James Jones now has a quarter of a season worth of games under his belt, and we're starting to get a good idea of the type of player he is. Through the minors Jones didn't get much future MLB projection, simply because he was, perhaps unfairly, hardly labeled as a future MLB regular. He struck out a lot in the early going, but he was drafted on his athleticism, not his polish. He hit for some power, but a lot of it was triples. A large chunk of the home runs came in the hitter's paradise asterisk that is High Desert. He always carried a high BABIP, but that hardly concluded anything on his own. We all knew Jones was fast. He was difficult to project.
Now Jones is here, center fielder for the foreseeable future. He's taken the job and run with it, even after cooling down from his initial blast of success. Watching his evolution into a major league regular has been fascinating, as all of the previously mentioned uncertainty and noise is starting to come together. The power has dropped, the steals have increased, and the walks and strikeouts are stabilizing. His 5% walk rate is a noticeable drop below the minors, but his K% (16.8%) is right in line with his 2013-2014 in Jackson and Tacoma (17.8%).
Jones is starting to look a lot like an old school leadoff slap hitter, so it's no surprise that Lloyd McClendon likes him at the top of the order. We know Lloyd likes guys that fit that leadoff archetype, forcing Abe Almonte into the role despite his struggles and giving the nod to Willie Bloomquist on random games here and there. Hustle, grit, speed. The catalyst role. Now it's James Jones, and it's probably because he reminds him of a couple of guys who other managers have vigilantly planted into that role for years, including one he surely saw a lot of in the National League during his time with the Pirates.
The most common comp for Jones is Willie McGee, and it's a surprisingly good one, even looking beyond their similar looks and swings. But McGee posted nine seasons of a wRC+ over 100, and I think putting James on that level, for now, is slightly premature. Instead, Jones is looking more like a hybrid of Juan Pierre and Rajai Davis.
These are career totals for each three, so take a pause for sample size and career paths before going too deep down the well. Still, Jones' numbers to Pierre are remarkably similar, just with three times as many strikeouts. He's been hitting like Pierre with Rajai Davis' strikeout rate, and even though the paths are a little different, it's a solid comp into Jones production. Plus, the way Jones is acquiring hits is very familiar.
Juan Pierre used to routinely rack up 50 infield hits a year, but he needed 700+ plate appearances to do it. In Pierre's prime, when he was averaging around 725 PA a year, 50 infield hits translates to 7% infield hit rate. Jones, with 13 infield hits through 156 PA, is at 8.3% -- approximately 60 infield hits if given Pierre's plate appearances. That's on Ichiro's level, who hit in the upper 50s several times during his prime. Obviously, Jones isn't going to be given the PA that those players were yet, but on a rate level, you get the idea of the kind of hitter he's been, and maybe the kind of hitter he'll continue to be.
Besides the hitting profile, there's obvious speed comparisons. Jones has been remarkably efficient on the basepaths so far, only getting caught once compared to his eleven steals. Jones was never that efficient in the minors (he was caught three times in eight attempts before being called up) but he's been picking his spots well so far. Projecting stolen base totals going forward is largely an exercise in frustration, as so much depends on situation, opportunity, and most importantly, manager decision. That being said, Jones very much appears to be a guy who can steal 30 bases or more, with that number potentially increasing based on his success to date. Not Pierre level, but very few are given the green light to steal 60 bases a year.
There are only a handful of players who you can call truly stereotypical leadoff hitters from the past decade. For years, Juan Pierre was the National League's quintessential slap hitting, blazing fast hitter to kickstart a lineup and cause havoc on the basepaths. He wasn't a good hitter per se, but for a lot of years, he was hardly a bad one either. He was an asset. If James Jones decides he wants to be Juan Pierre at the major league level, that's just fine. Forget leadoff archetypes -- the Mariners need good players, especially outfielders. Without any power, Jones may never be a great player, but he can certainly be a good one. Given the expectations for his career just a year ago, that's a welcome surprise.