Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote that a Black Swan is an event that has the attributes of “rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.” The Yankees drafted a Black Swan in 2013 when they selected Aaron Judge with pick number 32 in the first round. At 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, Judge was a physical outlier who came with the typical concerns for players that big.
Following a mesmerizing 2022 season that ranks among the greatest offensive performances in baseball history, it would be easy for someone to look back and wonder how in the world Judge wouldn’t have been the first overall pick in his draft year. How could it be that Baseball America never ranked Aaron Judge as the top prospect in the Yankees’ organization? How could he never have been ranked higher than the eighth-best prospect by managers and scouts in any league he played in during his minor league career? It seems silly now, but players who come along at Judge’s size are supposed to struggle to make contact because of their long levers, and they are supposed to lose athleticism early in their careers because of their outsized frames. The Yankees enjoyed the significant impact of their Black Swan in 2022, and in July they looked to draft another one in outfielder Spencer Jones.
Judge is the 100th-percentile outcome for ANY prospect, so comparisons between Judge and Spencer Jones should be limited at this point, but because Jones is 6-foot-7 like Judge, and similarly an outlier athlete and Yankee prospect, their names are going to be connected. Calling Jones an outlier as an athlete is not subjective. Prior to the draft, Loden Sports, a company that has tested over 13,000 athletes for the purpose of providing performance data, found Spencer Jones to be in the top one percent of all the athletes they’ve tested. Specifically, they found him to be at the top of the scales for power and speed.
Beyond that, he was identified to be singular among the outliers, showing speed and power that exceeds other athletes with comparable size. It is difficult and increasingly rare to find baseball players with a true combination of speed and power, so Jones walking in the door with those elite attributes grabs your attention immediately.
The greatest athletes in the world aren’t necessarily good baseball players, though, so the question remains whether Jones has the baseball skills to go with his physical gifts. But when you start to go through each part of his game and look for something to pick on, you have a hard time finding holes. Accentuating how well-rounded he is as a player, Baseball America identified Jones, a left-handed hitter, as the best pure hitter, the best power hitter, the fastest runner, and the best defensive player in the Yankees’ 2022 draft class.
He came off a great junior season at Vanderbilt, in which he slashed .370/.460/.644 with 12 homers, and continued to hit in 25 professional games, most of them at Low-A Tampa. His line of .344/.425/.538 doesn’t even tell the whole exciting story of his pro debut. First, he cut his strikeout rate to just over 18 percent, down from 23.5 percent during his college season. The primary concern for hitters Jones’ size, and perhaps a factor in his lasting to the 25th overall pick in the draft, is a swing full of holes that will be exploited by better pitching, so seeing a young player capable of making adjustments to get the ball in play is encouraging.
It would be less encouraging if those tweaks came with the sacrifice of power, but Jones also hit four home runs and six doubles in his time at Tampa, with one of those homers launched at 111.3 mph. Top-of-the-chart exit velocity was on Jones’ scouting report before the draft, and it continued when he switched to wood bats as a pro.
One of the knocks on Jones as a hitter, if it can be called a knock, is that he takes the ball to the opposite field too often, settling for singles rather than fully getting to his power. Jones continued that approach as a pro, going the opposite way 43 percent of the time. As he matures and gains experience, he will hone his approach and learn to find the pitches he can turn on and drive, but in the meantime Jones hitting a single is not a win for pitchers. Jones stole 12 bases in 25 professional games, giving us a glimpse at his speed not being just for the stopwatch.
If Jones’ monster potential on the offensive side isn’t enough, imagine that he will likely begin the 2023 season as a center fielder. Jones played right field at Vanderbilt in deference to Enrique Bradfield, the best defensive center fielder in college baseball and a potential first-round pick in this summer’s draft, but there is no reason to keep him in right as he ascends the minors other than conceding to the notion that taller players belong there. Time will dictate the best defensive placement for Jones, but right now he has the speed to play center and the arm to play right.
It’s Jones’ left arm that is an intriguing part of his development story. He was a two-way player in high school, and many felt his future would be on the mound as a power left-handed pitcher, but a fractured elbow cut his senior season short and also hurt his draft status, which sent him on to college instead of the minor leagues. Jones attempted to continue pitching at Vanderbilt, but he hurt his elbow again, this time requiring Tommy John surgery. After rehabbing, Jones put his pitching career on the shelf and put his athleticism to use in the field. His injuries, in addition to time missed due to the pandemic, have limited the amount of baseball the 21-year-old has played, meaning it stands to reason that Jones can look forward to a great deal of improvement as he gains experience during his development.
The raw materials at Spencer Jones’ disposal will likely make observers think the sky’s the limit for him. Well, we know what the sky looks like now. Aaron Judge just showed us what’s possible when an elite athlete puts everything together, and “everything” includes what happens between the ears. That is the real question with Spencer Jones. There are no concerns about Jones’ make-up or character, but Aaron Judge got to where he is by having the type of mentality that propelled Derek Jeter to the Hall of Fame. If Jones can combine his extraordinary athleticism with the confidence and diligence that contribute to Judge’s success, we are looking at a potential star. He’s just getting started in his pro career, however, and while the smart money has him starting this season at High-A Hudson Valley, it is also likely that’s where he finishes it. If Spencer Jones follows the Trey Sweeney playbook, he may get a look in Double-A by the end of the season, but no matter where he plays he will be one of the most exciting Yankee prospects to watch in 2023.
Other top prospects:
Bonus: Best of the Rest