Garrett Jones Hits Splash Home Run at PNC Park
Yesterday Garrett Jones became the first Pirate to hit a splash home run at PNC Park– i.e., he hit one out of the park and into the Allegheny River on the fly. Here is video of Jones’ feat, plus video of an even longer home run by Pedro Alvarez that made the river on one bounce. Darryl Ward playing for the Astros on July 6, 2002, is the only other hitter to reach the river on the fly.
The main reason I’m writing this post, however, is that Garrett Jones is my favorite example of the degree to which luck sometimes determines who gets to be a major league star instead of a career minor league star, like, for example, Scott McClain or Andy Tracy.
Through the 2008 season when Garrett Jones was 27, he looked all the world like a guy who would be a classic 4-A player, with his best shot at the big money coming by going and succeeding in Japan’s NPB. A former 13th round draft pick who had had a series of unimpressive seasons in the low minors until he had a break out year in the AA Eastern League at age 23 (.311 batting average, 30 HRs and .949 OPS), Jones’ career stalled big-time at AAA.
In his 3rd full season for the Rochester Red Wings in 2007 at age 26, Jones hit well enough to get a look from the Twins, but in a 31 game big league trial, he hit just .208/.262/.338. Back at AAA Rochester in 2008, he had his best AAA season to date with an .821 OPS, but as a then 27 year old 1Bman and corner outfielder, his days as a prospect looked to be over.
Then fate struck. In December 2008, Jones signed as a minor league free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team at that time absolutely desperate for anyone who could hit even a little bit. Jones got off to a good start at AAA Indianapolis, batting .307 with a .850 OPS in 72 games, which led the Pirates to promote him to the parent club.
In the Show for the second time, Jones got hot. He hit seven HRs in his first 12 games and never looked back. He finished the 2009 season with a .293 batting average and a .938 OPS in 82 games. He also had the extremely fortunate distinction of hitting the Pirates’ 10,000th all-time home run.
In 2010, as an every day player, Jones’ batting returned to form: he hit .247 with a .720 OPS. These numbers are in line with his minor league seasons in 2007 and 2008, but by now Jones had established himself as a “major league player”, and, as I mentioned, the Pirates didn’t have many better options.
Continuing to play almost every day, thanks to his ability to play both 1B and the corner outfield positions (he’s played 256 games in right field for the Pirates to date), Jones hit .243 with a .753 OPS in 2011, but bounced back with a .274/.832 season in 2012. In 50+ games played this year, Jones is batting .270/.318/.454 as I write this.
It is obvious Jones should be the left-handed hitting component of a major league platoon as long as he continues to pound right-handed pitchers. He has an .846 career OPS against righties, but a .587 career OPS against lefties. A player with this wide a platoon split is an extremely valuable major league player when used as a pinch-hitter and part of a platoon, but he shouldn’t be playing as much as the Pirates have played Jones over the last few seasons.
Because of his extreme platoon differential and his ability to provide adequate defense at more than one position, Jones may be more valuable to a major league team than a Scott McClain or an Andy Tracy. However, I suspect that both McClain and Tracy were better all-around hitters than Jones, but simply didn’t land on the right team and get hot at the right time to have the kind of major league success Jones has had. Them’s the breaks, or, as I like to say, that’s baseball.