Player Profile: Garrett Jones

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Garrett Jones is among the most confusing players in all of fantasy baseball. Through 332 plate appearances in 2009, Jones has amassed 21 home runs with 37 walks, 72 strikeouts and a .305 batting average. But who is this player? At 28 years old, Jones is very far into his professional career, yet he lacks a definition as a hitter. Is he the late-blooming phenom he has portrayed this season, or will he be a future Quadruple-A flare-out?

Garrett Jones was drafted in the 14th round by the Atlanta Braves way back in the 1999 amateur draft. At 18 years old, the young, power-hungry lefty began his career in rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League. Jones underperformed that season, hitting just three home runs in 170 at-bats, with a .241/.309/.312 line with 47 strikeouts. Jones repeated the level in 2000, yet, somehow, he managed to underperform his 1999 season, posting a .174/.242/.254 line, with no home runs in 138 at-bats, including 55 strikeouts and just 13 walks. After two underwhelming seasons, Jones appeared to be cooked.

Though giving up is never a good thing, at some point, when its obvious things just aren’t going to work out, it’s OK to quit. Inexplicably, Jones decided to keep plugging away at this baseball thing, repeating rookie ball for a third time in 2001. Again, he underperformed. Though he put up his “best” line of the three seasons, posting a generous .289/.333/.423 share, his lack of power (three home runs in 149 at-bats) and poor approach at the plate (nine BBs vs. 58 Ks) were more indicative of his true skills. In terms of peripherals, this was arguably the worst year of his career, and the Braves released him in May 2002 before he played in a game above rookie ball for them. The Twins signed him three days later and put him in Low-A.

Fast forwarding a couple seasons, 2004 was Jones’ first taste of real success, as he reestablished himself as a player with major league potential. His previous stints at A-ball were lackluster, as he struggled with his batting average and strikeouts, while developing power. However, his first taste of Double-A was sweet, as he posted 30 home runs, with 98 strikeouts in 478 plate appearances. His .311/.356/.593 line showed his potential, but his lack of walks (28) continued to frustrate.

Jones was promoted to Triple-A in ’05, where he would stay through mid-2009. Jones had moderate success, with a .244/.297/.445 line that year, including 24 home runs in 524 plate appearances. His .280/.334/.473 line in 2007 finally rid him of his batting average woes, though his power suffered.

In 2008, he logged 577 plate appearances, with a .279/.337/.484 line, including 23 home runs and 50 walks, against 98 Ks. This season was great for Jones’ plate discipline: He cut down his strikeout rate to less than one per five plate appearances. In addition, he posted good power numbers while also upping his walk total to nearly one per 11 plate appearances.

In 2009, prior to his torrid stretch in the majors, Jones started the season repeating Triple-A for the fifth time after signing with the Pirates as a minor league free agent. In 296 plate appearances, he posted a .307/.348/.502 line, with 12 home runs against just 47 Ks, but only 18 BBs. For most teams, this would be enough for an emergency fill-in or late-season call-up. For the Pirates, this meant a starting job.

Though Jones’ career line consists mostly of minor league appearances, his five partial seasons at Triple-A give us a good idea of the type of hitter Jones is. He is a moderate free swinger with good power potential, who has improved his contact abilities over the last few seasons. While his minor league performance record says he does not have the makings of an OPS stud, it does posit that he has the makings of a solid hitter.

But that still does not answer the question of whether Jones has “figured it out” or if he’s just the beneficiary of a well-timed hot streak.

For that, we’ll have to dig into Jones’ batted ball and plate discipline indicators, where, surprisingly, there is quite a lot to like.

As a hulking slugger, much of his success is tied to his ability to hit home runs. This is tied to his ability to hit fly balls, and to send them over the fence when he does. With a 40.1 percent fly ball rate, as well as a 23.6 percent HR/FB rate, he shouldn’t have any problem hitting for power in the majors.

However, though his flyball percentage sits at a sustainable rate, it would be prudent to exercise caution when dealing with his 23.6 percent HR/FB rate. Only the most elite home run hitters possess rates this high. Among the names in the 23 percent range are Ryan Howard (25.1 percent), Carlos Pena (23.8 percent), Adrian Gonzalez (22.5 percent), and Prince Fielder (22.2 percent). Especially when considering that he was never an elite home run hitter in the minors, expect a drop-off in performance. It is more likely that he will hit in the high-20s home runs than the 30s. It is possible, however, especially considering his swing, his 2009 power numbers, and, especially, his size. It is not often that a 6-4, 245-pound hitter does not hit for good power. Still, considering Jones’ age and past performance, 2009 is more likely the hot streak than the rule, so don’t expect too much.

