4/24/10

Here's Looking At: Andruw Jones

It's been awhile since we've done a Here's Looking At (others), but with the news that Andruw Jones jacked a pair of dongers last night, including a walkoff job...in the bottom of the 9th...on a 3-2 count...with 2 outs...on his birthday...yeah, it was time to break it out again.

Jones, like many others, has been off to a hot start this year, hitting at a blazing .293/.408/.756 clip with 6 bombs  and even 3 stolen bases in his 41 PA thusfar. He'd been serving in a platoon at the DH spot with Mark Kotsay, which helps illustrate just how far the former 50-homer bat has fallen, but Kotsay has struggled from the outset of this season and Jones has (rightfully) been earning more playing time. But, of course, such a hot start is unsustainable; he's a career .258/.339/.490 hitter, and hasn't hit above .222 since 2006. He was above-average last season in Texas, though, flashing a good eye at the plate and decent pop (.323 OBP, .459 SLG) en route to a solid .338 wOBA (he's currently at .499). So how hard can we expect regression to hit Jones?

First, some important background. As Marc Hulet wrote yesterday, he looks like he left half of himself at home. Once a lithe, speedy guy, Jones was a 30-30 threat from 1998-2000, averaging 31 homers and 23 steals over those seasons. Oh, and he was 21 in 1998. No big deal. That combination of power, speed, and youth helped him earn$8.3MM in arbitration after that season, which was a record-high at the time. Aaand then went on to post a down year in 2001, mostly due to (what was presumably an) unlucky .269 BABIP. However, he still signed a 6-year, $75MM deal with the Braves after the season. A big part of that contract was on the strength of his defense; it was not out of the realm of possibility that he would go down as one of the best-fielding centerfielders of all time (he averaged nearly 2 wins a year with his glove alone from 2002-2007). And he made for a great story, too; this was a kid who got quick wrists by practicing his baseball swing with a sledgehammer, and who had his dad hit him fly balls on the dunes of his home in Curacao. Jones was the kind of kid you wanted on your team until he retired - and it seemed certain that he would do so with the Braves.

But that 2001 season that we glossed over...should not have been glossed over. Much was made of the fact that in 2001, Jones' conditioning became very poor; a common story was that, as a kid in the States with lots of money for the first time, his work ethic slipped and he spent most of his days eating McDonald's and playing video games. Remember that earlier picture of Jones? Well, he began to look more like this. And it would only get worse as the years went on. In the 2001 season, he stole only 11 bases and his strikeout rate skyrocketed from 15.2% to 22.7%. You may also recall how we referred to his .269 BABIP as 'presumably'  unlucky; as it turns out, plodding guys who strike out a lot and don't hit for a high average also don't have high BABIPs. Shocking, no? Jones' career BABIP is .276, which falls well short of the average hitters' BABIP that hovers around .300.

Jones has continued to head down that path for the rest of his career; he stole 8 bases in 2002 and never got higher than 6 in the following seasons. But he did make somewhat the best of it; his power flourished, and he never slugged lower than .488 from 2002-2006, In 2005, he had an MVP-caliber year with a .263/.347/.575 and 51 tater tots, including a June performance that is among the most torrid monthlong performances we've seen from a hitter.

And then the decline came quickly and mercilessly. In 2007, he struck out nearly a quarter of the time, while also walking less and seeing a sharp downturn in the power that had been 'prodigious' just two seasons ago. Yeah, he had a .242 BABIP...but in 2005, his best season, he had a .240 total. He began hitting fewer line drives (2% drop from 2006-2007) and more popups (3% increase) while also seeing fewer of his fly balls leave the yard (an astonishing 9% drop). All of that was a recipe for disaster, and the Braves did not see fit to retain his services after that season. The Dodgers did, though! To the tune of $18MM a year over two seasons.

Jones hit rock bottom in his first year with the Dodgers, posting a stunningly bad .234 wOBA. You want context? Well, had he qualified (he had only 238 PA), that would have been the single worst wOBA in the history of wOBA. Worse than Neifi Perez. Worse than Cesar Izturis. Worse than - heaven forbid - Yuniesky Betancourt. He looked utterly lost; the bat speed was gone, the patience was gone, the power was gone, and even his remarkable fielding instincts seemed to have left him. He was an $18MM shell of a player.

After a minor resurgence in Texas last season, here's where we find ourselves now. Jones remains a low BABIP, high power kind of guy, even if the power isn't what it was during the Braves years. He's currently posting a .273 BABIP, which is right in line with his career average, so while we could expect fewer balls in play to escape the fielders' gloves, the dropoff may not be significant - particularly given his obviously improved conditioning. He's striking out more often than usual, at a very high 32% clip, which could also shrink some in order to return toward his career average of 22.4%, so it's not like he'll start whiffing more often, either. He's hitting fewer line drives this season than last, and a lot more fly balls, and...ahhh, there's the culprit. A full 40% of his fly balls are leaving the yard, which is insanely high. He's also recorded a handful of infield hits, collecting them at an 11.1% rate that more than doubles his career 5% average.

So we can expect Jones' power to regress, as the average HR/FB rate is ~10-11%. He'll start recording fewer infield hits, which will drop the batting average, and the BABIP will drop as a result of more of those fly balls becoming outs. A combination of the Bill James, CHONE, Marcel, Fans, and ZiPS projections had Jones being a .221/.319/.422 hitter, which would put him right below a league average wOBA (.324 as compared to ~.330); the ZiPS projection for the rest of his season sees severe BABIP regression (down to .234) and has him hitting .220/.317/.450, for a .338 wOBA. Which, all things considered, is probably pretty good.

Now if you'll allow us to almost entirely disregard the unbiased, objective opinion of a projection system that weights Jones' performance against thousands of comparable players from throughout baseball history (an easier feat than it sounds like; just ask your local SABR-haters or an average member of the BBWAA), we think that Jones' improved conditioning and speed will allow him to to salvage some of that BABIP that he's got right now. He's not as quick and lean as he was in his younger days, but he also isn't playing the field anymore, at least until Ozzie Guillen gets some crazy ideas in his head and...oh...he's already played 8 games in the outfield. Well, never mind. But still. We know he still has some power; he showed it last season, and the projection systems liked him to have above-average deep sauce talent. Plus, he's playing in a weak division that features only a handful of good starting pitchers and some of the worst bullpens going, which should help. We're not saying he's going to be an All-Star or anything, but we think that at season's end, he'll be hitting around .245/.325/.460 to go along with some below-average-but-not-aggressively-so defense an excellent return on the $500,000 that the White Sox threw his way. Definitive judgment: passed. Godspeed, Andruw Jones. And happy belated birthday.

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