What if… Adam Jones finally has an off-year, and struggles in 2015?
Well, first it would mean that he’s bucked a trend. Jones is in the prime of his career, and rates highly as much for the quality of his play as its consistency. In the last three seasons, Jones has averaged better than 160 games played, and in that time, he’s proven himself to be one of the better players in baseball, and one of the Seattle Mariners’ worst mistakes.
In those same three seasons, Jones has gone from a guy who was criticized for his defense (plays too shallow, concentrates too much on blowing bubbles) to a three-time Gold Glove award winner. Understanding that the Gold Glove is a subjective award that often rewards offense more than it recognizes the best player at any position, let’s not forget that Jones plays the same position as baseball’s darling Mike Trout. He’s been consistently recognized for his defense, among pretty impressive peers.
Offensively, Jones provides a middle-of-the-order presence for the Orioles. Over the last three seasons, the back his baseball card comes out to: .284 AVG, 31 HR, 95 RBI. Because I can already sense my pal Scott Magness silently scoffing, I should point out that over the same period, his wOBA comes to .350 (solidly Above Average) and his WRC+ is 121 (solidly Above Average).
That’s a long way to say that he’s… not quite great but he is really, really good. Beyond the numbers, he has a dynamic personality whose influence in the clubhouse makes those around him better. Baltimore is lucky to have him, and has enjoyed success, in part, because of what he brings to the table.
But what if Jones has an off year in 2015? The answer, in short, is trouble. With so many other question marks in the lineup, the Orioles are depending on him to be the stabilizing presence in the 3/4 spot in the lineup. He is the one who is going to be called upon to drive in runs, to hit home runs, and to deliver in the clutch. Much has already been made of the 40 home runs that walked out the door with Nelson Cruz. We don’t know if we are going to get that from Steve Pearce (whose stellar 2014 might be an outlier in an otherwise pedestrian career), Manny Machado (whose injury history makes him a wild card), J.J. Hardy (who has shown steady power decline), or Matt Wieters (his only real offensive asset was power, and his full return from Tommy John surgery is not a given).
Another consideration is Jones’ abysmal walk rate. We’ve heard it before: we don’t want to limit his aggressiveness because it’s part of what makes him such a great hitter. And, to a degree it is true. But the difference between Jones and a player like Chris Davis, is that when Davis struggles to hit, he can still contribute by getting on base with the walk. Jones walk rate has been trending down (2.8% in 2014) in the last three seasons.
This is further compounded by Jones’ free-swinging approach. Jones’ chase rate in hitters’ counts (43.3%) was tops in the American League. This shows that Jones swings at a lot of bad pitches – even (especially?) when he is in the driver’s seat in the at-bat. If Adam Jones starts to struggle, his approach can lead to an extended, frustrating slump because he lacks the discipline to force pitchers to throw him strikes.
For more on the dangers in Jones’ approach, check out this article, which explains it very completely and succinctly.
This team needs him, in a lineup of question marks. Its pitching is solid, but not special, and requires the offense to cover its weaknesses. If Adam Jones does not have another stellar year in 2015, the Orioles run the risk of running out of the offense that has carried them during their recent success. Projection systems like PECOTA who have pegged the Orioles for a losing season, would look a lot less crazy if Jones fails to post like he has in the last three years.