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May 26, 2010

One-Hoppers

What's Eating Chipper Jones?

by Marc Normandin

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Chipper Jones is hitting .226/.382/.347 this year, and .225/.366/.344 dating back to August 1 of 2009, a sample of 302 at-bats. For a career .306 hitter whose lowest mark from 2006-2008 was .324, that seems unthinkable, but the 38-year-old has slowed down considerably. He's still as patient as he's ever been, walking in 20.4 percent of his plate appearances (a rate you could say is passive rather than selective), and even with the low batting average he is not striking out often (15.3 percent of his at-bats).

The problem has been that Jones isn't hitting the ball with the same kind of authority. He hasn't logged enough plate appearances in 2010 to say that his .121 Isolated Power is realistic, but if you stretch his performance back to June of 2009 -- a sample that clears the 500 plate appearance floor for ISO stabilization -- you see a .150 ISO that doesn't fit with his career rate (.231) or the three-year average of .250 he posted from 2006-2008.

He's still swinging at the same rate of pitches out of the zone and in it, and still making the same rate of contact on balls in the zone. What has changed is the contact rate on pitches out of the zone, as well as his groundball rate. Jones is making more contact with pitches out of the zone, and based on what his BABIP and batting average look like, he isn't squaring up on the ball and driving it. He's flying out often instead -- his HR/FB rate has dropped to 4.5 percent (his average since 2002 is 16.6 percent) and his G/F ratio has fallen to 0.93, whereas from 2006-2008 he hit far more groundballs. He's also struggling from the left side of the plate hitting .246/.394/.364 since the start of 2009, against .278/.368/.518 from the right side.

Last night's game saw Jones hit plenty of grounders, but not with positive results. His first at-bat he grounded into a double play on the first after Anibal Sanchez exploited his patience with three straight pitches in the strike zone. In the third, he would reach safely on a fielder's choice grounder after another first-pitch strike. Chipper battled in the sixth with a 7-pitch at-bat, fouling off three straight pitches in the strike zone, but he would end up grounding out on a fastball down and on the outside part of the plate. Jones would go 7-pitches again in the seventh, with Renyel Pinto pitching smartly and keeping the ball in the strike zone but high and away. In the last at-bat, Chipper grounded out on the second pitch from Leo Nunez -- a changeup outside of the strike zone -- and grounded out once again.

Pitchers are coming right at Jones or staying away from him, and though he doesn't chase often, the results aren't pretty when he does. He's hitting .239 on balls low and away in the zone, and .247 on pitches middle-in, two locations that Marlins pitchers focused on last night. Chances are good his below-average BABIP will rise and help his batting average eventually, but the power he once displayed is most likely gone, a sad truth for a future Hall of Famer, but not an unexpected one at this stage of his career.

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