Since the Orioles set up shop in Baltimore in 1954, they've had four players win five AL MVP awards. Three of those players (Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken, Jr.) are in the Hall of Fame; the other (Boog Powell) is a team legend who still shows up at his namesake barbecue stand in Camden Yards. But the last of those awards was Ripken's, in 1991. The team has since suffered a 24-year drought, coinciding in large part with its lengthy string of losing seasons surrounding the 2000s.
With the possible exception of Nick Markakis's stellar 2008 season (where he outpaced MVP winner Dustin Pedroia and led the AL in WAR, but at a less premium position, on a losing team), there really hasn't been even a debatable snub, either. Even as the Orioles returned to their winning ways in the last three years, they did so with a revolving cast of breakout players, never with a league-pacing star in the classic sense.
And of course, it's early to talk about that changing. We're 24 games into the 2015 season, so an awful lot could (and will) change. But Adam Jones appears to be doing something special, and maybe it's worth dreaming.
Adam Jones has been the star of the Orioles for years now. He routinely plays almost every game of the season, at one of the defensive keystone positions, and hits for average and power year in and year out. But in the modern metrics-soaked game of baseball, Adam Jones has had two knocks on his game. One, uncontroversially, that he struck out too much and walked too little. The second, with greater difference of opinion, that his defensive game was unloved by modern defensive metrics -- which hasn't always agreed with the eye test of fans, players or coaches, as Jones has won four Gold Gloves with pedestrian (and even negative) defensive WAR numbers.
The latter issue probably won't be resolved anytime soon, but more interesting is that the former knock on Jones's game has been vastly improved in the young 2015 season. Yes, it's just over a month's worth of data, but that's starting to get long enough where you stop talking about it being a mere hot stretch and start to wonder if it's a true turning point in the prime of the 29-year-old's career. No, Adam Jones won't be the first player since Ted Williams to bat .400. But his game at the plate might be changing in a very real way.
First, let's talk about the eye test. Anyone who followed Adam Jones was well aware of his kryptonite -- the curves and sliders low and away. Even if they were well off the plate, Jones would bite at these pitches, often swinging and missing, often on two-strike counts. Watching Jones this year, it's easy to see that he's been able to recognize these pitches and foul them off, lay off of them or even put them into play. Without this obvious hole in his hitting game, Jones is suddenly turning more at-bats to his favor.
The results are bearing out statistically, too, with (again) a small sample size caveat. Most importantly, his K%, which has hovered between 18-21% for his entire Orioles career, sits at 12.5%. You can call that a nice run, but people who know things about statistics say that K-rate normalizes around 60 PAs (Jones has 96). The observations above bear out in more advanced plate discipline statistics, too, where Jones is swinging at about the same percentage of pitches, but making contact more often both inside (92% vs. 84% for his career) and outside (68% vs. 62%) of the strike zone.
Of course, the statistics also tell us that Jones is batting an absurd .417 on balls in play, a number that will surely come down. Again, Jones's hitting stats will regress. But if he ups his established slash line (typically in the range of .285/.315/.475) into the neighborhood of .330/.365/.550, an MVP award will be a conversation worth having. Even with his normal slash line, Jones has received down-ballot MVP votes in recent years, as the star of a playoff-bound team who plays Gold Glove defense at a premium position.
There's a lot of baseball to be played in 2015. Maybe Jones will go through a cold stretch that brings his numbers back toward his career line (the theory that guys will "hit to their baseball cards" is always out there). But maybe Adam Jones has reinvented his game. Maybe this is just a career year. These are among the many things that make baseball so great to watch. The meaningful prospect of an MVP candidate being back in Baltimore is the latest exciting turn for Orioles fans who are still adjusting to the rebirth of their franchise as a perennial contender. Let's see what Adam Jones can do.