Tigers CF JaCoby Jones Eyeing Exclusive Club In 2020

In a crucial season, Jones has suitably high goals.

Will Burchfield
January 30, 2020 - 2:24 pm
JaCoby Jones

© Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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For a player who began last season in a brutal slump and ended it on the shelf, JaCoby Jones is quite confident heading into 2020. It's because he knows what he did in between. 

It wasn't just the numbers he put up during the best stretch of his career. It was the fact they were triggered by an adjustment he made at the plate, an adjustment he's sticking to moving forward. After calming his hands before the pitch, Jones, always known for his bat speed, hit .321 with a .971 OPS over a five-week stretch in May and June. Even as he cooled off in July and then went down for the season in August after taking a fastball to the wrist, Jones left 2019 feeling good about the future. 

"I had a little bit of success last year once I figured out what I wanted to do hitting wise, so I’ve been working at it all offseason," he said. "Looking forward to this year." 

Jones said he's trained this winter harder than he has in the past. On top of rehabbing his broken wrist, he's spent extra time strengthening his legs with an eye toward staying healthy throughout the season. He played in just 88 games last year, also hindered by shoulder, back and hamstring injuries. He intends to play every day this season in center field, and he intends to hit like he did when he found his groove. If he does, he figures some big goals are in reach.

"I would love to be a 20-20 guy," he said. "I know I can do that. I mean, last year I was on pace before I got hurt. 80 games, 11 homers, so I was okay with that. I would love to just be 20-20 every year, maybe possibly get up there in the 30s (for stolen bases)."

Neither number is all that flashy on its own. But together they're exclusive. Just nine players put up 20 homers and 20 stolen bases last season, and you've heard of each one. Christian Yelich, Ronald Acuna, Francisco Lindor, to name a few. It takes a rare combination of speed and power. It also takes durability -- each player in that group played in at least 80 percent of his team's games. So the first step for Jones is staying healthy. 

As for the second, he's shown he has the talent. To Jones' point, his numbers as a whole last season put him on a 20 HR pace over 162 games. And his pace during that aforementioned hot streak, when he had an OBP above .380, jumped to 26 HR/21 SB. He figures the homers will take care of themselves. If he gets on base at a healthy clip, so will the steals. 

"When I was playing every day and getting on base like I was for that month, month and a half, then yeah, I can get up to 30 (stolen bases) for sure," he said. "So we’ll see."

Let's assume Jones settles somewhere in between. Somewhere closer to his pace over his final 50 games: .269/.342/.825 with six homers and five stolen bases. That's a 20-16 pace, and it feels within his reach in 2020. He'll have to swipe a few more bags, but he plays for the right manager to give it a shot. Jones almost always has the green light from Ron Gardenhire, who wants his teams to run. 

Gardenhire is a big fan of Jones, bullish on his athletic ability. It's why he stood by Jones in center field last season, even as the metrics soured on his performance. After leading all outfielders in defensive runs saved in 2018, while playing a bulk of the season in left, Jones tumbled to last in 2019. Gardenhire said it was a product of Jones' positioning; Jones tends to agree. Flanked by two inexperienced outfielders in Christin Stewart and Nick Castellanos, he was forced to play deep for most of the year. 

Jones plans to play more shallow in 2020, with Stewart more comfortable in left and the speedy Victor Reyes likely taking over in right. He hopes the numbers come back around. But he's clear on this -- he doesn't feel like he needs to reprove himself. 

"It’s just want people want to say. I know the numbers don’t lie, but the people that have seen me play, they know how I play outfield. So I’m just going to go out there and keep doing what I can every day and hopefully lead the league in runs saved again," he said. "Gardy and Al (Avila), they know what I can do. They still have confidence in me going into spring training, and I have confidence in myself."

In his quest to cement himself in Detroit's future, this might be the most important factor. At his best, Jones' value is on defense. The Tigers will take the offense that comes with it, but they envision him as difference-maker in center. If he doesn't look like one again in 2020, they have options to replace him, starting with Reyes and prospect Daz Cameron. Further down the line, fifth overall pick Riley Greene is being groomed for the job

For now, it's Jones' job to lose. He's entering his fourth big-league season, suddenly a veteran in the Tigers clubhouse. He agrees it feels a little strange. It was just a couple years ago that he stood out there in center, a 24-year-old rookie, and saw J.D. Martinez in right and Justin Upton in left.

"Now I guess I’m kind of what they were back then," he said. 

That's the hope, anyway. Upton is a two-time member of the 20-20 club. The Tigers haven't had a player of that ilk since Curtis Granderson in 2009. Heck, they had just five players steal 20 bases over the last decade, and none after 2015. Jones would like to be the one to end the drought. It might be a longshot, but don't tell that to Jones. Or do. He knows what people want to say, and feels better about what he can do.