Jace Jung is leveling up toward his shot at the big leagues

Bless You Boys

Infielder Jace Jung has done nothing but hit since the Detroit Tigers made him their first round selection with the 12th overall pick in the 2022 amateur draft. Initial skepticism about his contact skills and defensive ability hasn’t entirely faded, but his 2023 season did a lot to assuage concerns about the power potential of his bat. And while his defense since moving to third base in the Arizona Fall League last October hasn’t reached major league caliber, Jung is a pretty sound second baseman already. He moved over at the Tigers’ request, presumably to fit with Colt Keith at second, and probably deserves more time at third base before they give up on that. Either way, Jung should have no trouble playing somewhere in the infield as long as the bat carries the profile.

The 23-year-old, left-handed hitting Jung didn’t exactly catch fire right out of the draft, but he held his own at High-A West Michigan in 2022 post-draft. In 2023, the breakout was on as Jung mashed 14 home runs in 81 games, then really caught fire at Double-A Erie, hitting another 14 bombs in just 47 games while slashing .284/.373/.563. The power was certainly impressive, but Jung also impressed by playing a very sound second base all season long.

Jung did several specific things well at the plate last season. He didn’t chase too much out of the zone even against breaking balls and offspeed. Overall his pitch recognition was pretty good and paired well with his zone discipline. As a result, he took a good amount of walks. He also hit a lot of balls hard in the air to the pull field, showing the ability to do a lot of damage when he makes contact.

Most of those trends have only advanced at the Triple-A level this season. Jung hasn’t hit for quite the same home run pace, though he still has 11 bombs in 64 games. However, he’s been a better hitter overall, increasing his walk rate from 11 percent to 16.6 percent this season, and trimming his strikeout rate from 26.8 percent down to 22.6 percent in 2024.

In terms of his splits, Jung is still significantly weaker against left-handed pitchers. He holds a pretty meager .744 OPS against lefties, with a .945 OPS mark against right-handers. On the plus side, Jung still doesn’t strike out that much more against lefties, and he continues to draw his walks against them. He just doesn’t do as much damage. Still, at the major league level that probably screams platoon infielder.

The main issue that has remained present in Jung’s game is a lot of swing and miss in the strike zone. His swing decisions remain very good, and that may continue to alleviate the effect of the swing and miss on his production, but at the major league level obviously the stuff is better and the fastballs are hotter. When Jung does chase, he puts the ball in play to an above average degree, and because he tends to hit the ball with loft to the pull field, he still does a fair amount of damage on those pitches. That too may help balance out some of the swing and miss. When Jung chases, it’s often still close to the zone and hittable for him, so that too is encouraging.

So, this season we’ve generally just been waiting for him to clean up some of the in-zone swing and miss. There wasn’t much sign of it early on this season, but in June there is finally a bit of progress on that front, and it coincides with Jung hitting to a 1.012 OPS in the month of June with three home runs and a dip in the strikeout rate.

We weren’t the only ones noticing, as Baseball America’s Eli Ben-Porat made clear in a recent article on Statcast standouts in the first half of the major league season (paywalled).

Jung’s overall in-zone whiff numbers are still below average for the season, but they are trending in the right direction. Also notable in that data is the fact that Jung crushes sinkers. As an offense, the Tigers are just about the worst team in the game against sinkers despite having an overall middle of the pack offense. Jung may fit a specific need for the Tigers’ offense even now, though presumably some more seasoning is in order before he makes his major league debut this summer.

It’s worth noting that while he has a .411 wOBA, which is excellent, against sinkers this season, he has a .456 wOBA on fourseamers. He can handle the fastball even if there’s some testing to do against the steady diet of high 90’s velo he’ll start seeing more at the major league level. The one remaining weakness that is a bit glaring are his struggles with 95 mph or faster fastballs, and that may be the final area the Tigers need to see a little improvement on before a call-up. Of course, you also don’t see nearly as much 95+ at the level, so it’s hard to get an accurate read.

How close is Jung to a call-up?

There are a couple of things to consider here before forecasting a call-up, and as most Tigers fans have already seen a bunch of well regarded young hitters struggle at the major league level, it’s probably wise to keep a cool head about this.

One, MLB is now moved to a full ABS challenge system at the Triple-A level for the rest of the season. Since the testing program began last year, half of each six-game series has been played under the fully automated balls and strikes system, half with human umpires making the call and each team receiving three challenges where the hitter or catcher can appeal to the ABS system on a ball or strike call. Now, the challenge system will be full time and the number of challenges reduced to two per team in an effort to limit challenges only to egregious calls.

One of the big questions floated about the struggles of numerous high end prospects around the game last year and so far this season has been whether the ABS system introduces a sense of certainty that then needs to be unlearned once a hitter graduates to the major league level. Suddenly that strike zone that was so clear in their minds has more give around the edges, and MLB umpires are sometimes notorious for being hard on rookie hitters in particular. Hitters with high end plate discipline, like Justyn-Henry Malloy or Jung, for example, need to be a little less comfortable taking close pitches with two strikes. There’s an adjustment required on top of the already difficult enough task of facing the biggest leap in quality of pitching they’ll ever encounter.

Whatever you think about the future of the automated ball-strike calling system, switching to the challenge system should be better for Triple-A hitters trying to prepare for the jump to the major leagues. Now they’ll be back to human umpires full-time, with only two challenges that will generally be withheld to overturn only the most egregious calls in the most important game situations with runners in scoring position. For a player like Jung, it probably makes sense to give him at least a few weeks getting reacclimated to full-time human umpires before he tackles the task of his major league debut.

Still, his numbers are all trending in the right directions, and he’s answering a lot of the preseason questions already. If he can trim a little more swing and miss in the zone, particularly against better fastballs, that will probably be the cue for a call-up.

Another fly in the ointment for a call-up right now is that Jung has struggled some at third base and it’s hard to see how he would fit into the current Tigers’ roster. Guys like Akil Baddoo and Zach McKinstry might be the most obvious candidates to be optioned to Toledo or released, but Jung doesn’t play corner outfield, and he doesn’t play shortstop. Third base is not a lock yet either.

One possibility remains moving Keith to first base and calling up Jung to play second. That would move Mark Canha back to the outfield while Baddoo would be sent down in that scenario. The rookie second baseman has struggled with transfers and doesn’t show the quick hands required to turn a lot of double plays at major league speed. Keith hasn’t produced the power of a first baseman yet, but he’s been consistently raking since May 1, and eventually the huge raw power he showed in the minor leagues is going to show up. As for Jung, he’s a little more natural second baseman who can make the short flips and throws required more quickly and accurately. He’s not a standout defender there either, but he’s probably a decent upgrade from Keith.

The Tigers could also just decide to keep working him at third base for now and wait until late July or August for a call-up. Jung has 11 errors in 43 games at third base, compared to just one at second base in 17 games, but he’s a natural second baseman who is still pretty new to the hot corner. It’s up to the Tigers’ front office to determine if he’s going to improve enough to stay there or not.

Overall, things are going pretty well for Jung right now. By all metrics he’s trending in the right direction, and he continues to produce really well at the Triple-A level despite being a bit on the younger side for the level. The Tigers have to be getting fairly close to wanting a look at him at the major league level, but there remain a few small issues that could put the decision off for another month or so. One way or another, Jace Jung shouldn’t have to wait too much longer. He appears on course for a look this summer as expected. Figuring out how to go about it is the Tigers problem, but at this point they have no reason not to see what they’ve got in him this summer.

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