Competition. That is a driving force in the life of Nolan Jones, the third baseman for the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats. Whether it is competing against his brothers in the basement playing floor hockey, or making up hitting games in the back yard in a batting cage his father had the good fortune to acquire, Nolan has grown up with a deep competitive spirit.
“I started young playing baseball, ice hockey, and football,” Jones shared with Did The Tribe Win Last Night about his sporting activities growing up in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. “I just fell in love with baseball.”
The competitive spirit runs deep in the family. His father is an Orioles fan. Jones became a Red Sox fan, because he wanted to root for a team better than his father’s. Plus, he was a fan of Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, so the Red Sox became his team. Once, he even got a chance to hit at Fenway Park.
“I did one pre-draft work out and got to hit at Fenway,” said Jones. “I couldn’t pass that up.”
The 6’4”, 185 lb. infielder played shortstop in high school at Holy Ghost Prep in Bensalem, PA. It was not until his senior year that he began to see an immediate step into the professional ranks as a possibility. He had his heart set on attending the University of Virginia and did not pay too much attention to scouts who spoke with his father. The thought of bypassing college and going pro was not part of his plan.
“I had my eye set on Virginia and the chance to compete to win a National Championship,” said Jones. “It was a tough decision. The University of Virginia is a great place to be, but my goal was to play in the Big Leagues and I thought this gave me the best chance.”
He was selected by Cleveland in the second round, pick number 55 overall, of the 2016 draft.
“It was stressful,” Jones recalled about draft day. “You hear different things. You don’t know, so it’s a stressful day, but looking back on it, it was the best day of my life.”
His family rented a restaurant where the extended family and friends came to watch the draft, and to see his name called. The knowledge that Cleveland has a strong development program in their minor leagues was comforting, and the support of the family helped, as he made the most significant decision in his life – sign with Cleveland or head to college.
His parents, Thomas and Regina, talked it over with him, but the ultimate decision was Nolan’s. The only stipulation, placed by his mother, was that he promise her that he would go to college.
Instead of heading to UVA in the fall of 2016, he signed a contract with the Indians and made his way to Arizona, where he would get his first professional action in the rookie-level Arizona League.
It was in Arizona where the transition from shortstop to third baseman began. It is one of the challenges Jones faces as he matures his game.
Playing 28 of his first 33 games at third base, he tallied ten errors, and put up 22 more the next year at Mahoning Valley.
“Just learning to make the routine plays,” he said about the struggles adapting and learning the defensive skills at third base. “I’m nowhere near as good as I plan to be at third base. I’m trying to learn a different position. Every day is a different struggle.”
He continues to work on his timing and foot work so that his first steps on defense put him in position to make the routine plays and give him an opportunity to make the not-so-routine plays, like balls coming in at strange angles, or throwing across his body on the move.
In any case, his battle to learn a new position as he advances through the minor leagues has not dampened his skills at the plate.
Since heading to Arizona in the summer of 2016, he has put up a triple slash line of .292/.416/.449 in the Indians farm system. This includes 134 RBI, 27 home runs, and 50 doubles. His K-to-BB ratio in that same span stands a 1.44, and is closer to one for the current season (41 strikeouts to 40 walks), suggesting he is becoming more selective at the plate as he learns to be a more disciplined hitter.
He credits his general hitting philosophy to his hitting coach his first two seasons in the Cleveland system.
“I had Pete Lauritson and latched onto his philosophy, which was see a fastball and hit it,” said Jones.
So far this has worked, as he has been a consistent hitter batting in the three spot in the Hillcats lineup. Amassing 68 total bases this year, he has benefited from having fellow prospect Oscar Gonzalez batting behind him in the lineup. Gonzalez has been on a hitting tear of his own this season, batting .357 over 47 games.
“I’m not trying to do too much as a hitter, thinking I’m going to hit a home run, or drive in runs each at-bat,” he said. “That isn’t my best approach because I’m going to be swinging at pitches I don’t want to swing at.”
With Gonzalez behind him, his selectivity becomes an offensive weapon just by taking a walk. This puts Gonzalez in position to drive him home.
What was slow to develop this year was his power. In 2018, he had 19 home runs and 21 doubles. This season, he was homerless in his first 127 at bats before hitting his first homer of the season on May 20. He now has four in his last 30 ABs and has six doubles on the season. His recent home run barrage included his first career grand slam when he reached base safely four times in a 12-3 win over Frederick on Wednesday.
The slow start in the power department doesn’t trouble him, as he is just trying to hit the ball hard and barrel up the bat when the pitcher makes a mistake and leaves one out over the plate. Jones noted that his teammates had joked with him about the missing long ball, but that he had remained confident and patient and that he was trusting the process of just hitting the ball hard. Those hard hits would eventually start landing on the other side of the outfield wall.
After helping to lead the Hillcats team on a playoff run in the second half of 2018, Jones is looking to continue building his skills, and bring success on the field. He has risen through the prospect rankings since being drafted, starting out as Cleveland’s #8 prospect in 2017, their #4 prospect a year ago, and now being ranked #2, behind only Triston McKenzie.
“I don’t think it changes anything,” Jones said about his #2 ranking in the Cleveland system. “A little chip on my shoulder, maybe? It’s cool to hear about it, but it doesn’t change the way I approach any day. It doesn’t change my work ethic. It’s an honor, but it’s not where I want to be, I want to be in the Major Leagues.”
Nolan will continue to bring his competitive nature to each game, play, and at-bat. This competitiveness continues through the off-season, when he and his father travel to see his older brother Peyton play ice hockey for the Nittany Lions.
“My father and I got into a heated racquetball match last year, I think in a hotel in Minnesota,” Jones recalled. “I enjoy it because I can sometimes beat my dad. It’s something to keep active and have competition.”
With that determination and competitive fire, Nolan Jones will continue to progress, and with skill and opportunity, it might not be too far off that he finds himself back in Fenway Park as a member of the Cleveland Indians lineup.
Photo: Jim Inness/MiLB.com