If one spends any amount of time scrolling through minor league statistics on Baseball Reference they quickly realize there are a lot of players with all-time great careers outside of Major League Baseball. I’m not even talking unaffiliated players, but rather those who spent most of their career in the affiliated minor leagues. There are many reasons why there are so many of these players (number one being how competitive and high the talent level used to be when the minor leagues were more than just an MLB feeder system) but I’m not interested in those reasons right now.
Right now I’m interested in talking about Smead Jolley. I went down the Jolley rabbit hole thanks to some research I was doing into the California Winter League. The deeper I dug into Jolley the easier it was to see that he was, throughout his entire career, the definition of a professional hitter. And no, I don’t mean it in the joking or lazy way that folks used to use that term to talk about Matt Stairs being a hefty dude as well as a good hitter. In this instance, I’m using the term to reference Jolley’s continued ability to hit at all levels throughout his entire career.
Some of Jolley’s career did include an MLB tenure. He spent four seasons in the major leagues, and he was quite good in his time there. In 1,815 plate appearances, he had a .282/.325/.445 slash line that was good for a 112 OPS+ and 5.3 rWAR. Not set your pants on fire stats, but the stats of someone who could have played many more years at the major league level and been productive throughout. Unfortunately for Jolley, his main place of doing business on the diamond was left field and he was an abysmal left fielder. Jolley was an abysmal fielder period, a career RF/9 of 1.99 spread across the outfield only partially tells that story, and that’s what led to his ability to hit being ignored and such a short major league stint.
However, what Jolley could do was hit. In 20 years of professional baseball, Jolley accumulated a .356/.362/.563 (this number is off a tad as minor leagues did not track walks during Jolley’s career and it’s more likely he had an OBP around the .400 mark) slash line. He smacked 355 home runs, 701 doubles, and 86 triples in 9,436 plate appearances. What stands out the most is Jolley’s career hit total of 3,321. While taken as a whole the image of Jolley as a pure hitter is easy to see that hit total stands out without question.
3,321 stands out for the simple reason that it is over 3,000 hits. That is an amazing accomplishment for a professional baseball player. I don’t care what pro leagues those numbers are accumulated in or if only 521 of those hits came at the major league level. What I do care about are years like 1929. That season Jolley was in the Pacific Coast League with the San Francisco Seals. He had 812 at-bats, in 200 games, and put together a .387/?/.621 slash line. He smacked 35 home runs, 65 doubles, and 10 triples. He was one of the best hitters on the planet regardless of league. Players having seasons like that and careers like Jolley’s are interesting, and they are noteworthy.
Who knows how many actual hits Jolley had in his career. He did appear in different playoff series’ in different leagues throughout his career. He, no doubt, had many more hits than he has been given credit for. While we may never know how many hits Jolley actually had or what his numbers were in totality that doesn’t mean we don’t know the type of player Jolley was. He was a great player, one of the best hitters the game of baseball has ever seen. So great in fact that he more than made up for being one of the worst fielders of all time and had the designated hitter existed in his day would have had a long and noteworthy major league career.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – San Francisco Public Library