for Orioles Uncensored. Follow him on Twitter: @DAtkinsonOU. His thoughts on the O’s appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. 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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