First impressions can last a long time. It truly speaks to the ineptitude of the Mariners offense that when James Jones got promoted, he was seen as a revelation. He was relatively unknown, not along the organization's top prospects. He'd taken a long path to the majors despite being drafted out of college, making his debut in his 6th professional year. He had everything to prove and nothing to lose, and it showed in his play. Fans eat that shit up. Jones was making the most of his abilities, and everyone loved it, because we expected nothing and got something.
14 game hitting streak. 306/.377/.435 in his first 20 games. Could the Mariners have finally found a solution to their continually seeping, gaping holes in the outfield? I went to Safeco around the end of May and saw two different people wearing James Jones jerseys. Not shirseys, but custom, stitched, 99 Jones jerseys. A lot of us fell pretty hard.
Even though I wrote about the early, strange similarities of Jones to Juan Pierre over a month ago, several people pointed out that he had the potential for more power, and I agreed. But we hadn't seen it then, and still haven't seen it now. Even without it, Jones appeared like he could be a good player, and we just hadn't seen enough of his defense to make any conclusions. We have now.
First impressions have passed, and now, 283 PA in, we have a pretty decent idea of what James Jones is this year, or more accurately, what he's been. His walk rate is now a miserable 3.9%, and his power has actually managed to decline, as Jones holds a .meager 059 ISO. A wRC+ of 79 is pretty bad in and of itself, but Jones would at least be an asset with his speed and defense if the latter of the two was any good. Unfortunately, the metrics are crushing Jones in center field, and all of a sudden, the Mariners find themselves with a below replacement level (-0.3 WAR) center fielder.
DRS has already tagged Jones for -11 runs, while his UZR is at -9.1, on pace for a whopping -25.6 UZR/150. If you aren't familiar the metrics, that means that over this small sample, Jones' defense in center projects to cost the Mariners ~25.6 runs if extrapolated over a full season. I brought this up on Twitter yesterday, and there was understandably some blowback to a simple presentation of the numbers. These metrics attempt to measure range, after all, and Jones is perhaps the fastest, most explosive athlete the Mariners have had in quite a while. With tons of speed and a rocket arm, James Jones should be an excellent center fielder. But that's only on paper.
Jones' defensive gaffes are starting to stack up, and on Tuesday he committed the Brad Miller special -- a fielding mistake compounded with another bad decision to make things even worse. He didn't end up with an error, but this is the kind of play that gets Jones punished by metrics.
The obvious mistake here is Jones' refusal to keep the ball in front of him, instead taking a weird bail-out slide, resulting in an RBI triple that drove in one run and resulted in another, as D'Arnaud eventually scored. Whether or not this ball is catchable is up for debate, but another angle makes this cringeworthy.
Jones may be a speed demon on the basepaths, but he's caught in between on this play, getting a very slow break on the ball, never ramping up to any confident level of acceleration. His path to the ball is terrible, first breaking right, then sprinting straight ahead, then zagging right again to stab at the ball. This isn't even a line drive with much movement on it, either -- it's straight forward to dead center field. Jones staggers at the ball like he's an outfielder in Bases Loaded on NES - left, down, down-left, inside the park homer conceded. Well, normally.
This is a single example, but if you've watched Jones play center field all year, you know that this is a common occurrence, even on the plays that he does end up making. Speed alone doesn't make a great center fielder. James Jones, as Colin pointed out yesterday, destroys Franklin Gutierrez in a foot race, and the quality of defense between the two is gigantic. Outfield defense isn't about straight line speed. Jones is exceptionally poor at reading the ball off the bat and choosing the best path. Here, Jones might have actually been able to utilize his burst and get to the ball, but he couldn't make the read.
We all know that defensive metrics take a long time to stabilize and give a true representation of a player's worth, but the fact that both DRS and UZR have him rated this bad through a half-season can't be dismissed. The visual test confirms it too. This isn't entirely Jones' fault, as the Mariners never really brought him up as a center fielder. Jones only played 23% of his minor league innings in center field, spending the majority in right. While Jones may have a killer arm in right, it has been wildly inaccurate in the majors, and his -1.4 ARM rating agrees.
It would be nice to suggest that the Mariners simply move Jones to right field, but they don't have anybody to take his place. Dustin Ackley has settled into being an excellent defensive left fielder, and it is about the only thing that makes him above replacement value. Despite Lloyd McClendon continuing to treat Endy Chavez like he has the same physical abilities he did eight years ago, he's unlikely to be much better in center field either. While Chavez in center may be an upgrade, you're then taking away the chance for Jones to improve with experience, and that's a plausible scenario. The metrics could easily be too harsh on Jones in this small sample, and he has plenty of time to improve. Despite being almost 26, Jones just hasn't played a lot of center, and in theory, he'll only get better.
We already know what Michael Saunders is in center field and with the string of injuries he's had, putting him back there after his return seems like a very bad idea.
All of the attention is on the Mariners adding a corner bat to fill out their lineup, but they're currently starting an offensive and defensive liability in center field. If you're looking for suggestions on what the Mariners can do, you're out of luck. Their miserable depth in the outfield means that no matter who they acquire, Jones is still likely to be starting, at least until Saunders returns. They're unlikely to find an upgrade in center field at the deadline. This is the product of poor roster design more than anything else. It isn't James Jones' fault he's being asked to play a position he played without any regularity in his development.
The Mariners need a good defensive center fielder, preferably one who's right-handed and has some pop. Where might they find one of those? I'm going to go sob in my coffee.
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