The Orioles went 29-18 through May 25th. Since then, they’re two games under .500. You know about the crazy record in one-run games (22-6!), the related crazy record in extra-inning games (12-2!), and the other fluky factors (Pedro Strop’s BABIP!) that have kept a team with a run differential of nearly negative 50 in contention with six weeks of regular season remaining. But for those first two months of the season, something a little less fluky, if equally fleeting, was keeping the Orioles afloat: Adam Jones was on fire.
Jones wasn’t literally on fire. Lighting fires under players is most effective when the flames are metaphorical. In the NBA Jam sense, though, Jones’ bat was burning up. Through the end of May, he hit .314/.365/.618, with 16 home runs. Only Josh Hamilton and Edwin Encarnacion hit more over the same span. Jones’ career high for homers was 25, and he was on pace to blow by that before the end of June. I mentioned the Orioles’ record through May 25th earlier, not just because it made for a convenient arbitrary endpoint, but because the following day, they signed Jones to a six-year, $85.5 million extension. That day, May 26th, was a good day to be an Orioles fan, which is not something you can say about very many days since, oh, 1997 or so. The O’s were in first place, Adam Jones was by far their best player, and he’d agreed to be in Baltimore until 2018. If you looked closely, there wasn’t a lot to like about the 2012 Orioles. But there was plenty to like about Jones.
Still, not everyone approved of the move. BP alum Joe Sheehan summed up the objections of the anti-extension crowd by observing that the Orioles had bought high:
Re: Adam Jones. Teams continue to make these signings at the absolute peak of the player's perceived value, for max cost.
— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) May 25, 2012
Other BP alum Keith Law pointed out that Jones had hit just as well through the same point in a prior season, only to tail off thereafter:
Adam Jones was hitting .359/.416/.647 on this date in 2009.
— keithlaw (@keithlaw) May 25, 2012
And while I wasn’t against the deal, I wrote that Jones’ power boost would be almost unprecedented if he sustained it over a full season. That’s a nice way of saying that I didn’t think he would.
For those of you who haven’t watched baseball for a few months, the next sentence contains spoilers. Since the end of May, Jones has hit .285/.327/.458. That’s a .786 OPS. That line might look familiar: in 2011, Jones had a .785 OPS. When the extension was signed, both Jones and the Orioles were having surprisingly successful seasons. Since then, they’ve both looked more like we thought they would. Baltimore’s bubble burst first—the Orioles lost six straight games after the extension, despite two home runs from Jones—but before long, Jones, too, went back to being what he was before.
The good news for the Orioles is that Jones, before the “breakout,” was a very valuable player. A .786 OPS is an excellent figure for a center fielder who’s above average both in the field and on the bases. Hitting that well or worse, Jones was worth a WARP that rounds to 4.0 in each season from 2009-2011. Four wins are worth a lot.
Nonetheless, the Orioles did buy high. Over the winter, Jones looked like a guy with a sub-.800 OPS. Since May, he’s looked like a guy with a sub-.800 OPS. The Orioles chose to extend him at the moment when he looked like a guy with an OPS barely below 1.000—not just a very good player, but one of the best. Jones wouldn’t have hit free agency until after the 2013 season, so they didn’t have to extend him when they did. Had they tried to get a deal done before or after Jones’ unsustainable hot streak, they wouldn’t have run the risk of paying for hypothetical production. As it was, Jones’ agent could make the case that his client, at age 26, was entering an impressive physical prime. With Jones doing his best to make that case convincing, the Orioles had no hand.
I asked a former team executive who wished to remain nameless how much leverage a good partial season can give a player who’s angling for a lucrative long-term contract.
Frequently clubs have a fear that a breakout season might elevate a player’s value significantly, and agents pounce on that fear. In addition, I think when a guy looks as though he is putting it all together you begin to think you won’t be able to sign him later.
According to Dan Duquette, the team’s talks with Jones began in spring training but “picked up steam” in the couple weeks before the contract was signed—coincidentally or not, a couple weeks during which Jones was hitting like Mickey Mantle. Maybe the Orioles overreacted. Maybe they thought that Jones’ play would continue to improve until it priced them out of the market, or that they had to make a “statement” signing to demonstrate the new regime’s commitment to winning. Maybe they believed that they’d be better off biting the bullet and buying high than betting against him. After all, sometimes you buy high, and the stock goes even higher.
Jones no longer looks like he’s going higher. He’s 27, and he’s probably at his peak. His plate discipline, which looked like it might be making a marginal improvement when the extension was signed, has stagnated since then: Jones has swung at more pitches outside the zone than he did before the deal, and he’s walked in only 3.7 percent of his plate appearances, just as he did in 2010. I still think that impatience could cause him to age a little less gracefully, but not until after the age of 32. And after the age of 32, he’ll be another team’s problem.
We tend to think of “buying high” as indistinguishable from “overpaying,” but maybe this is one of the times when there is a difference between them. We can’t go back and see what it would have taken for the Orioles to extend Jones had he had his usual stats in April and May. Maybe he would have cost them a little less. But even though the Orioles paid Jones at peak value, they didn’t pay more than he was worth. If he keeps doing what he did before the deal, and what he’s done after it, Baltimore will get what it bargained for, and maybe more. With revenues and payrolls climbing, and more and more teams locking up their players before they hit the open market, the going rate for a four-win player should be a good deal higher than the annual average of $15 million the O’s will owe Jones during what would have been five free-agent years.
Jones’ extension hasn’t even kicked in yet, so it’s far too soon to tell how it will work out, but we do know a bit more about the outlook than we did in May. Knowing what we know now, it looks like both the pro- and anti-extension crowds were right about something. Jones was about to regress. The Orioles bought high. And they got a good deal anyway. In that sense, the extension was a lot like every other aspect of the Orioles’ season to date: the process was suspect, but the results were there.
Thanks to Colin Wyers for research assistance.
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