There has been a lot of attention cast on the Pirates’ trade moves this season, shipping off popular players like Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan, and, recently, the rather unpopular Adam LaRoche.
There has also been a lot of attention paid to the minor leaguers who were called up to serve as their replacements: rookie centerfielder Andrew McCutchen and outfielder/first baseman Garrett Jones.
While McCutchen has been a true delight to watch on the field with his athleticism, speed, and natural instincts as a ball-player, Jones has been quite the enigma.
A 14th-round draft choice of the Atlanta Braves in 1999, Jones was released in May of 2002, and then signed to a minor league contract by the Minnesota Twins, where he played seven seasons in their system and a total of 12 games with the big league team before being granted free agency on November 3, 2008. A month later, he signed a minor league deal with the Pirates, was invited to Spring Training, and eventually optioned to AAA Indianapolis before being re-called and making his Pirates’ debut on July 1.
With LaRoche as the recently departed, Jones is now the team leader in home runs with nine. (Ironically, LaRoche had only 12, and at the current pace, Jones would’ve probably passed him by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.)
But Jones’ nearly-Ruthian performance in his first 17 games in Pittsburgh has everybody asking the same question: Is this guy for real? Let’s weigh the evidence and find out.
Reasons Why Garrett Jones Is For Real
1. 9 HR in 17 games. Anytime a guy comes up from the minors and gets off to a hot start, he’s going to turn heads. And he hasn’t just hit nine home runs. He’s smacked the tar out of them. Not to mention, 15 of his 21 hits so far have come for extra bases, and he’s slugging .821.
2. He’s hitting left-handers. Of the nine home runs, four have been against left-handers. He came close to a fifth off lefty side-winder Mitch Stetter.
3. His list of victims. Pedro Feliciano, Andrew Miller, Joe Blanton, Cole Hamels, J.C. Romero, Bob Howry, Tim Lincecum, Carlos Villenueva, and Jeff Suppan. That means out of that group of pitchers he has gone deep on a total of four first round draft picks, two All-Stars, a Cy Young winner and a World Series MVP. That’s a resume the average good-looking frat boy can’t even top.
4. He’s hitting the ball really hard. He hit one in Philly that only Ryan Howard has beaten in distance, muscled a change-up the opposite way over the spacious left field at PNC Park, and deposited his walk-off shot in last Friday night’s extra-inning win into the Allegheny River on one hop.
Another thing to mention: the majority of his home runs have been line drives, as opposed to towering fly balls. Any guy hitting a line drive that hard and that far should be paid a lot of attention.
(In other news, I have unofficially dubbed the Allegheny River “Garrett Jones’ Locker.” Don’t be mad cause you didn’t think of it!)
5. His hitting approach. Two of his home runs have been hit on the first pitch, one on an 0-1 count, one in an 1-0 count, one in a 1-1 count, one in a 2-1 count, two in a 3-1 count and one in a full count.
What this means is that he has a good enough hitting eye that he is getting himself into favorable counts, and as a result, getting good pitches to drive. Patience like that is rarely exhibited in so few Major League at-bats.
He also has seven walks and a .378 on-base percentage. Even without the demonstrated power, his ability to get on base is helpful. He walked on five pitches with two outs to set up Ryan Doumit’s first-inning, two-run home run in yesterday’s win.
6. Speed and athleticism. At 6’4″, 245 lbs., he would seem to be better suited as Willie Parker’s lead blocker with the Steelers than John Russell’s #3 hitter. But he can also run the bases well. So far he has stolen three bases for the Pirates, and stole 14 in 18 attempts at Indy.
Reasons Why Garrett Jones Isn’t For Real
1. 47 combined games of MLB experience. When he was first called up by Minnesota in 2007, he hit only .208 with two home runs and five RBIs in 31 games, a far cry from his totals in Pittsburgh. He also struck out 20 times with only six walks.
2. He’s a career minor leaguer. And his numbers would indicate an average-to-above-average one, at best. His one standout season was in 2004, when he hit 30 home runs with 92 RBIs at AA New Britain. He matched the RBI totals twice in AAA, but never the home runs and the .949 OPS; the best after that was last year’s .821.
3. Not producing enough runs. How does a guy with an average of a home run every other game not produce enough runs? Simple. When all of the home runs are solo home runs. Kind of reminds you of Jason Bay when he was still a Pirate.
4. He’s 28. It is believed that once you reach your mid-to-late 20’s as a player, essentially, you are what you are. Usually, by 28, if you’re not in the majors, you’re out of baseball altogether. But there have been a few exceptional cases of late bloomers. Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington cited the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Casey Blake as the most recent.
5. No MLB experience with his former team. Many have asked if Garrett Jones is so good, then why didn’t he play in Minnesota? The answer is because the man ahead of him at his natural position of first base was Justin Morneau. And from 2005-08, the time that Jones was with AAA Rochester, Morneau hit a combined 110 HR’s with 449 RBIs, made two All-Star teams, and won two Silver Slugger awards and an MVP award. (Then again, maybe this isn’t a knock against Jones after all.)
Bottom Line: After weighing all the statistical evidence and recalling two eyewitness sightings of the subject in question, I have decided that I believe that Garrett Jones is legit for the reasons I listed above, plus more.
Many may not be impressed with his minor league OPS totals or his home run numbers, but his career average of at-bats per home run was a little more than 24. (To compare, Morneau’s was just over 21.) That ratio isn’t on the level of a Hall of Famer, but it’s respectable enough to notice and cement himself as one of the Pirates’ true home run threats.
I have seen this guy hit live twice, and every ball I have seen him hit has been hit hard. His ability to drive the ball when he gets it on the barrel of the bat makes him lethal with every swing. Also, Pirates’ hitting coach Don Long worked extensively with Jones in Spring Training on his approach and adjusting his swing to maximize his power potential. I think it’s safe to say it’s working.
Am I saying Garrett Jones is going to save the Pirates from nearly two decades of despair? No. Am I calling him the second coming of Willie Stargell? No. Am I saying he’s a viable replacement at first base for Adam LaRoche? Well, he could be.
But if nothing else, Garrett Jones has provided Pittsburgh a true left-handed power bat, something it has lacked for nearly six years, since Brian Giles was traded. And that alone is a reason to give him every chance he can get to help the Pirates’ lineup.
After all, what better option is there?