PULLMAN — Derek Jones isn’t acting his age — not with a baseball bat in his hands, anyway.
The way he’s swatting balls out of the park for the Washington State University baseball team this spring, you could almost mistake the 18-year-old freshman for a 21-year-old senior.
Through the Cougars’ first 31 games, the left-handed swinging outfielder had clubbed nine home runs, tops on the team and No. 6 in the Pacific-10 Conference. He was just three homers shy of the WSU freshman record with 23 games to play.
He has even exceeded coach Donnie Marbut’s expectations from a power standpoint. “I thought his average would be a little higher and his home runs a little bit down,” said the former Edmonds Community College coach. “But he’s right there.”
One of his recent home runs came in a 10-4 victory over Arizona State, then the top-ranked team in the country. He hit his first collegiate home run in the fifth game of the season against Oklahoma, currently ranked No. 9.
A year ago, Jones was starring for his Snohomish High School team, which went on to win the Class 4A state title. During a campaign in which he earned his second consecutive Herald Player of the Year award, he hit eight home runs.
This spring for the Cougars, he’s second on the team in runs batted in (25), total bases (61) and slugging percentage (.565).
“He’s doing exactly what I thought he would do,” his high school coach Kim Hammons said. “I figured he would get an opportunity to start, maybe even do some relief pitching.”
This is the kind of confidence Marbut has in Jones. He bats him in the three hole, usually reserved for the best all-around hitter on the team.
“A lot of freshmen get baptized a little bit, they get brought along slowly,” Marbut said. “Well, you don’t get brought along slowly at Washington State. If you’re good enough, we’re going to put you right in the fire. And we put him right in the fire from the get-go.”
When he started college, Jones’ goal was to make the travel squad, “maybe start a few games, make some contributions.” But he had such an impressive fall that he felt he needed to elevate his expectations.
Marbut has known for several years that Jones had the makings to be a very special player. The pair first crossed paths when Marbut coached Jones, then 13, on a select team in the Seattle area.
“I took our recruiting coordinator out to Snohomish to watch another player and I told him they have a freshman (Jones) here that we’re going to recruit one day,” said Marbut, who became the Cougars head coach in 2004. “I knew he was going to be a good player, but I wasn’t sure how good.”
Now he says the 6-foot-1, 205-pounder “has a chance to be a very, very high draft pick one day.”
As the No.3 hitter in the lineup, Jones has — as his old high school coach put it — “a target on his back.”
“And with his early success,” Hammons said, “people are going to pitch him differently. He may see some more sliders and changeups.”
What he’s also seeing is that opponents already have a good scouting report on him. “He’s got to realize that he’s the guy in the lineup that they’re already pitching around,” Marbut said. “I don’t know if there’s another freshman in our conference that people are pitching as carefully to as they are to him.”
That’s born out by the fact that he leads the Cougars in walks (16). He also has the dubious distinction of having the second-most strikeouts (30) on the team, not unusual for someone still getting used to college pitching and eager to show what he can do. “His eye is good,” his coach said, “his patience is not as good.
“He’s trying to make things happen and he knows you make things happen when you swing the bat, not just stand there. Eventually, he’s going to learn you can make things happen by not doing anything.”
Jones swung and connected big-time during a recent series against California in which he hit home runs in three consecutive games and drove in six runs, earning him Pac-10 Player of the Week honors. Though his average was hovering around .260 at the mid-point in the season, his aim is to be up around .300 by the end of the year.
Anytime the competition gets better, players of course have to make adjustments. One change Jones has made is in his mental approach. “I used to get frustrated when I made an out,” he said last week, as he sat in the Cougars’ indoor batting facility on a windy day in the Palouse. “I’d slam my helmet and it would carry over to my next at-bat or out on the field.
“I’ve learned to control that. Baseball is such a ‘feel’ sport. If your swing doesn’t feel good one day, you’ve got to adjust and clear your head for the next day.”
It’s evident that he’s working with a clear head in the outfield. He had yet to commit an error and he’d played all three outfield positions.
“He’s played a great outfield for us,” Marbut said. “He’s really instinctive. That comes from his football background (as a senior, Jones was an all-state running back and linebacker). He catches it, he hits the cutoff. He’s learning how to play guys on certain counts.”
Something else that’s new to Jones: Lifting weights three times a week in the fall. “I’d lifted before,” he said, “but never to that extent.”
“I never realized he’d get so physical,” Marbut said. “He’s really, really strong. He’s got incredible bat speed.”