Anomalies and oddities in sports have always fascinated me, whether they be statistical in nature or more practical. I want to know and learn more about them or the people behind them. And if there’s some relative obscurity to the player? Then sign me up.
That’s the spirit of this week’s installment of our Skeeters Spotlight, which looks at first base prospect Taylor Jones. Jones came to the Astros out of Gonzaga University, a school known more for its basketball prowess than baseball team. It’s basketball program has produced 21 NBA players since 2000 – nearly matching its baseball program’s 27 total MLB alumni in a history dating back more than a century.
As a result, Jones was already fascinating to me when I dug into his baseball origins, and even more so with him not being on any top prospect lists despite consistent production since being drafted. So without further ado, let’s jump into this week’s spotlight.
Jones was a pitcher his first two seasons at Gonzaga, but converted to first base before the 2015 season. He was originally drafted by the Cubs as a first baseman in the 35th round of the 2015 draft after hitting .358 with a .959 OPS, but chose to go back for his senior year. He would hit .332 with a .908 OPS that year, leading the Astros to select him in the 19th round in 2016.
He has continued to hit in four minor league seasons, with a .271 batting average and .812 OPS. During his time with the Astros’ organization, Jones has made at least 20 starts at three different positions, though he continued to primarily man first base.
On the one hand, Jones has been the lone legitimate first base prospect in the Astros’ system since the trade of Seth Beer to Arizona in 2019. On the other, his primary positions – first base and third base – have been blocked by mainstays Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman. It is an obstacle for any infielder drafted by the Astros over the last five seasons. He is also on the older side for a prospect at 27 years old. But that doesn’t mean he has shown a lack of skill.
I have long loved Jones’ approach at the plate. As a general rule, Jones has had great knowledge of the strike zone, sporting a career walk rate around 11.8 percent in the minors. While it seems like common knowledge to not swing at pitches out of the strike zone, it’s far easier said than done against today’s pitchers. With a good knowledge of the strike zone, hitters can make pitchers come to them, and do more damage with each swing.
While that hasn’t yet come to fruition for Jones during his MLB stints in 2020 and 2021, his 30.1 percent chase rate in 108 MLB plate appearances this year is just a tick below league average of 28.1. A Fangraphs study from 2019 also said that fans can generally expect a major league walk rate to be around 72 percent of someone’s MiLB rate. The combination of those factors and Jones’ existing approach leads me to believe that as Jones gets more reps, it will eventually bear itself out.
The biggest thing that has stuck out to me while watching him is that for someone who stands 6-foot-7, Jones’ swing is very compact and quick to the ball. Guys that tall can tend to get a bit long with their swings, leading to more jam shots or late swings period. But I haven’t seen that – at least not more than any young hitter – with Jones so far. This is a guy who can do some damage if given any sort of semiregular playing time, as indicated by his 42.7 percent hard contact (95+ MPH) rate in his brief MLB stints so far.
Prediction: Jones has been squeezed out a bit in terms of roster space this season with the recent re-acquisition of utilityman Marwin Gonzalez, but there is a path to him becoming a regular bench/role player in 2022. Gonzalez is a free agent after this season, and Gurriel, while still productive, is 37 years old and will likely need more days off here and there next season. Combine that with Jones’ production in a part-time role earlier this season and Houston’s general lack of first base prospects, and I think Jones could break camp with the Astros in 2022.