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Garrett Jones rises from obscurity to power

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

PITTSBURGH – Eleven years buried in the minor leagues is enough to suppress anyone's sense of self-importance. Garrett Jones(notes) is on a record home run tear for the Pittsburgh Pirates, yet he is as candid and accommodating as someone getting by on a $30,000 salary in a nondescript midsize city, which he did from 2005 to 2008 toiling on a Triple-A treadmill for the Rochester, N.Y., Red Wings.

So maybe it shouldn't have been shocking that shortly after hitting his third home run in three games this season and 24th homer in 84 games since the Pirates promoted him last July, Jones gladly revealed to Yahoo! Sports the secret to his unlikely rise to power.

He gives away half of home plate before even stepping in the batter's box. The other half, well, that's his.

"Before, I'd just go up to the plate and swing as hard as I could and hoped I'd hit it," he said. "I really didn't have a plan of attack and that's what hurt me.

"Now I'm going up there and picking a side of the plate, expecting the pitch either inside or outside. Especially in the big leagues where there is great pitching, you have to pick a side of the plate and hunt that side. Then if the pitch is there you have to capitalize on it."

Don't laugh. It works. Jones and the best hitter in baseball, Albert Pujols(notes), were the only players to slug over .600 against both inside and outside fastballs last season.

Witness Jones' first at-bat Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Clayton Kershaw(notes), perhaps the best young left-hander in baseball, started him with a fastball on the inside part of the plate, right where Jones was looking for it, and the ball landed over the center field wall for a three-run home run.

In the season opener on Monday, Jones anticipated a pitch from Vicente Padilla(notes) on the inside half in the first inning and drove it all the way out of PNC Park and into the Allegheny River. Figuring Padilla would be more careful in his next at-bat, the left-handed Jones looked away and flicked a pitch on the outside corner over the wall in left field.

If it's that easy, why did it take him until he was 28 years old to figure it out? After getting promoted last July, Jones became only the second rookie in major league history to hit 20 or more homers with all of them coming after June 30. And only four players – all established stars – hit more home runs than Jones the last three months of last season.

MLB home run leaders
after June 30, 2009
Name Home runs
Prince Fielder(notes) 26
Ryan Howard(notes) 25
Derek Lee 24
Mark Reynolds(notes) 23
Garrett Jones 21

"Some guys develop later than others and some guys just need an opportunity with the right team," Jones said. "It's a combination of things. It's just a matter of time for some guys. For me, it came down to having an approach and a plan at the plate."

Nobody in Pittsburgh is quite sure what to make of this unheralded player with the nondescript name and singularly remarkable power numbers. Fans here are so accustomed to disappointment and false hope – the Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992 – that Jones is treated almost like an apparition, a phantom slugger who could levitate out of right field and disappear without warning into the Allegheny River like one of the baseballs he deposits there.

Baseball people are still in the eye-rubbing stage as well. Opponents are only now affording Jones the respect due a hitter on an otherworldly power pace. Scouts who ignored him for years must prepare reports suggesting he be pitched around. According to Inside Edge, Jones led baseball in batting average once he got ahead in the count and was second in slugging before the count reached two strikes. His specialty is hitting fastballs on the outside part of plate.

His strategy to hit the outside pitch only when looking for it is especially appropriate considering that for so long he was on the outside looking in.

Jones hit 158 home runs in 1,038 minor league games, big numbers possible only for a player unwanted by the major leagues. Drafted in 1999 by the Atlanta Braves and released in 2002, he was picked up by the Minnesota Twins and languished in the system behind Justin Morneau(notes) at first base and Michael Cuddyer(notes) in right field. Rochester is a Twins' affiliate, and Jones was there so long he could have been elected mayor.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire liked his power potential, but others in the organization didn't think he made enough contact and doubted his defensive ability. Jones' batting average rose and his strikeout total dropped, but his only taste of the big leagues came in four short stints in 2007. When he delivered a walkoff home run to win Rochester's season finale in 2008, he figured the Twins would make him a September call-up.

He figured wrong, the last in a long line of disappointments, and he left the organization as a minor league free agent. His best opportunity had come and gone a year earlier when it appeared the left field job was open in Minneapolis. But the Twins made a trade they have since regretted, sending pitcher Matt Garza(notes) and shortstop Jason Bartlett(notes) to the Rays for outfielder Delmon Young(notes), who in more than 1,000 at-bats since the deal has hit one fewer home run than Jones has hit in about 325 at-bats with Pittsburgh.

"I felt that if I'd had a shot I definitely could have competed for that spot," Jones said.

Instead, it was one more year at Rochester before free agency. He tried to hook on in Japan but no teams were interested. He had minor league offers from the Cubs, Marlins and Phillies, but signed with the Pirates because they offered the path of least resistance to the majors. It was either that or quit, and Jones enjoyed the game too much to give up.

"I always believe that if you do well enough the team you are with will call you up, and if not another team will see you and like you and give you a shot," he said. "So I always had that in my mind and never really got too stuck in a rut."

It took another half-season in Triple-A – this time with the Pirates' affiliate in Indianapolis – before getting his chance last July. He homered in four consecutive games beginning July 10, and on July 17 he hit two out, going deep against reigning Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum(notes) in the first inning and homering again in the 14th to win the game. His 10 home runs in July led baseball. Jones was indeed a big leaguer.

"I was just enjoying each moment and not even realizing what I was doing because after what I'd gone through with the Twins, you never know when that moment could end," he said.

By season's end, he'd become the second rookie ever to hit more than 20 homers with all of them coming the last three months. The identity of the other player to accomplish the feat is a sobering reminder that Jones isn't proven yet.

Kevin Maas hit 21 home runs after a July promotion to the New York Yankees in 1990, more homers than Mickey Mantle or Lou Gehrig or Yogi Berra hit as rookies. Four years later the Yankees cut him. Pitchers quickly adjusted to Maas, found his weaknesses and he couldn't respond.

Does the same fate await Jones? Is he a legitimate late bloomer or a fluke?

"Everybody keeps asking, when is he gonna stop?" Pirates manager John Russell said. "And I'm kind of getting tired of it because the guy continues to do well."

Most home runs by a rookie with all of them coming after July 1
Name Year At-Bats HRs RBIs Avg. OBP SLP
Garrett Jones 2009 314 21 44 .293 .372 .567
Kevin Maas 1990 254 21 44 .252 .367 .535

The Pirates point not to Maas as a reference point, but to Mike Easler, who didn't get an extended opportunity until he was 29 with the Pirates and went on to have eight productive seasons.

Jones isn't thinking about Maas, Easler or anyone else but himself. And he's taking it day to day. After waiting so long, he's savoring every moment of his deliverance from obscurity to power.

"I'm feeling relaxed and am just going to keep it going as long as I can," he said. "I know there will be ups and downs. Right now I'm feeling OK. I'm in a good place."