The Seattle Mariners have been searching for a reliable long-term answer at the leadoff spot for a number of years. They may have finally found one with center fielder James Jones.
Jones' major league career is only 22 games old, but his early returns are promising. He has all the traits you want in a leadoff hitter and has already established himself as a fan favorite as one of the Mariners’ most exciting prospects moving forward.
At the very least, Jones has the physical tools to stick in the major leagues. The first thing that stands out about Jones is that he is extremely fast and has great form running the bases, as Larry Stone of The Seattle Times points out.
Such speed also gives Jones great range in center, meaning his defense could also potentially be a plus. His route running and ability to break on the ball are still question marks, but Jones has used his natural ability to make a few nice catches already, including this one on May 22 against the Houston Astros.
But speed and defense are not enough for a leadoff hitter. For Jones to be successful in the role and keep his position long-term, he has to show the Mariners an ability to get on base.
In a very small sample size of 78 plate appearances, Jones has done exactly that. He has energized the Mariners at the top of the order, compiling a line of .286/.350/.400 with four successful stolen-base attempts without being caught.
That combination of speed, defense and hitting has led to Jones racking up an impressive 0.5 WAR to begin his career, per FanGraphs. Lloyd McClendon foresaw such a start coming for Jones in an interview with Tracy Ringolsby of MLB.com during spring training.
"He's a pretty interesting young man. He's very talented and I really like what I've seen. I don't think he's going to knock on the door, I think he's going to knock the door down when he's ready to get there."
McClendon has been absolutely right about that so far. Jones had a hit in each of his first 14 MLB starts, a club record, which put him ahead of some elite rookies in Mariners history.
Jones’ streak was finally broken last Sunday by the brilliant Dallas Keuchel, but he continues to completely change the dynamic of the Mariners order in a positive fashion. The Mariners recently have gone with Jones, Michael Saunders and Robinson Cano at the top of the lineup, which is the ideal order moving forward.
The first inning last Monday against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim was a great example of what that lineup can do. Jones beat out an infield single before Saunders reached on a bunt, thanks in part to a hurried throw from Hank Conger due to the speed on the bases.
Robinson Cano then drove in Jones with an RBI single to give Seattle a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. None of those balls was exactly hit well, but the Mariners must find a way to get runners on base in front of Cano in any way possible.
That simply wasn’t happening with the strikeout-prone Abraham Almonte and Brad Miller at the top of the order. Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle points out that Monday wasn’t the first time that Jones has helped to create something out of nothing.
Jones probably won’t keep up this torrid pace forever, particularly at this early stage of his career. His BABIP currently stands at .345, which is likely to regress soon.
But Jones’ other peripherals look strong, and he should be able to continue to get on base. Jones showed good plate discipline in the minors and has continued that so far with a strikeout rate of 15.4 percent and a walk rate of 9 percent. Those numbers have been bolstered by an 86.4 contact percentage, a good sign that Jones is successfully adjusting to major league pitching.
Jones also isn’t going to provide much in the way of power. He had a career-high 14 home runs at hitter’s paradise High Desert in 2012 and tallied just 28 home runs over the rest of his time in the minors.
However, Jones will sprinkle in enough doubles and triples to maintain a solid slugging percentage. He has two triples on the year already, including one on May 17 against the Minnesota Twins.
The Twins did commit a defensive gaffe on the play, but few players in the majors would even think about reaching third with where that ball was hit. Seattle has been searching for a player who can create situations like that from the leadoff position since Ichiro Suzuki began to enter his years of decline.
Dustin Ackley was supposed to be that guy, but he never really worked out as a leadoff man. Miller showed flashes in 2013 before the wheels fell off. Almonte was a failed experiment for the first month of 2014. The situation reached such a dire point last season that Jason Bay led off 13 times.
Jones looks like he could finally be the player to stabilize the leadoff role. It’s his job to lose for the foreseeable future.
All stats per FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.