April 17, 2010
Garrett Jones(notes) has a great baseball story. Drafted in the 14th round in 1999, he didn't receive his first cup of coffee until 2007, and he didn't manage to stick until 2009, when he was 28 years old. Drafted out of high school, he bounced around the minors, was cut from the Braves after failing for three straight years to make it out of rookie ball, then spent seven years as a Twin, including four years in AAA. His 2007 and 2008 were significantly better than the previous two campaigns, about 80 points of OPS better, but it wasn't quite enough: he was a 27-year old first baseman/outfielder who struggled to put up an .800 OPS in the minor leagues. So the Twins, too, let him go.
Then he wound up on the perennially pathetic Pirates, the one team in baseball that could perhaps best afford to take a flier on him. And he homered — a lot. Twenty-one times in just 82 games, almost exactly a half season. In Jones's 358 plate appearances in 2009, he homered every 15 at-bats, good for eighth in the league. His .274 Isolated Power (ISO is equal to slugging percentage minus batting average) was tied for sixth in the league with Adrian Gonzalez(notes). All of a sudden, he was one of the league's premier power hitters and he started this season with three homers over his first two games.
A quick look at some previous late-blooming power hitters suggests that Jones may be able to have another season or two at a relatively high level, but that he is likely to crash to earth rather quickly once he reaches his 30s. Here are some of his most comparable players, players in their late 20s who posted strong offensive numbers in their first real shot at the big leagues:
Del Bissonnette (Rookie year: 1928) Bissonnette hit 25 homers as a 28-year old rookie for the Dodgers in 1928. Unfortunately he missed the entire 1932 season due to injury, and he was done after a brief comeback attempt in 1933.
Earl Averill (1929) The most well-known late-blooming slugger is the Hall of Famer Earl Averill, whose first big league season came at the ripe young age of 27, when he played 152 games and socked 18 homers. He never stopped hitting, and got into the Hall after a 13-year career.
Ripper Collins (1931) The first baseman of the 1934 Gashouse Gang Cardinals, the 30-year old Collins played every game and led the league with a 1.008 OPS in 1934. It was only his third full major league season; he played a half year in 1931 at the age of 27, and then hit 21 homers in a full year in 1932. With the exception of an abortive comeback attempt in 1941, Collins's career ended after the 1938 season.
Bob Johnson (1933) Averill's contemporary, Bob Johnson of the Philadelphia Athletics, had a similar hitting career to the Rock, but he got snubbed by the Hall. He came up as a 27-year old and hit 21 homers in his rookie season. After 13 more years, he finished with 288 homers and 1,283 RBI — 50 homers and 119 RBI more than Averill. He also edged Averill in OPS+, 138 to 133, and All-Star appearances, seven to six.
Walt Moryn (1956) Moryn first came up for 48 games in 1954, and appeared in another 11 more in '55, before the Dodgers got rid of him. Moryn finally stuck with a team in '56, and he made it pay off, slamming 23 homers for the Cubs that year and another 45 combined in 1957-1958. His career wound down after that, however, and he was finished after 1961.
Walt Dropo (1950) He managed just six hits in 41 at-bats in his first major-league season, 1949, at the tender age of 26. But then Dropo had the best season of his career in 1950, winning the Rookie of the Year honors in 1950 after hitting .322 with 34 homers and 144 RBI for the Red Sox. He had a few more good years after that, but was finished as a full-time player after 1955.
Brian Daubach (1999) A former Florida Marlins castoff, Daubach was a 1B/OF/DH for the turn-of-the-century Red Sox of Pedro Martinez(notes) and Nomar Garciaparra(notes). He appeared in a few games as a Marlin in 1998, but his first serious shot in the big leagues came in 1999, when he was 27, and he hit 21 home runs. Over the next three years, Daubach hit 21, 22, and 20 homers. Then he was on the wrong side of 30, and like so many before him, the end was swift. After batting .120 in 15 games for the New York Mets in 2005, when he was 33, he was out of baseball.