Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, the home team clung to a 1-0 lead in the top of the ninth. The visiting Orioles had a bit of a threat going with Nick Markakis on first after a one-out single. But Mariano Rivera was on the mound for the Yankees. Even at 43, the closer had been dominant this season with only one blown save in 30 chances and a 22 percent strikeout rate. He’d given up only one home run, to Rays slugger Evan Longoria, back in April.
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones stepped to the plate. With a one-strike count, Jones parked Rivera’s next pitch into the center field seats. Baltimore took a 2-1 lead, which turned Into a 2-1 victory and ended the Birds’ three-game losing streak. It’s been that kind of year for Adam Jones.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about players being too passive at the plate while waiting for the perfect pitch to hit. Tom Verducci, writing for Sports Illustrated in May, lamented the rise in plate appearances ending in a strikeout or a walk. “Baseball has become a game of attrition — a kind of passive/aggressive pursuit — and it’s largely because of the way hitting is taught,” Verducci wrote. “Wait out the pitcher. Run up his pitch count. Swing early in the count only if the ball is in the middle of the plate. Take your walks. Teams don’t swing at about 55 percent of all pitches.”
Verducci need not be concerned about Jones, whose 2.3 percent walk rate is the lowest in the majors among hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Close to 65 percent of his plate appearances either end on the first pitch or result in a no-balls-one-strike count — not terribly surprising for a guy who swings at a nearly 60 percent of the pitches he sees.
Jones isn’t passive-aggressive. He’s hyper-aggressive. And it works, to some extent. After Monday’s game, Jones is sporting a .291/.314/.477 batting line. Only two other qualified batters have walk rates below three percent so far this season: Erick Aybar of the Angels and Salvador Perez of the Royals. While both have batting averages hovering near .300, neither matches Jones’ ability to hit for power while taking so few walks.
Jones’ unique batting line stands out not only this year but historically. In the Expansion Era (1962 to the present), only two players have finished the season with a walk rate at or below two percent and a batting average at or above .300. Mickey Rivers hit .312/.326/.432 with the Yankees in 1976 with a two percent walk rate. Shawon Dunston had just a 1.6 percent walk rate in 1997 when his season ended at .300/.312/.451. Dunston showed more power in 1995 when he posted a Jones-like line of .296/.317/.472. His walk rate that year was two percent. The lowest walk rate recorded since 1962 for a player slugging over .500 belongs to Carlos Baerga, who walked in only 2.1 percent of his plate appearances in 1995 with the Indians, and batted .314/.333./.525 in 103 games.
You’ll notice that Jones doesn’t make that list for any of his previous seven major-league seasons. While he’s never been particularly patient at the plate, the last time his walk rate hovered near two percent was his rookie season with the Mariners in 2006, when he appeared in only 32 games. Even with this half-season built in, his career walk rate is 4.6 percent — low, but not absurdly so.
You have to wonder if Jones can sustain his production without developing a more discerning eye at the plate. History suggests he can’t. So do the numbers. By swinging so early and so freely, he gives pitchers a tremendous advantage. Through Monday’s action, Jones is batting .340/.352/.642 on the first pitch, yet he’s seen a three-ball count only 31 times in 389 plate appearances. There’s simply no reason for a pitcher facing Jones to put the ball in the strike zone.
The book is out on Adam Jones, and pitchers should adjust to his free-swinging ways. If they do, it will be Jones’ turn to make a move. Or stand still, and take a few more pitches.