Gold Glove Within Reach For Tigers CF JaCoby Jones

He's got a full-time home for the first time in his career.

Will Burchfield
February 21, 2019 - 4:33 pm

© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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Al Avila was the first to start beating the drum, about a month ago during Tigersfest. On the heels of a terrific season in the outfield, one that merited more attention than it received, JaCoby Jones has a chance to establish himself in 2019 as one of the best defensive players in baseball -- at arguably the game's most premium position. 

"JaCoby Jones last year ended up the season as basically the best defensive outfielder in the game," Avila said. "Let’s see if he can improve on his hitting and become an All-Star." 

Say what you want about his All-Star potential, but Jones' ability in the outfield is not to be disputed. He tracks down just about anything hit his way, and boasts an arm to go with his legs. The highlights you saw last year -- the running catches, the money throws -- were substantiated by the numbers. 

In terms of defensive runs saved, a measure of how many runs better or worse a player has been compared to the average player at his position, Jones ranked first among outfielders at plus-21. According to FanGraphs, plus-15 is Gold Glove caliber.

Jones made these contributions while splitting time between left field and center, which may have been part of the reason he flew under the radar. He didn't become Detroit's everyday center fielder until the Tigers deal Leonys Martin at the trade deadline. This season it's Jones' job from the jump, and the go-go-go 26-year-old is ready to run with it. (What isn't he ready to run with?) 

In fact, Jones sounds intent on proving a point. He might be an old-school player at heart, uninterested in the fancy numbers of the day, but he's well aware of how he stacked up analytically last season with his peers. He's also aware no one seemed to notice. 

If Jones puts in similar work this season on a daily basis in center, he'll get the respect he deserves. And maybe a Gold Glove to go with it.

Why not? 

"Winning the Gold Glove would be awesome," Jones told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 97.1 The Ticket. "I think I led the MLB in defensive runs saved last year, so I have the ability to do that, but obviously I didn’t get enough credit for it. But, yeah, I would love to win the Gold Glove." 

Last year's AL Gold Glove winner in center field was Boston's Jackie Bradley Jr, who finished even in DRS. (Other metrics painted him much more favorably. He also has one of the best arms in baseball.) The AL runner-ups, Mike Trout and Adam Engel of the White Sox, finished plus-8 and plus-1, respectively. 

NL winner Ender Inciarte of the Braves finished plus-17, while runner-ups Lorenzo Cain of the Brewers and Billy Hamilton of the Reds finished plus-20 and plus-4, respectively. It bears mention that all these players posted at least replacement-level numbers on offense, which is where Jones must improve in order to stick in the lineup. 

DRS isn't the only way to judge a player's defensive performance, of course, but Jones ranked at or near the top of charts last season in any relevant category for outfielders. Prefer Ultimate Zone Rating? Jones ranked second. Prefer something more traditional? His .997 fielding percentage -- the product of committing just one error all season -- was tied for second. 

It's this combination of reliability and range, of making the routine plays and the dazzling ones, that can push Jones into Gold Glove territory this season. And a few more catches like this one wouldn't hurt. 

When the Tigers acquired Jones via trade in 2015, he didn't really have a position. He was a guy who could play anywhere, so that's what he did. It took him four years and five different positions, including a good deal of time at third base and shortstop in the minors, to settle in for good at center field.

That's not a knock on his skills. It's a nod to his athleticism. 

Ahead of spring training last month, Jones reflected on finally having some certainty in his role. He said it would help to be able to narrow his focus. It's a safe bet he packed fewer gloves. For the first time in his career, he has a full-time home in the outfield -- which, at Comerica Park, becomes one of the biggest homes in baseball.

All the better for Jones, whose value only rises with more room to run. 

"I love playing at Comerica, it’s a huge park. I love roaming around out there. It’s fun," he said. "I can play anywhere, but obviously center field is kind of my home now. I enjoy being out there, so I consider myself a center fielder." 

By the end of this season, he may be considered one of the best.