When/if the Pirates win their 82nd game/clinch a playoff spot, people are going to point to yesterday’s game as a key turning point in the season; a game in which the Pirates fought back the tide and valiantly battled through 19 innings to win a key game against a team that they’re fighting for a playoff spot. Yesterday’s game was a great win, of course, but remembering it as a turning point would be short-sighted. If the Pirates go on to play good baseball from here, the turning point will have been last Thursday’s win over the Dodgers; they needed a win badly and the Dodgers kept putting runs on the board, but the Pirates managed to win the game mostly on the bat of Garrett Jones.
After that game I got a request from a reader to talk more about Jones because he felt like the season Jones is having goes underappreciated. I know that that’s true in my case; I harp a lot on Jones’s failings as a baserunner and a fielder because they’re glaring and impossible to miss. Jones’s primary value to the Pirates is not as a fielder or a baserunner; it’s as a guy that mashes baseballs. Jones has been very good at mashing baseballs this year.
It’s hard to think of a stranger career than Jones’s right now. He moved slowly as a prospect; he was released by the Braves after three years and made some strides in the Twins’ system, but still stagnated at Triple-A. He got to Rochester in 2005 and except for a brief cameo in Minneapolis in 2007, he stayed there until the Pirates called him up at mid-season 2009. He didn’t stay at Triple-A because he was blocked by Justin Morneau; he was there because he just didn’t hit well enough as a corner/DH guy to merit a call-up. He didn’t really hit all that well in Indianapolis, either (.307/.348/.502) when you consider that he was 28 and starting his fifth Triple-A season. He should’ve been a Brad Eldred.
Instead, he destroyed the ball with the Pirates in 2009, with 21 homers in 82 games. Of course, he wasn’t quite that good. Most baseball players aren’t, after all. He struggled as an every day player in 2010, putting up a 94 OPS+ in 158 games and struggling mightily against left-handed pitching. The Pirates bumped him back into something of a platoon last year and he responded with an uptick in his performance, but he was still pretty frustrating to watch most of the time and he was a very real candidate for a non-tender this winter.
The Pirates offered Jones a contract, though, and he’s rewarded them for it. He’s hit 19 home runs in 106 games (two shy of his career high) to go with 21 doubes and somehow even three triples. His .536 slugging percentage isn’t all that far off of the .567 he had in his crazy rookie season. His plate patience has disappeared entirely (.315 OBP to go with his .284 average), he still can’t hit left-handed pitching (people seem to think he’s doing OK against lefties this year, but his .564 OPS against lefties show this is a complete falsehood), and his defense at first base is borderline hilarious, but what’s really important is his power. This Pirate offense isn’t good at many things. They’re 15th in the NL in OBP and 10th in runs scored. They’re 15th in stolen bases and first in caught stealing. They’re 12th in hits, 15th in walks, and second in strikeouts. The only thing that keeps them from being very, very bad is their ability to crush baseballs in the general direction of and over fences. Their .405 slugging percentage is seventh in the NL and their 135 home runs are third. Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez have done the heavy lifting while Neil Walker and Mike McKenry get a lot of press as fan favorites.
Garrett Jones is a huge part of this improbably homer-heavy offense, though, and he took a pretty crazy career path to get here. As much as he sometimes gets lost in the weeds, as frustrating as his baserunning and defense can be, it’d be a mistake to forget just how important his bat has been to these 2012 Pirates.