Tigers’ JaCoby Jones turns corner quicker than expected
Pittsburgh — You wonder how this conversion, this transformation in a man’s batting style, could have happened in so few months.
JaCoby Jones last season played in 56 games for Detroit, struck out 65 times in 141 at-bats, and had an on-base average he wishes he could expunge: .240.
On Tuesday afternoon, he arrived at PNC Park, along with a steady stream of rain drops that threatened an evening game between the Tigers and Pirates. He was owner of a shiny new on-base percentage of .362. He had struck out nine times in 41-at bats, or about one-half his whiff rate a year ago.
He also was batting .293, with an .874 OPS, and two home runs.
Did this 25-year-old outfielder visit Lourdes during the offseason? Has a man once so afflicted been cured?
“I’m not swinging at balls out of the zone,” Jones said inside the visitors’ clubhouse as two teams waited on downtown Pittsburgh’s weather gods to determine if, or when, a first pitch might be thrown. “I’ve learned I can trust my hands. My hands are so fast I can let the ball travel and take a fastball to the other field. Or, if they hang a pitch, I can trust my hands and stay back on it.”
Jones’ offense is one of the Tigers’ early spring bonuses. It hints at turning a world-class defender into — dare his bosses say it — a dynamic two-way player, which was the idyllic thought three years ago when the Tigers got him from the Pirates in a trade for Joakim Soria.
“What you want people to do is figure out some things,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said when asked Tuesday about Jones’ early turnaround. “He’s got all the tools. It’s a matter of whether he figures out his swing and puts the ball in play.
“He’s figuring out some things. He’s an igniter.”
Gardenhire there refers, in part, to Jones’ speed. A football receiver in high school who later became a baseball star at Louisiana State, Jones covers wide swaths of turf in the outfield with, in Gardenhire’s view, “a first step that’s second to none.” That same sprinter-grade burst pushes a man 6-foot-2, 201 pounds from home plate to first base in ridiculously fast time.
Power and speed earn a player more than big-league style points. They’re the drive-train behind All-Stars. That very projection, said with a necessary “if” concerning Jones’ bat, has been mentioned a couple of times by Tigers general manager Al Avila.
More: Speedy Martin, Jones give Tigers a defensive edge
“I’ve been an All-Star since I was a kid,” Jones said, not disagreeing. “You’ve got to believe in yourself.”
The peril, of course, is simply stated. It is April. Big-league baseball seasons are infamous for taking young players, flush with the rush from a hot start, and a month or two later treating them to a Triple A clubhouse locker.
Lloyd McClendon knows how it goes. He has been a manager in the big leagues and at Triple A Toledo. He now is the Tigers’ hitting coach. McClendon is the first to rave about Jones’ talent. He also is the first to remind anyone bowled over by Jones’ change in approach that it is early. And that this is a player who remains tender, with all of 72 games of big-league experience.
“He’s doing OK — he’s doing OK,” McClendon said Tuesday, with a sage smile. “He’s turning the corner. There’s still a lot of work to do before he’s the total package.”
Jones said there was no grand plan heading into spring camp for reinventing himself as a hitter. He knew the strikeouts had to be trimmed. He understood he must swing at pitches friendlier to a batter than to a pitcher.
But there was no escape to a monastery, or to a self-help clinic, for deep reflection about his hitting approach. He needed no extended counseling from his coaches.
Rather, he decided thoughts could govern his hitting technique.
“The brain’s powerful,” said Jones, who was born in Chickasha, Okla., and who now lives in Richton, Miss. “The more you tell it positive stuff, the more it responds.”
He says there is another element at work: experience. Last season, he would go to home plate and his mind and body felt as if they were in a race to see which could control Jones’ at-bats.
“Everything was fast, kind of a blur,” Jones said. “Now, I’m just slowing the game down. Last year, there were struggles. Ups and downs. But I’m glad I went through it.”
How long it lasts, no one is predicting, not even Jones, who understands pitchers will adjust and that he’ll be required to adjust as well. They will seek soft spots in his swing. And regions of the strike zone where he might chase.
But this is an athlete who enjoys his work. He’ll be growing and getting smarter, as well, he said Tuesday.
In fact, as his numbers attest, he already has.
More: Fun, sun, suds and grub! A fans’ guide to minor-league baseball
Tigers at Pirates
First pitch: 7:05 Wednesday, PNC Park, Pittsburgh
■LHP Matthew Boyd (0-1, 1.40 ERA), Tigers: Boyd has been the best of all Tigers starters in the arly going. Throwing strikes, mixing pitches beautifully – a superb, early-season stalwart.Pirates
■RHP Ivan Nova (2-1, 4.20), Pirates: He was the Pirates’ opening-day pitcher at Detroit and showed the Tigers why he’s this team’s ace. Cold weather cost a renowned strikes-thrower three walks that day, but Nova can be sterling.