For Ryder Jones, the most important thing you can do as a big leaguer is to not let the league intimidate you.
“It’s not that much different up there. They’re a little bit better,” he said on Sunday. “You go up there and expect … you see it on TV your whole career and you see all these guys, and you look up to them, and then you play against them, and you’re as good as these guys.”
Jones certainly was as good as anyone in the one game he got in the majors this year, when he homered off Edwin Jackson. But it’s been a long road to get there.
Ryder Jones was drafted in the second round in 2013 out of Watauga High School in Boone, North Carolina, just a few days after his 19th birthday. After a promising stint in the Arizona League that year, he got assigned to Augusta, where he had a nice first couple months, hitting .262/.306/.421 over April and May. But he’d only played 16 games his senior year of high school, so he started to wear down — “I remember my legs shaking when I was hitting,” he said — leading to a protracted slump and eventually a demotion to Salem-Keizer.
Looking back on 2015 in San Jose, where his numbers were up compared to Augusta, Jones can see both what he did well — hitting for a higher average — and what he still had to learn. “I just didn’t know how to walk. I was over-aggressive. When you’re young, you’re always taught don’t strike out. It kinda kills your numbers.”
It was in the second half of 2016 in Richmond that he really began to take off, improving from .233/.262/.374 with 9 homers in 339 plate appearances pre-break to .277/.347/.445 with 6 homers in 155 plate appearances after the break. For a 22 year-old playing in the most pitcher-friendly park in the Eastern League (and third most pitcher-friendly in all of AA), those are some pretty impressive numbers.
How did Jones make such offensive progress? He mostly attributes it to pitch selection; when you work counts and swing at strikes, you’ll get good pitches to hit. And he continued his breakout the next year in Sacramento, hitting .312/.396/.574 with 13 homers in 273 plate appearances. As you would expect and probably remember, those numbers got him a promotion to the majors last year.
Jones struggled when he was initially called up to the majors last year. It took him six games to record his first hit, and he was sent back to the minors two days later. But he was called up again a month later, and did reasonably well, hitting .240/.313/.427 in August, before a September where, in his own words, he “just kinda fell off a cliff.”
So how is he going to do better in the future? First, he has a plan to keep weight on. At the end of the year last year, Jones was down to 200 pounds, for the first time in a long time. “I look back at pictures and I look really skinny,” he said, so he’s started lifting weights in-season to compensate for that, and it’s been helping him keep weight on. When he started out in the minors, before each game he took tons of grounders and didn’t lift because he thought it would wear him out; now he does the opposite, and it’s helping him feel better.
But he’s also adjusting his mental approach. Last year, when he was called up, “I put a little bit too much pressure on myself, just because [it was a] struggling team and [I was] coming up as a rookie, trying to do a little too much.”
“It’s tough to go up as a young guy, because you feel like you have to do something different than you did in AAA,” he said. “You really don’t.” He cites Dereck Rodriguez as a model of a guy who hasn’t changed his game at all moving to the majors. “He’s super confident. He looks exactly like he did in AAA. That’s what you have to do. You have to go up there and play like you did down here.”
For now, though, Jones is in Sacramento. Coming off a hamstring injury in Spring Training, he started the year off slowly, so the numbers aren’t as eye-popping as they were last year, and he still has a couple nagging injuries that are affecting him on defense, but he’s improved on his slow start, and if he’s able to get a real chance in the majors this year, he has a plan. What is it? “Just trust myself and know that I’m good enough to be a big leaguer.”
When you look at how Ryder Jones has developed during his time as a pro, it’s hard to bet against him. And his plan is to continue the same growth that he’s shown during his whole career, from the time he got drafted up until today. Because the majors do not intimidate him.
“Everybody [wants] the high school kid to come out and just kill it at every level, and then come to the big leagues and kill it,” Jones said. “It just doesn’t really work out that way, usually. You’ve got a couple guys, like you have your Bellingers and guys like that that everybody wants to see. I’ve notoriously struggled early and then gotten better and better, and I’m hoping that’s how my big league career’s gonna be too. I struggled last year, but it humbled me and I learned a lot, so I’m just gonna keep getting better.”