On November 27th of last year, the Mariners shipped controversial RHP Josh Lueke off to Tampa Bay in exchange for a moderately young, little known, light-hitting, defensively challenged catcher named John Jaso. I don't think I was even aware of this transaction at the time. I guess it's hard to be aware of much of anything when you've eaten that much turkey over a 72-hour period. But even if I had emerged from my addled state to check up on local sports, I was probably not thinking about baseball. I was most likely cheering for the Seahawks or reading about Husky basketball.
Basically, all I'm trying to say is that the trade of Lueke for Jaso was another in a long line of recent offseason moves by the M's that didn't seem to justify any significant response. Another Casey Kotchman, Eric Byrnes, or Jack Cust.
It's hard to get excited about a player who's best position is DH and who posted a .651 OPS the previous year.
But Jaso's performance this year has warranted some excitement. Get excited, remaining Mariner fans!!
In 148 trips to the plate this year, our friend John has put up an OPS of .842, which would place him approximately between Bryce Harper and Andre Ethier. And what's more, 53% of his PAs have been in 2012 Safeco Field, which has been the most treacherous ballpark for hitters since 1922 when the Jupiter Juggernauts closed down the old "Gas Giant Ballpark" on the 5th planet from the Sun due to excessive gravity (and lack of attendance).
So the question becomes then, did the Rays make a terrible mistake in their valuation of Mr. Jaso, or could the first half of 2012 simply be an impermanent aberration, an example of a player briefly performing above his actual talent level? Well, let's take a look at the data.
Jaso's strength as a baseball player has always been in his disciplined approach to hitting. Since coming up with the Rays in 2010, John has been able to keep his strikeout rate down and his walk rate up. In fact, in his rookie campaign, Jaso struck out only once every 8.7 at bats while drawing a walk in every 6.8 plate appearances. To provide a sufficient contrast, Alex Liddi struck out every 2.5 at bats this year and 2012 Miguel Olivo has drawn a walk in every 42.3 plate appearances.
Historically, Jaso's weakness as a hitter has been his lack of substantial power, and here aren't many teams in this league who can afford to enlist the services a DH who lacks power. Pre-2012, Jaso had an ISO (Isolated Power) of .120, and only 32% of his career hits had gone for extra bases.
Presumably, John would like to play in the Majors for as long as teams are willing to pay him to do so. Most people probably would, I suppose. Jamie Moyer would probably play for free at this point.... So anyway, when Jaso was traded last November by the only organization he'd ever been a part of, I'm guessing he probably took some time to evaluate himself. I'm sure he saw the same strengths and weaknesses that we have discussed here, and I'm also reasonably sure that he would want to do anything possible to address his deficiencies.
So what has he done? Well, in 2012 John Jaso has been more aggressive at the plate than ever before, and it has paid off.
Between 2010-2011, Jaso swung at ~35% of all the pitches he saw. During this same time frame, he swung at ~20.5% of all the pitches he saw outside the strike zone and ~53.5% of all the pitches he saw within the strike zone.
In 2012, Jaso has swung at 38.5% of all the pitches he's seen, with a 23% swing rate at pitches outside the zone and 57.7% swing rate at pitches inside the zone.
Now these changes are somewhat minor - and it isn't like Jaso has completely redefined himself as a hitter. However, these marginal increases in swing rate are most likely due to a slightly freer-swinging attitude. Usually, one would expect to see a decrease in walk rate accompany a higher swing rate, but 2012 Jaso has still drawn walks at a rate higher his career rate. He is making contact a little less frequently than previous years, as would be expected, but his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BAbip) is up from .244 last year to .314 this year. Again, these numbers support conclusions that we can draw intuitively. Specifically, it makes a whole lot of sense that a more aggressive approach would result in less contact, but also in a higher quality of contact.
When I played in Little League, I knew that I could slow my swing down and make contact with just about any pitch. But that was no good because most of my swings resulted in ground balls to the shortstop and an out for my team. So I remember deciding to swing a bit harder and a bit more aggressively so that (in theory) when I DID make contact, it would go for a home run and I'd be the team's hero and would be carried off the field on their shoulders. To a certain degree, this is a pretty sound theory. In reality however, it just didn't turn out. My more aggressive strategy at the plate simply resulted in many, many more strikeouts and one ringing double off the left field fence that I'll remember forever. That was my last year playing baseball competitively.
I'd like to say that I personally passed this theory on to Mr. Jaso, but to be honest I think he came up with it himself. And it has worked a lot better for John than it did for me. This year his ISO is all the way up to .184, when the league average is down to only .155, and 46% of his hits have gone for extra bases, which is the best percentage of any Mariner (except King Felix). He has even experienced quite a few of those game-winning hits that I dreamed about so frequently. The jerk.
Now I understand that John Jaso is only a part-time C/DH, and perhaps you think that he's not really worth getting excited about. Perhaps you're right. Perhaps what he is doing IS unsustainable in the long-run. But in a year when the M's have the worst offense in the league, the worst home offense in the history of the sport, the fifth worst record in baseball, and haven't made the playoffs in more than a decade....I think it's nice to focus on the positives every once in a while.