Entering 2012 the jury still seemed to be out on Adam Jones. He had showed very good power throughout his major league career but had poor plate discipline. His defense seemed enigmatic with different advanced metrics placing him anywhere from awesome to awful in center field. However, he was only 26 and it seemed possible that the potential tools scouts saw in him might come together into a top tier MLB player.

This year Jones has realized that potential. He has been the most valuable Oriole offensively in terms of advanced metrics (wRC, wRAA, wOBA) and traditional ones (most Hits, RBIs, HRs). This performance begs the question: What has changed with Jones in 2012? Why is he hitting the ball so much harder than he ever has in his career? Is he just entering his prime as an MLB player in terms of strength or has he significantly changed his approach at the plate? Analysis after the jump.

Image Provided By Associated Press.

Currently in 2012 Jones’ triple slash (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .302/.345/.556 dwarfs his 2011 performance (.280/.319/.466). While Jones is getting hits at a slightly higher rate than last year, the largest improvement in Jones 2012 line is his ability to record extra bases hits, reflected by the +0.90 difference in his SLG. Other advanced metrics confirm this. For example, almost a quarter of the fly balls Jones’ is hitting are becoming home runs (22.4%). This is compared to 16.7% of his fly balls in 2011 resulting in home runs.

So what is allowing Jones to hit the ball significantly harder? Is he (1) swinging at better pitches or (2) swinging at the same pitches but simply hitting them harder?

The table below summarizes the rate at which Jones has swung at pitches inside and outside of the strike zone in 2011 and thus far in 2012. The graph shows the location of the pitches where Jones has swung and missed in 2011 and 2012. Red reflects locations of pitches where Jones swung and missed frequently. Blue reflects locations where Jones did not swing and miss.

Year Rate Jones Swings at Pitches Out of Zone Rate Jones Swings at Pitches In Zone Rate Jones Swings Rate Jones Swings and Misses
2011 44.4 % 71.8 % 56.6 % 12.9 %
2012 39.2 % 72.1 % 53.7 % 11.5 %

Compared to last year Jones is swinging at less pitches and missing slightly less. The pitches Jones is not swinging at are mostly outside of the strike zone. The heat maps show that the biggest difference from 2011 to 2012 is that Jones is no longer swinging and missing at belt high pitches outside the strike zone. What is particularly interesting is that Jones is still swinging and missing at outside pitches that are at the bottom of the strike zone and below. Next, we’ll look at the pitches that Jones is making contact on.

Year Rate Jones Makes Contact at Pitches Out of Zone Rate Jones Makes Contact at Pitches In Zone Rate Jones Makes Contact
2011 63.7 % 86.9 % 76.8 %
2012 64.3 % 88.5 % 78.6 %

Compared to last year Jones is making contact slightly more often. The rate of additional contact is evenly distributed between being inside and outside of the strike zone. In the heat maps below we can see that in particular Jones is swinging and hitting more balls in the bottom center of the strike zone. At the same he has reduced the rate at which he is putting belt-high pitches in the center of the strikezone in play. Furthermore, we see in this graph that the previously mentioned outside belt high pitches Jones swung at and missed in 2011, he is now putting into play in 2012. Jones should be commended to some extent for adapting his swing to now hit these pitches. However, these pitches are still outside the strike zone and taking them to either walk or see an additional pitch in the zone might produce even further offensensive value.

In 2012 is Jones has showcased a drastically improved ability to hit ball harder resulting in more extra base hits, especially home runs. While we might expect this to regress to Jones’ career average in the second half of the season, Jones season end numbers should still be a significant improvement over any other season in his career. The simplest explanation for this improvement is that Jones is currently 26 and entering the peak of his career in terms of hitting for power. However, from the graphs above it seems that Jones has made small adjustments that may have also improved his production. In particular Jones is hitting outside, belt-high pitches he used to miss and he is hitting more pitches at the bottom center of the strike zone than he previously did. Next week, we’ll explore how much of Jones increased power has come on these two sets of pitches.