Chris McCosky | The Detroit News
Lakeland, Fla. — Hang with me here:
Let’s say this was like, 2005, and JaCoby Jones was a basketball player. At this stage of his career, he’d be more likely to thrive on the And1 Live Tour than in the NBA. He’s so gifted athletically. He can give you a highlight play at any given moment.
But, in terms of positional discipline, fundamentals, the tiny details that separate showmen from polished professionals — Jones isn’t there.
Yet. Check back at the end of this training camp.
“JaCoby is not a finished product,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said Saturday. “But I see JaCoby growing up as a big-leaguer and starting to become more of a presence in the outfield.”
Jones is entering his age-29 season. He’s played parts of five seasons in Detroit, the last two ended early with broken bones in his left wrist and hand. (Incidentally, he will be wearing a wrist-hand guard this year for protection.) In terms of his baseball education, though, it must feel like he’s entering his first year of advanced studies.
Hinch’s defensive system is progressive and it’s detailed. It’s not like anything Jones has seen.
“It’s really good,” Jones said on Saturday. “They have a sense of urgency about this.”
Already Tigers’ outfielders have gotten packets of information detailing, with color-coded bars, positioning depths for every ballpark in the major leagues — shallow, normal, deep, no-doubles, etc. There’s a sheet of 12 different positional signs that will come from the dugout during the game.
And that’s on top of the positioning cards they will prepare for each game.
That’s just the cerebral part of it. Jones and the other Tigers’ outfielders are presently entrenched in Camp Lombard.
“George Lombard is an incredible outfield instructor,” Hinch said of his outfield coach and bench coach. “George has really connected with these guys. The information, the attention to detail is on point with everything we’re trying to do with this team.
“Whether it’s pre-pitch, being in the right position, reactions, first step — there is a lot of room for these guys to get incrementally better.”
Lombard is coming off a World Series championship with the Dodgers and has coached one of the best defensive outfields in the game the last four years. In the full season of 2019, the Dodgers outfield saved 51 runs (defensive runs saved metric). The Tigers outfield that year was a minus-1.
“These guys have been around a lot of great baseball and a lot of great outfielders,” Jones said. “I’m all ears. I’ve heard so many good things that have helped us so far, just little-bitty footwork stuff that I never learned in the past.”
Lombard and Hinch are introducing drills and concepts beyond positioning, too, like pre-pitch preparation and anticipation. As good an athlete as Jones is, as fast as he can be from Point A to Point B, his defensive metrics have always been penalized partly because he played too deep but also because he didn’t always get good jumps on balls off the bat.
He’s never been taught, for example, to anticipate a pitch like a tennis player anticipates to return a serve. Which he is being taught now.
“It’s first-step, taking the right angles, understanding game situations, game awareness, all of that goes into it,” Hinch said.
Watching Lombard put his outfield through drill work this week, there is a strong focus on footwork, on hip flexibility, hand-eye coordination. They run ladder drills like football running backs and wide receivers do. The Tigers collectively don’t have a ton plus arms in the outfield, so Lombard has been stressing technique and accuracy in his drill work.
“It’s like we’re working on throwing, but the footwork helps us get set up the right way to make stronger and more accurate throws,” Jones said. “It’s a lot of little-bitty detail stuff but it goes a long way. Little things carry into big things and big things carry into wins.”
There is a lot of like about Jones, from Hinch’s perspective. The athleticism, for starters. Jones has come to camp at 210 pounds, the same as he weighed when he was 22, and 18 pounds lighter than last year. But it’s not just his speed and agility. Jones’ aggressiveness on the bases will fit into the style of play Hinch is trying to establish.
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The two met briefly on Friday. Jones said he told Hinch, “One of my biggest things is my base running. I’m very aggressive. I like to spark a team up with base running.”
Hinch pointed out that Jones only stole one base last year.
“He didn’t do a ton of base running last year,” Hinch said. “We talked about being more of an aggressive base runner. I know he’s good first to third and second to home, but I think there’s some stolen bases in there that we can attack.”
Previous Tigers managers Brad Ausmus and Ron Gardenhire also tried to make the Tigers a more aggressive and effective baserunning team. It never materialized. This Tigers team, with the likes of Jones, Robbie Grossman, Willi Castro, Victor Reyes, Jonathan Schoop and Niko Goodrum might offer some hope.
“I don’t ever want to give outs away on the bases, I know the value of an out,” Hinch said. “But you do have to threaten getting thrown out a few times. That’s across the board, not just for JaCoby. You can’t be afraid to make a mistake on the bases.”
Hinch said if you are 100 percent successful going first to third, that probably means you didn’t try enough.
“You have to threaten an out in order to capitalize on all the opportunities you have,” Hinch said. “JaCoby will embody that because of his athleticism and aggressiveness. I’m looking forward to working with him.”
Jones admitted he got too cautious at times last year.
“Pitchers are very conscious of me at first base,” he said. “They pick over a lot, quick-step. But this year, I told AJ, I’m just going to run. I’m going to get after it. Hopefully, I will guess the right pitch and be smart in situations. But I’m going to be aggressive.”
Looks like Jones is bucking for promotion from And1 status to polished pro.