What Happened to JaCoby Jones’ Defense?

By Lindsay Zeck

In 2018, JaCoby Jones led all outfielders in Defensive Runs Saved with 21. He was featured in a blog last October as a multi-position standout with his 11 runs saved in 452 innings in left field and 10 in 558 innings in center field. This season, however, he cost the Tigers 13 runs before suffering a season-ending injury to his wrist. The only outfielders who have cost their teams more are Ian Desmond (-20), Domingo Santana (-16), Shin-Soo Choo (-15), and Melky Cabrera (-13).

So, what was the cause of Jones’ terrible numbers?

Sure, he has played the entire season in center field, whereas last season he split his time between both left and center. However, as evidenced above by his 10 runs saved in center field , it wasn’t just his play in left field bolstering his numbers last season.

The biggest decline in his defense came from his range and positioning, particularly on shallow and medium hit balls, costing nine runs this season and saving seven last season.

In 2019, he cost nine bases on balls hit to shallow outfield and six bases on balls hit to a medium depth of the outfield, as opposed to costing one and saving two in center field, respectively, in 2018.

Per Baseball Savant, Jones was playing deeper this season — starting an average of eight feet deeper in center field at Comerica Park this season than he did last season. He was playing an average of 335 feet from home plate as opposed to 327 in 2018. That eight feet clearly made it more difficult for him to make plays on shallower balls.

It didn’t, however, help him to make plays on balls hit to deep center field. He saved six bases last season on those balls and only three bases this season, despite playing nearly 168 more innings in center field in 2019.

This chart illustrates the difference in Jones’ performance in center field the last two seasons.

JaCoby Jones
Plays Made Opportunities Out Rate
2018 Shallow 44 66 67%
2019 Shallow 34 74 46%
2018 Deep 62 74 84%
2019 Deep 75 101 74%
>> Opportunities: Balls on which he had >0% chance to get an out

His arm is also partly to blame. While baserunners were running on him with about the same frequency as last season (61 percent of the time), he threw out one baserunner without the help of the cutoff man, as opposed to five baserunners last season.

Jones also had 11 Defensive Misplays, the highest number of his career with nearly two months left in the season. His most common issues, with three misplays of each type, are failing to anticipate the wall and failing at his attempts of diving for a fly ball or line drive.

The Tigers are hoping that when he does return from injury, he comes back as his 2018 defensive self. He is the biggest reason why the Tigers outfield is the worst in the American League and the second worst in all of baseball in Defensive Runs Saved with -34. Only the Rockies outfield is worse with -47. You can read about the Rockies’ woes here.

It is worth noting that while Jones’ defensive performance decline, his offensive numbers got better.

Jones greatly improved his slash line against fastballs, hitting .302 with a .470 slugging percentage and .847 OPS in 2019. This is a vast improvement over his .187 batting average and .623 OPS slash line against fastballs in 2018. This is due in part to his improved contact, swinging and missing only 18 percent of the time against fastballs this season as opposed to 25 percent last season.

You could say that though he didn’t get to more balls in the field, at least he got to more of them at the plate.

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