New Tigers manager A.J. Hinch has talked multiple times already about the need to reduce strikeouts and increase tenacity at the plate. He won’t have to repeat it to JaCoby Jones.
Jones has been working on cutting his strikeout rate the last few years. After fractures to his left hand and wrist on hit-by-pitches ended his last two seasons early, he needs a full, healthy season of regular at-bats to get more results.
“I’m a way different hitter than I was in '16, '17,” Jones said on a Wednesday video conference with reporters. “Even in '18, I changed my stance every couple weeks just to see if I can figure something out and make more consistent contact and hit the ball harder on a consistent basis. And I think ever since I moved my hands lower and settled down a little bit, it gave me a lot more confidence.”
That’s what Hinch wants to hear as he puts together an offensive blueprint for the team, including potential free agents.
“We’ve got to find some better at-bats,” Hinch said Wednesday. “We’ve got to be tougher at-bats. We’ve got to minimize the strikeouts, the non-competitive at-bats. Those types of players [on the market] are going to be really attractive to us getting headed in the right direction.”
Adding disciplined hitters is big. Making current hitters more disciplined is just as important.
Hinch’s Astros led the American League in strikeouts in 2015, his first season as manager, comprising 22.9 percent of their plate appearances, a strikeout every 3.9 at-bats. The Astros struck out in 23.4 percent of their plate appearances in 2016, a strikeout every 3.8 at-bats, and had five hitters with 120 or more strikeouts.
Houston had the fewest strikeouts in the league in 2017, dropping its rate to 17.3 percent and a strikeout every 5.2 at-bats. No Astro struck out 120 times that year. The sign-stealing controversy put some of that improvement in a different light, but the Astros have remained disciplined ever since, finishing with the fewest or second-fewest strikeouts in the Majors in each ensuing year, including this past season under manager Dusty Baker. Continued plate discipline helped improve the market value of George Springer, whose 17.1 percent strikeout rate this past season was the best of his career and just over half his rate as a rookie in 2014.
Jones can relate. He had nearly three times as many strikeouts (65) as hits (24) in 2017, fanning in 42.2 percent of his plate appearances. He dropped that to 30.4 percent in 2018 and 28.2 percent in '19 before that season ended with a fractured wrist. The strikeout rate regressed to 31.5 percent last year, but much of the uptick came from called strikes. His swing percentage on pitches in the strike zone dropped from 64.6 percent in 2019 to 57.2 percent in '20 -- by far his career low, according to Statcast.
Part of the change for Jones has been mental. Part, too, was mechanical, lowering his hands and shifting his weight balance in an attempt to get bat to ball quicker and gain an extra split-second to track pitches.
“It allows me to see the pitches a little bit better and not chase as much as I did,” Jones said. “I was trying way too hard when I was struggling a couple years ago and just swinging at everything. I wouldn’t let the game come to me and I was trying to do way too much.”
Jones also wants to improve his walk rate, which was just below average at 8.1 percent in 2019 but 6.5 percent in the shortened '20 season despite his chase rate falling to a career-low 26.3 percent, according to Statcast.
The best way to improve, of course, is repetition.
“As far as losing the at-bats, yeah, it stinks that I couldn’t keep progressing and keep seeing more pitches and go from there,” Jones said. “Last year was just a shortened season for everyone, so you really can’t take anything away from it. The numbers don’t lie, I guess. Once you go back and look at the numbers from when I changed my stance in '19, they’re way better than what they were the previous couple years. I’m just going to keep doing that, so that’s what I’m going to keep doing this offseason.”
That last part is good news. Jones has resumed swinging after a fractured hand ended his 2020 season in September, and he said he hasn’t noticed a difference. He plans on wearing a wrist guard in hopes of avoiding another injury. He talked with Hinch a couple weeks ago about clubhouse mentality, influx of analytics and defensive positioning, among other things. He has texted with new hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh and third-base coach Chip Hale.
Newly hired coach Jose Cruz Jr., whose job includes assistant hitting coach duties, could also play a big influence. Like Jones, Cruz battled high strikeout rates early in his career before gaining discipline with experience. He also became adept at drawing walks.