After seven seasons spent meticulously climbing the Tampa organizational ladder, John Jaso finally got his first chance to play regularly in the bigs in 2010, and the then-26-year-old rookie catcher quickly made a splash. A .372 OBP! A 14.6% walk percentage! The luck to be with an organization that appreciated those numbers, enough to hit him leadoff 45 times!
That made Jaso a trendy fantasy sleeper pick headed into 2011, and… *thud*. That OBP dropped all the way to .298, thanks in no small part to a BB% that fell five points and a K% that rose nearly four, and it’s not like we weren’t already seeing this declining performance before he missed six weeks late in the season with an oblique injury. Oh, and to top it all off: in November, he was traded to Seattle for an alleged felon. Coming off a poor year, headed to a bad team in a ballpark that kills offense, and with competition from Miguel Olivo & Jesus Montero to deal with, Jaso was a complete afterthought headed into 2012.
So just as we could have all predicted… Jaso broke out once again, putting up a .394 OBP that was tied with Carlos Ruiz for third-best in all of baseball among catchers with 350 PA and a .327 wOBA that was fifth-best. He topped his 2010 BB% (going up to 15.5%) and even managed to show some power, doubling his previous career total of 10 homers. All in all, he shockingly ended up being Seattle’s best hitter by a wide margin, despite getting just 20 plate appearances in April as Eric Wedge buried him on the bench. (Believe it or not, Jason didn’t even get behind the plate to catch until May 3, despite making Seattle’s Opening Day roster.)
Over the three full seasons of Jaso’s career, we’ve now seen him be quite good – arguably top-ten, even – twice and unusably awful once. It’s difficult to bet on that kind of inconsistency, and so as he heads into his age-29 season it’s important to look back and see if we can identify which player is the real Jaso.
The good news is, the signs are pointing in the right direction for Jaso to continue last year’s productivity, starting with his own approach to the game:
“I feel like I’ve become a big-league hitter this year. My first year in the majors, I had success. I was new. Teams didn’t have a scouting report on me,” Jaso said.
“Then teams had the chance to see me, challenge me differently. I fell off the second year but learned a lot.
“This season, I tried to put the two together. What I’d learned, how my approach needed to change, what I’d done to be successful,” Jaso said.
Need evidence of a changed approach? Look no further than this side-by-side comparison showing Jaso’s remarkably different batting stance between 2011 & 2012. Instead of being low and crouched, Jaso stands up straight, with a very open stance and hands held high. As Jaso says in the article excerpted above, he really started doing that as a concession to age, but it’s made him a different player. Despite the huge differences in his line between 2010 & 2011, his peripherals were largely the same. His line drive percentage, flyball/groundball rates, and contact rates were relatively static. The big difference between the two years seemed to be that he was swinging more at pitches outside the zone, and getting no love from BABIP on the balls he made contact with, sinking from .282 to .244.
Yet in 2012, Jaso’s new approach changed everything. His line drive rate shot from 17.7% to 25.4%, the best of any catcher in the game. His BABIP rebounded to .298, which is good both in that it’s better than his subpar 2011 but not so high that you’d expect it to collapse again in 2013. He hit fewer flyballs, but more began to leave the park, giving him a solid 14.3 HR/FB% mark.
If there’s a downside here, it’s that Jaso has one of the larger platoon splits in the bigs, putting up just a .532 OPS against lefties in his career against a .789 mark against righties, a discrepancy that was even larger in 2012 at .323/.927. That’s something for daily leaguers to keep in mind; then again, he’s been given just 104 plate appearances against lefties in his entire career, so it’s difficult to extrapolate from that small sample that he simply cannot hit them.
Either way, Jaso’s now been very good for two of his three seasons, and it very much looks like that the poor 2011 was the fluke, not the outstanding 2012. It’s hard to think, that with Olivo a free agent and Montero looking more & more like a DH, that Jaso won’t be Seattle’s regular catcher in 2013. In whatever amount of time he’s got remaining before Mike Zunino comes up to take his job, Jaso is situated perfectly to be an outstanding value next year.