James Jones will regress, but could stay good

One of the ostensible catalysts for the Mariners recent success, though that success has seen something of a road block in recent days, has been James Jones. Jones has been a revelation in the outfield, allowing Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders to play positions where they’re perhaps best suited.

If there are a couple of things that we don’t value very much here, narratives and hyperbole rank pretty high on that list. Media is as quick to burn out stars as they are to announce their arrival. Jones is good, but there is some question about whether or not he’ll be able to remain good for the long haul.

While Jones hasn’t always looked incredibly smooth in the outfield, his early UZR numbers are good. This early in anyone’s first season UZR’s sample is small, and unstable to the point of basically meaninglessness. Still, the metrics match the range our eyes have seen. Jones primarily played right field in the minors, but his speed seems to have him well equipped to play center field in the big leagues.

Where Jones has perhaps been the best, though, and surprisingly so, has been at the plate. Coming into Sunday’s action Jones had a 148 wRC+, including a .395 on base percentage and .154 isolated power.

Jones has actually run a respectable walk rate in the minors, but power has never been his game, and many of his extra bases recently have come from hustle and speed, as opposed to hard-hit line drives. Jones had a 25 percent line drive rate coming into Sunday, but according to StatCorner, he never ran a very high line drive rate in the minors.

So with an apparent lack of power and a line drive rate that figures to be somewhere around 15 percent going forward, the chances of sustaining a .385 BABIP are basically none. But .385 is a very high BABIP. Among qualified hitters in 2013, only Chris Johnson of the Atlanta Braves had a BABIP higher than .385. Mike Trout‘s BABIP was .376 (albeit with a bunch of homers). Joe Mauer posted a .383 BABIP.

Through his minor league career, and to this point in his brief big league career, Jones has maintained a ground ball percentage close to 60. While fly balls are usually positives for power hitters, for guys that have a hard time even getting the ball to the warning track they’re basically a death sentence. Without the threat of landing deep in a gap, or over the fence, there isn’t a huge distinction between infield and outfield fly balls for non-power-hitters. Jones hits nearly two ground balls for every fly ball, and rarely hits a fly ball in the infield.

Last year, the league’s batting average on ground balls was .232. That in mind, guys like Norichika Aoki of the Brewers (now the Royals) was able to maintain a wRC+ of 104 despite a 60 percent ground ball rate. He has a .271 batting average on ground balls in his career in 669 at bats that ended in a grounder.

Even though Jones isn’t driving balls all over the field, there’s a chance he’ll be able to sustain a pretty high BABIP. Right now the league is throwing him about 70 percent fastballs. Had he been a regular for the Mariners for the whole season, 70 percent would rank second in baseball behind only Denard Span. That may seem like it will regress, but Jones’ lack of true power doesn’t create a ton of incentive for pitchers to attempt to make him swing and miss. Jones high contact rate and walk rate may serve to further reduce incentive to throw Jones a bunch of grounder-inducing breaking balls.

Aoki is probably the best example of these positive traits. He plays basically average right field defense, which Jones should be able to equal in center, which is more valuable. He also hits a bunch of balls into the ground, barely ever strikes out, walks some, and runs like the wind, or perhaps even a more creative, and less worn out cliche.

James Jones probably won’t be the best Mariners leadoff hitter ever. He’s not Ichiro. He’s not Kenny Lofton. But Aoki has been league average player while playing right field. If Jones is able to stick in center field and play it at an above average rate, two-wins are far from out of the question, and if he’s able to sustain something close to a 100 wRC+ and remain a good baserunner, there’s no reason he can’t be even better than average. That’s not a star, but that’s not a useless player, and getting that from a guy that may be the best defensive center fielder in the organization means that he’s got a chance to stick around for a while if he keeps it up.