Refined swing key to Chipper's mind-set
Retirement talk could return if veteran endures tough 2010
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Chipper Jones has not backed off his claim that he will retire if he endures some of the same struggles and frustrations that followed him throughout the second half of the 2009 season.
But after displaying his refined swing during an impressive round of batting practice at ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex on Monday morning, Jones admitted that he remains confident that he has the ability to remain productive and motivated enough to continue playing beyond this upcoming season.
"If I wasn't confident in the fact that I was going to have a productive year, I would have quit after last year," Jones said. "The whole reason for being here this year is because I feel I will have a bounce-back year and put up the numbers -- if healthy -- that I always have."
When Jones initially floated thoughts about a potential early retirement last year, there was reason to believe he was simply dealing with a brief bout of frustration. The 37-year-old third baseman was in the midst of a slump that would lead him to hit just .229 in his final 95 games, and the Braves were just four days removed from dealing with the fact that their postseason hopes had seemingly been crushed by a weekend sweep at the hands of the Reds at Turner Field.
Jones' outlook improved when the Braves enjoyed a September surge that vaulted them back into postseason contention and signaled hope for a future that is brightened with the presence of young stars such as Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens.
But along with having the desire to once again experience the kind of success that was present when the Braves won division titles during each of his first 11 full seasons, Jones wants to remain an integral part of this success.
"The last thing that I want to do is hang around and be a mediocre player," said Jones, who will turn 38 in April. "It's fun when you win, and I clearly expect us to win again. So that element, I'm not really worried about. But there's also the element of being the same player that I've been, producing and having fun that way, as well."
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said he's never given much credence to Jones' claims that he could opt to retire before claiming the $28 million the Braves would owe him beyond this upcoming season. But the former National League MVP contends finances won't play a factor in his decision.
"That's not my motivation to stick around," Jones said. "I've made my money. I'm not going to chase a paycheck and be mediocre."
When Jones hit .335 with eight homers, a .452 on-base percentage and a .565 slugging percentage through the first 48 games last year, there certainly was no reason for the Braves to worry about the fact that they had provided him with a three-year, $42 million contract extension in March.
While his homer total might have been lagging, Jones essentially looked like the same player who had combined to hit .342 with 77 homers, a .435 on-base percentage and a .592 slugging percentage over the three previous seasons.
But after enjoying a two-hit game against the Pirates on June 9, Jones immediately entered the 95-game tailspin that led him to compile some of the worst statistics of his career. His .264 batting average was the second-worst mark of his career -- 100 points lower than the mark he'd posted while winning his first batting crown one year earlier.
Jones' .388 on-base percentage and .430 slugging percentage were easily the lowest marks he had posted in these statistical categories since 1997 -- his third full season in the Majors. And for the first time in his career, he hit fewer than 20 homers -- falling two short of the mark.
"I'm getting to a point of my life when I'm thinking about doing other things," Jones said. "It's one of those things where my dad told me, 'When you stop having fun playing the game, then quit.' I'm doing the game and my team a disservice if I'm not out here having a blast every day. I can't say I didn't have fun last year getting back into a winning mode, but there's a selfish personal side to it where you want to feel like you're in the middle of everything and producing and helping win.
"We won 86 games last year and got very little help from me. That bothers me."
Looking back on last year's struggles, Jones believes he was victimized by some of the bad habits that he developed while attempting to deal with the rash of various injuries that had plagued him over the previous five seasons.
"I felt like I could go out a couple of years ago, and while I couldn't go out and hit the ball out of the ballpark with great regularity, I could go out there and flip two-base hits out there," Jones said. "I kind of got in a little bit of a flip mode and I lost what I was doing from a power standpoint. I lost the feel for it."
While working with his father this past offseason to regain his proper mechanics, the switch-hitting Jones realized that he had developed a habit of removing his top hand during his swing from the left side of the plate. This caused his swing to get longer and led to the inability to consistently catch up to fastballs.
In addition, Jones worked diligently to regain the mind-set to keep his nose pointed down and toward the outside corner of the plate throughout the entirety of his swing. The inability to do so the past couple of years caused him to too often create topspin with the balls that came off his bat.
Now, as he gains a greater feel for his refined mechanical approach, Jones is encouraged that the ball is once again jumping off his bat with the kind of backspin that should lead to enhanced power numbers.
But in essence, Jones is simply hoping that these adjustments allow him to avoid last year's frustrations and regain the same confidence he possessed at this time last year, when he was discussing playing at least four more seasons with the Braves.
"I wouldn't expect too much right from the get-go, just because it's a swing change," Jones said. "It's new to me. It's different and it feels weird. But when I do it right, I'm getting the results that I want. When it becomes second nature, then I think you'll see the extra-base hits, the homers and run production kind of take flight after that."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.