But there is more to Jones than just power. He is a much better hitter than he is often given credit for. When judging the prospects of a career minor leaguer, especially those who light it up for years in Triple-A, their contact rates and line drive rates are very important indicators. Fortunately for Jones, he has not yet been susceptible to their pitfalls.

First off, his line drive rate of 18.9 is very close to league average, which bodes very well for his future. A low line drive rate would be very concerning, yet, he has been able to drive the ball. With his power, he can have great success with his current rate. Also encouraging is his very low pop up rate of just 5.6 percent. While this is almost certain to rise, it means that he is not making weak contact, isn’t late on pitches, and isn’t getting jammed. This is a very good indicator for a power hitter, as the best ones can drive inside pitches. If Jones isn’t popping up, he isn’t late on inside pitches. Instead, he is driving them.

Jones’ plate discipline characteristics also give cause for optimism. Though he chases pitches a little too often (29.5 O-Swing%), he does use some discretion, as he is not a “true” free swinger, swinging at 48.2 percent of pitches he sees, a rate closer to the bottom third of the league. His contact rate, while not ideal, sits at 77.2 percent. Fortunately for Jones, this shouldn’t give him any problems in the future as long as his rates does not decline. Should he drop back near 72.5 percent, where he was during his first stint in the majors in 2007, all bets are off. Based on his contact rate, zone percentage, and swing rate, it seems that his BB rate (11.2 percent) and K rate (24.7 percent) are right in line with their expected totals. There is a chance these rates could improve, though his zone rate bears watching next season. If pitchers throw more pitches in the zone, he will likely see fewer walks. This should help out with the strikeouts, however, so its not such a bad thing.

Another encouraging aspect of Jones’ performance is his overall success against the major pitch types, especially compared to his 2007 performance. In his first stint in the bigs, he struggled mightily against fastballs (-2.28 wFB/C), sliders (-2.89 wSL/C), and change ups (-2.25 wCH/C). These comprised 85.1 percent of the pitches he saw that season. Needless to say, he did not make a curtain call in ’08.

2009 has been another story altogether. He has more than cured his ails against fastballs, as they are now his favorite pitch (2.37 wFB/C). His performance against changeups has seen a similar success, as he smokes them as well (1.63 wCH/C). Sliders are no longer a problem either, as he is now slightly above average against them (0.32 wSL/C). Jones’ overall approach at the plate is much better than in 2007, as he can now adjust to changing speeds, while also excelling against breaking pitches. For a developing hitter, it is now up to the pitchers to adjust, though it is getting harder to find weaknesses.

Still, despite all the optimism, there are mitigating circumstances. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Jones’ 2009 line has been his large platoon split. Against righties, Jones has posted a .352/.445/.663 line in 227 plate appearances, with 15 home runs and a 34:44 BB:K ratio. Against lefties, he has posted a .212/.233/.465 line, in 102 plate appearances. While he has shown good power (six home runs), he has had awful success working the count and making contact, as evidenced by his 28 Ks against just three walks. This is particularly troubling for his fantasy prospects, as players who can’t play everyday take a hit in weekly leagues and daily leagues with small benches.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Jones’ performance, and it’s the reason why people have trouble believing in him, is that his success screams of a hot-streak. Although his rate indicators are great, it is not often that a player morphs into a superstar when he hits the majors, especially not one who was still putting his game together in Triple-A. For this, you can’t reasonably expect a repeat performance, though you can hope for the best … and get paid off when the gamble works out in your favor.

Going forward, Jones looks to be a good play over what remains of 2009, as well as being a great sleeper candidate for 2010. His prospects are tied predominantly to his home run rate, his contact rate, and his ability to hit lefties. Contact problems tend to sink Quadruple-A hopefuls, though Jones may be an exception. This is the critical point to his success: If he can keep his contact rate steady, or with minimal losses, he will put the ball in play enough to continue hitting home runs and continue helping fantasy teams. In addition, his performance against lefties can be managed and his small sample size may mean that he is not as bad as his 2009 line states—just don’t stake your season on it.

A 2010 season with high-20s home runs, around 10 steals, and a batting average in the .265-.275 range seems about right for Jones. This line is consistent with his profile, which yields a slightly above-average outfielder for 12-team mixed leagues. While it’s still early to project next year’s draft, he could be an incredible value for the price he may go for. His 2010 will likely make or break his career, but there are a lot of reasons to believe he will come out on top. The ingredients are there for success and if you watch the contact percentage and line drive rate, you’ll be fine.

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