Ryder Jones is an infielder by trade. The Giants second-round pick from the 2013 MLB Draft has played 308 games at third base, 34 at first base and 34 at shortstop throughout his minor league career. This season, Jones is adding to his arsenal with time in left field at Triple-A with the Sacramento River Cats.
“I’ve never completely not been in the outfield, I just hadn’t done it in a game,” Jones said to NBCSportsBayArea.com over the phone after the River Cats beat the Reno Aces 4-3 in 11 innings. “The first couple of games were a little iffy just getting reads, especially off left-handed hitters with the slice and all that stuff. A lot of it is just trying to hear the sound off the bat and how well they hit it and you know, first step back and kind of stuff like that.
“Six games in, I’m feeling a little bit more comfortable and a little bit better out there.”
Jones, 22, has been slotted in the outfield during games for the first time this season, but the plan certainly isn’t brand new. Though he did some outfield drills with the Richmond Flying Squirrels last season in Double-A, the beginning of his transition to the outfield really started in the Arizona Fall League. Even then with the roster construction, Jones didn’t see game action in the outfield.
“I’d say twice a week I was doing outfield stuff,” Jones said. “It didn’t really work out for me to get into a game in the outfield because (Tim) Tebow was a late add-on and he played some left field. We had a lot of outfielders, so it wasn’t a good spot to get some reps out there.”
And then, Jones began hearing from the front office about how he may be adding a new position to his repertoire in 2017. Giants GM Bobby Evans made it clear to Jones that the outfield would soon become a reality, along with playing first and third base, but the Giants didn’t want to throw him into the fire during spring training. He continued to do outfield drills and take fly balls during batting practice to improve his skills. On the last day of April as the River Cats played against the Tacoma Rainiers on the road, Sacramento’s manager Dave Brundage sent a message to Jones before the team’s mid-day game.
“Brundage came up to me in Tacoma in a serious tone and said, ‘We really need to do some drills today in left because I think they’re (the Giants) gonna want you to play some left here maybe tomorrow or the next day,’” Jones said. “The next day I showed up and I was in left field, so I’m playing it by ear now.”
While it’s the Giants’ call, Jones has always brought up the possibility of playing the outfield to the help the team. With a strong arm suitable for the corner outfield positions, he knows adding defensive versatility can help both himself and the organization. That also doesn’t mean he concerns himself with who is ahead of him at the big league level at first and third base.
“I don’t think of it too much,” Jones says. “When I play first, I don’t think, ‘Well they have (Brandon) Belt for the next four years, so what am I doing.’ It’s not so much that as it is you control what you can control.
“I’ve always been told, ‘If you can hit and you play the game right, they can find a spot for you somewhere on the field.’ It’s not too much of a concern for me.”
Before games, his routine has certainly changed to get him more prepared for the outfield. Jones is working extensively with Brundage lately in the outfield on the little things and throws to bases. His best friend in terms of getting better is live batting practice as that best emulates game swings. On a typical game day, Jones will take a a round of live batting practice fielding balls at third or first base and then make sure to get at least one round tracking down fly balls in left field, no matter where he is playing on that given day.
The biggest move with adding left field to his name hasn’t been physical, but mental.
“I would just say trying to stay locked in every pitch. It’s a little bit different,” Jones said on the hardest part of the outfield for him. “You kind of just have to treat it like you’re almost at third base. Obviously, you’re not gonna get your legs going like you’re at third base, but you have to continually expect the ball to be hit to you.”
At the plate, Jones is continuing to hit the ball himself. In 21 games for the River Cats this season, he is batting .305 with 25 hits and two home runs. The key for him is focusing on quality at-bats over statistics and the rest will take care of itself.
“I think a lot of guys get — including me — caught up in home runs and all the power and all that stuff, but I think it shows with the Giants the opportunities come to the guys they can call up and they know you’re gonna give them four good at-bats,” Jones said.
At each level, Jones’ bat has been his calling card. Now to make it to San Francisco, he must continue to stay locked in at the plate and in the field as he becomes an even more valuable player for the organization.