Orioles center fielder Adam Jones took a great leap forward offensively last season, offering a glimpse of the promise that prompted Kevin Goldstein to declare him the 44th-best prospect in baseball prior to the 2007 season, and that continues to prompt Mariners fans to curse the name of Bill Bavasi, architect of the trade that brought him to Baltimore. Although his WARP actually fell from 3.6 to 3.2 between his age-22 and age-23 seasons, that decline was entirely defense-dependent: FRAA, UZR, and DRS all thought much less highly of Jones’ defensive play in 2009 than they had in 2008, though the Gold Glove voters, perhaps belatedly responding to Jones’ impressive ’08 performance, handed him the hardware over the more deserving Franklin Gutierrez (who did win a Fielding Bible Award, awarded by a panel of hard-bitten baseball men who may or may not have queried a table or two and rolled a few dice in the course of their deliberations).
This year, Jones has given back his offensive gains from 2009 and then some, transforming back into the hacker whom Orioles fans hoped was gone for good; watching him lapse into his old habits has been as dismaying as noticing the errors creeping back into Charlie Gordon’s prose at the end of Flowers for Algernon (the statute of limitations on sci-fi spoilers expires after 60 years). This isn’t one of those garden-variety BABIP-based declines, either: Jones has earned his .236 TAv.
Perhaps even more disturbing than that is the fact that this current run of subpar performance has been far more sustained than it might seem; the sizzling April and May that sent Jones to the ’09 All-Star Game masked a .222/.290/.405 performance thereafter. PECOTA wasn’t overly concerned by his second-half swoon, generating a .281/.335/.463 weighted-mean projection that would represent a mild improvement over last year’s final line. Nonetheless, Jones has yet to sniff his 10th-percentile projection 250+ plate appearances into 2010, though he's showed some signs of life this month.
Given Jones’ performance at the plate thus far, one might be forgiven for thinking that he’s been going up to the plate looking like he did on headshot day. Jones has seen an almost identical number of pitches per plate appearance this season (3.71, down from 3.73), but he hasn’t done nearly as much with them. His walk rate has been more than halved, to a miniscule 3.1%, and his .15 BB/K ratio ranks last among all major-league qualifiers. Jones’ strikeout rate and ISO have returned to their 2008 levels, as have his batted-ball rates; it’s probably a good thing that Jones’ GB% has fallen from a Delmonic 55.5% to 47.7%, but his popup rate has doubled and his HR/FB ratio has declined drastically, suggesting that he’s simply made weaker contact.
Jones has been aggressive when he should have been passive (swinging at a career-high rate of pitches outside of the zone, which he’s never been shy about doing), and passive when he should have been aggressive (swinging at a career-low percentage of pitches inside the zone). He’s also falling behind in counts early and often, seeing the 10th-highest percentage of first-pitch strikes among qualifiers. However, his contact rate and swinging-strike rate have remained stable, suggesting that his struggles owe more to a flawed (but theoretically fixable) approach than to a deterioration of skills.
Back in March, Kevin Goldstein wrote that the Orioles’ system offered “plenty of intriguing arms, but precious little by way of batters.” The arms remain intriguing, but even the batters whom the Orioles thought they could count on have failed to hold up their end of the bargain: not only has Jones struggled, but Nolan Reimold slumped his way back to Norfolk (where he’s currently attempting to slump his way back to Bowie), Felix Pie has missed most of the season due to injury, and the mighty Matt Wieters has yet to surpass our replacement level, let alone make any of these facts come true.
That the Orioles’ record currently stands at 17-46 (with a 29th-ranked team TAv of .236, an exact match for Jones’) is almost immaterial, since they couldn’t have hoped to contend with the beasts of the East even with the current roster firing on all cylinders, but they’ll need to get their young hitters back on track to have any hope of securing something other than a basement view in their future.