As Pirate fans, we are legitimately power-starved. Since the start of this losing streak in 1992, the Pirates have had Brian Giles and Jason Bay with a sprinkling of Craig Wilson, Nate McLouth, and Reggie Sanders. Because of the dearth of true power hitters, we’ve spent time talking ourselves into guys like Kevin Young and Daryle Ward and Adam LaRoche, just hoping that someone will eventually show up in Pittsburgh and start hitting the ball over the fence.
Enter Garrett Jones. I barely talked about Jones before his call-up in July because I didn’t find a guy in his fifth go-round in Triple-A all that interesting, especially because it took him three tries to do anything even remotely worth talking about. And yet, Jones has 19 homers since July 1st, which is a 45+ homer pace for a full season. He’s hitting .303/.367/.598 in that span. Is this it? Did the Pirates finally stumble on to a pot of gold?
Let’s compare two blind stat lines.
Player A: .265/.340/.469, 1 HR/27 PAs
Player B: .287/.354/.498, 1 HR/22 PAs
Player A is Adam LaRoche’s Pirate career. Player B is Garrett Jones since July 25th (minus Tuesday’s results), when his incredible hot streak (10 homers in his first 20 games in Pittsburgh) ended. And yes, that’s a little unfair on my part and yes, Jones’s line is certainly better than LaRoche’s, but there are a lot of things to keep in mind when trying to figure out just what the future might hold for Jones.
The first thing to keep in mind is his recent minor league performances. Even being fair to Jones and dropping his Triple-A numbers prior to 2008 out entirely on the assumption that something’s recently clicked for him, he hit .279/.337/.484 with 23 homers in 587 PAs in Rochester in 2008 and .307/.348/.502 with 12 homers in 299 PAs in Indy this year. His .300 average this year is the first time he’s hit that number since Double-A in 2004.
Like Nyjer Morgan before him, Jones has certainly flashed something where I previously thought there was nothing. I won’t deny that. But his minor league numbers provide what I’d call a preponderance of evidence that we don’t have a huge improvement on Adam LaRoche or Craig Wilson on our hands here. Jones is 28 and this is the first 30-homer season of his career. Over his whole minor league career, he drew a walk once every 14 plate appearances and that rate’s been pretty constant his entire career.
Let’s look at some batted ball data. Jones’ line drive percentage with the Pirates is 17.9%, which is lower than the 23.2% he put up in Indy this year, but similar to the 16.4% he had in Rochester in 2008 and in line with his career minor league rate of 17%. What’s crazy is that only 3.9% of his flyballs have failed to leave the infield, insanely low compared to his 17.4% minor league rate or his 15.7% rate in Rochester in 2008 or even his 8.0% rate in Indy this year. Compare that to Albert Pujols, whose IF/F rate is 12.4%. That 3.9% would be among the lowest in the National League, with power guys like Ryan Howard and Adrian Gonzalez and slap hitters that drive everything into the ground like Michael Bourn. The rate that his flyballs is similarly out of whack. His HR/F rate is 26.9%, which would be the best in the National League. In fact, right now in the NL only Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, Pujols, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, and Raul Ibanez have an HR/F rate of 20% or better. That’s some pretty powerful company.
As impressive as Jones’ run has been this year, you just don’t wake up on July 1st, get a call from Neal Huntington, and turn into Prince Fielder after a career of slugging .450 in the minor leagues. These sorts of stories are fun to watch and fun to dream on, but there’s just not a whole lot of precedent to suggest that he can keep mashing on his .303/.367/.598 line with a homer every 15 or 16 times up.
What do I expect from Jones? Well, despite the fact that he’s outhit even the 90% PECOTA projection, the adjusted ZiPS projection posted by Dan Szymborski at Bucs Dugout seems about right on; he’ll basically become Adam LaRoche with a little more pop and a little less OBP.
Of course, that doesn’t completely answer the originally question. I was wrong about Jones. I really didn’t even have him on my radar in March or April this year; I’d written him off as another Mike Ryan or Mike Restovich; a guy with some minor league chops that came in and had a big spring, but who had absolutely no big league career in front of him. That’s clearly not the case with Jones. I think he’s got some value as a pinch-hitter, a matchup starter, maybe even as a platoon guy. Whatever he ends up being, there’s clearly some big league value in him that I didn’t see prior to the season.
That said, the lesson we can take from Jones is one that Dave Littlefield never learned in seven years on the job. There is always talent available in places you don’t expect. I don’t know how Jones ended up in Pittsburgh; whether a scout saw something in him in Rochester last year or someone that JR knew from his days with the Twins put in a good word for him or if we were simply casting a wide net to fill out the minor league rosters, but we’ve gotten more from Jones and his league-minimum salary in two and a half months than we did from Jeromy Burnitz over a full season. Being able to find players like Jones is essential to small-market teams, I think, even if these guys aren’t every day players.