Nolan Jones Hopes To Join Next Wave Of Productive AFL Graduates
It’s apparent in talking with Indians prospect Nolan Jones that he’s eager to play in this year's Arizona Fall League.
A second-round pick in 2016, the 21-year-old Philadelphia-area product has moved quickly through the Indians' system, annually ranking as one of the organization’s top prospects. After finishing the 2019 season at Double-A, Jones says he is keenly aware of the history of the AFL and the great players who have passed through the league.
“It’s definitely an honor to be selected,” Jones said. “It’s another opportunity for me to learn and get better. Being surrounded by a different group of guys, especially this caliber, it’s definitely another opportunity along the road to learn.”
He also knows that there are facets of his game that he’ll be able to work on during his six weeks in the desert, both with his hitting and his defense. Related to improving his approach at the plate, Jones remarked, “I need to hit pitches in my power spots and hit them harder and more consistently ... continuing to stick with the foundation that I built from the season and growing on that.”
One of Jones’ strengths is his outstanding plate discipline, as evidenced by his career on-base percentage of .409 and walk rates between 15 and 20 percent throughout his four minor league seasons. He traces the origin of this selective batting eye to lessons he learned in sessions with his father and friends in the backyard of the family home.
“I was really lucky to have a batting cage in my backyard,” Jones said. “My dad would do whatever he could to strike me out in the cage ... (it was) our game we always played. It was from when I was younger, playing tennis baseball or whiffle ball with my friends. All of those things play a part in being stubborn to my strike zone and (waiting for) pitches that I know I can drive.”
The over-the-fence power is the next part of Jones’ game that is emerging sooner rather than later.
He hit a combined 15 home runs in 2019 after going deep 19 times in 2018. Jones smiled when asked if he’s ready to be considered a power-hitting third baseman, saying, “Yeah, I think that would be a cool label one day,” but then points out that going to the plate trying to hit the ball out of the park really isn’t his game.
“Continuing to get on base and letting the guys hitting behind me drive me in allows me to be successful,” Jones said. “Home runs for me are not something that I’m going up there trying to hit. I’m not a huge home run guy. I want to hit the ball hard ... But to see the power coming compared to my first year and my second year, it definitely makes me feel pretty good about the work that I’m putting in. It's nice to see that it’s there, and it’s coming.”
Jones has been almost exclusively a third baseman since beginning his pro career, and it’s where he plans to stay. There have always been questions as to whether he’d need to move across the infield because of his size—he’s two or three inches taller than the listed 6-foot-2—but Jones continues to put in the work necessary to stay at the hot corner, where his plus arm certainly fits the position.
“This year I felt more comfortable than I was previously,” Jones said. “I’m starting to really feel like a third baseman, so I think it’s continuing to get better every single day. I’m improving every way I can ... I’m always looking for ways to improve, and that’s only going to help me get better and be able to stay there for a long time.”
Jones' eventual call to the big leagues may not be too far into his future, and this past summer Jones got a taste of what it’s like to play in front of the Cleveland fans. He was selected to participate in the 2019 Futures Game, which coincidentally was held in Cleveland’s Progressive Field. It was a weekend that further whetted Jones’ appetite for what’s ahead in his career.
“I got to have the whole family out there with me in Cleveland,” Jones said. "And it was an extremely special experience. Being in the city and just walking into the stadium gives me chills to think that could be my future home. When I stepped on the field and got my name announced the Cleveland fans made me feel at home, and it was special.”
One of the valuable lessons that the Indians' organization attempts to teach their players and prospects is how to interact with fans and how to build and maintain a good image of themselves. Jones has been taking the fan interaction a bit further this year by developing his own YouTube channel.
While he’s not harboring any secret desire to become the next Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino, Jones sees the videos as a way to reach out to fans.
“It’s just something to have fun with for me,” Jones said. “Throughout this baseball career, a lot of people don’t really understand what we go through ... we travel a lot, we’re at the field for a lot of hours every day, we go to a lot of different cities. I was thinking one day ... 'What if I was able to show people what we do and show people some of the experiences we have?'”
Jones has big plans on how he wants to continue making those YouTube videos special. But with a promising baseball career still ahead of him, he’s not yet planning his acceptance speech for an Academy Award.
But maybe someday?
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The Arizona Fall League kicks off this week with plenty of changes from years past, the most notable being the earlier start date. This year, games started on Wednesday, Sept. 18 rather than the customary second week of October. The restrictions on who can participate in the AFL have also been lifted, with any player under contract with a major league organization now eligible to be added to an Arizona Fall League roster.
The final noteworthy change is that only four stadiums will be utilized to host the six AFL teams this fall, with offseason construction at Scottsdale Stadium and Surprise Stadium requiring the league to double-up teams at Salt River Fields and Peoria Stadium.
This year’s AFL managerial lineup and the organization that they represent is as follows:
Glendale Desert Dogs — Luis Bolivar (Reds)
Mesa Solar Sox — Mike Rabelo (Tigers)
Peoria Javelinas — Dave Turgeon (Pirates)
Salt River Rafters — Keith Johnson (Marlins)
Scottsdale Scorpions — Cesar Martin (Blue Jays)
Surprise Saguaros — Scott Thorman (Royals)
Thorman played in the AFL for the Grand Canyon Rafters in 2004 while a member of the Braves' organization. Rabelo played two games for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in 2006 shortly after making his major league debut with the Tigers.