Ode to Garrett Jones, Underdog

Alex DanversContributor ISeptember 28, 2009

PHOENIX - JULY 25:  Garrett Jones #46 of the Pittsburgh Pirates at bat during the major league baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on July 25, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Diamondbacks defeated the Pirates 7-0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Garrett Jones hit his 21st home run and stole his 10th base today, prompting stunned box score readers to ask their roommates: “Hey, have you heard of this guy Jones from the Pirates?”


Jones is a 28-year-old rookie, which is like being a 35-year-old virgin in baseball. Yes, it might still happen, but it better happen soon or you’re going to have to give up the dream.


And yet, Jones leads rookies in home runs this season and is eighth in stolen bases among first year players. His .305 batting average is second, as is his .380 on-base percentage (both trailing Chris Coghlan). His .596 slugging percentage is best by a mile; Casey McGehee’s .503 takes second.


In fact, if Jones had enough at-bats, he would rank third among all major leaguers for slugging percentage—right behind Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer and tied with Prince Fielder. His batting average would be 20th in the NL and his on-base percentage would be 25th.


Assuming these rates held up for a full season, Garrett Jones would be one of the premier sluggers in baseball.


Of course, it’s one thing to put up a great stretch for few weeks or months and another to put up a great season. There are bench warmers and lucky call-ups who, if you picked their hottest runs, would compare favorably with the best for a short period. The test is time, and, to double up on clichés, that’s why they play the games.


For a Pittsburgh franchise looking to rebuild and box score jockeys wondering whether to learn this name, the real question is: Can Garrett Jones continue?


This is the minor league career line for Jones: .264/.319/.459


This is the major league equivalent of that line: .231/.276/.390


The only positive you can draw from that is consistent power. But coupled with an indigestible batting average and on-base percentage, those numbers will not cut it.


His stats from this season also suggest that he won’t be able to keep up the pace. A .344 BABIP looks very lucky, given his pedestrian 18.9 percent line drive rate.


His 39.6 percent fly ball rate is also low for a slugger; he doesn’t have a natural long-ball stroke, but a lot of the flies he is hitting are going over the wall. The fact that 10 of Jones’ 21 home runs came in his first 19 games, while impressive, also point to a fluke.


Yet Jones hasn’t slowed down. Here are his month by month breakdowns:


July: .310/.361/.700

August: .274/.358/.509

September: .337/.423/.581


It looked like Jones might be slipping in August, but he has come on strong again in September. What’s the deal?


Jones is a fastball hitter, getting better results—by far—when facing that pitch than any other. He also has serious platoon splits, hitting .352 versus righties and .212 versus lefties. And he’s never hit this well in his life, repeating AAA five times before this season.


Jones is limited by his pedigree. His skill set suggests that he will regress next season—although even a regression would make him an adequate first baseman. A baseball analyst, concerning with accurately gauging talent, will be able to tell you this by inspecting the numbers.


But Jones would not tell you this. He simply goes to the park every day and plays. He puts in the effort and he gets his hits, defying the statistics. And this, too, is why they play the game—because sometimes, what is not supposed to happen, does. Sometimes, by luck or grit or spirit divine, the unexpected happens.


The American story is an underdog story. We root for the people who aren’t supposed to win, because we have all been those people. We keep eyes on the horizon—our future, our goal—but our feet on the ground beneath us. There is our life, our toil. And it is by the steady step in the here and now that dreams become reality.


Garrett Jones is not a superstar. He may never be. But fans can watch each day and hope. To the Pirates, these may be meaningless games in September. But to Garrett Jones, the path to stardom is every day beneath his feet.