If Joey Meneses were a flower, he would blossom on Christmas. In baseball, it’s one thing to be a late bloomer. It’s another to reach age 30 with zero MLB home runs, as Meneses did, then try to create a meaningful career.
Meneses is batting .320 with 12 homers, 29 RBI and a .922 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in his first 49 games as a rookie with the Nationals. Since he was called up Aug. 2 as a top-of-the-order bat after the Juan Soto trade, he’s tied for seventh in MLB in hits.
Someday, Joey may illustrate one of baseball’s most heartwarming, rare but recurring storylines: the player who won’t quit, figures out how to hit in his late 20s and keeps belting until he’s 35 or even 40.
The Nats should grasp that one advantage of being awful — an MLB-worst 54-101 through Thursday — is that you can give yourself a full chance to be lucky with a long shot such as Meneses. Your top hitting prospects at corner positions in the minors are still infants. You can give Meneses all of 2023 — or longer — to pan out. If he does, you win big — and do it cheaply.
Consider: When they reached their 29th birthdays, ex-National Jayson Werth, Justin Turner, Raúl Ibañez, Melvin Mora, Matt Stairs, Hank Sauer and Charlie Maxwell had a paltry 100 MLB home runs combined. After that date, they hit 1,470 more homers.
Nelson Cruz, a current National, hit 394 of his 459 homers after turning 30. Others with more than 75 percent of their homers starting in their age-29 season include David Ortiz, Andrés Galarraga, José Bautista and Dante Bichette, averaging 314 homers each from that point on.
Meneses, however, has a higher hurdle: age bias. For every year you don’t make a dent in the majors, your chances plummet. By 30, you have hit a brick wall. Modern analytics have documented this to the point of doctrine.
Proper perspective on Meneses’s task should give his new fans, including me, respect for how far he has come and what he has overcome, no matter how his story ends.
How long has his road been? Meneses, who signed out of Mexico at 18, has played more games as a pro — 1,425, at all levels and in all countries — than the total number of MLB games in the careers of Hack Wilson, Hank Greenberg, Jackie Robinson and Buster Posey.
Joey played nine years of winter ball in Mexico for his hometown Tomateros de Culiacán. He has played a “tomato” more often than Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie.”
How tough is it to overcome such a pedigree?
In my lifetime, there has been one career — one — that mirrored Meneses’s and ended up close to stardom: Sauer. By age 31, he had only seven career MLB homers. The next seven years, he reeled off seasons of 35, 31, 32, 30, 37, 19 and 41 homers. Could the Nats use that? At 35 in ’52, Sauer was the National League MVP.
One even more glorious exception proves the past-30-breakout rule: O’Doul. Lefty never hit a homer in the majors until he was 31. Yet, at 32, he batted .398 and set the NL record for hits (254) that still stands while also hitting 32 homers with only 19 strikeouts. His final career batting average of .349 is higher than that of Ted Williams.
How did such a career arc happen? O’Doul began as a pitcher, reaching the Yankees in Babe Ruth’s era, but blew out his arm and remade himself as a hitter at 27. In the Pacific Coast League he became a legend, with 309 hits in 1925.
Even after he finally made it back to MLB at 31 as an outfielder and hit .311, Giants manager John McGraw had no faith in him and traded him to the Phillies. Oops.
Perhaps the moral of this story of doggedness — whether in hitting or elsewhere — is that it’s a virtue that never stops giving and builds on itself with age. O’Doul’s great but brief MLB career was just his first act.
Lefty fell in love with Japanese culture during MLB’s barnstorming tours there in the 1930s and learned to speak the language. His clinics in Japan and instruction books on hitting and pitching (because he had done both in the majors) helped elevate the quality of play in Japan. His role as sensei was a key catalyst in the growth of Japan’s Nippon league, which has now produced another pitcher-hitter in Shohei Ohtani.
In 1949, Gen. Douglas MacArthur asked O’Doul to help revive the U.S.-Japan all-star series. The flags of the two countries had not flown together since World War II until O’Doul’s all-stars were given a parade in Tokyo. Crowd estimate: 1 million. Some games drew 100,000 fans.
Do all O’Doul’s contributions deserve Cooperstown? Japan got it right — O’Doul is in its hall of fame.
O’Doul is the extreme example of a career path almost unique to baseball. No other major sport has produced as many players who arrived as late yet rose as high as baseball hitters who became stars after they were all but forgotten within the game.
Even granting this, Joey Meneses is no Lefty O’Doul.
If you want to find reasons to worry about him, you can. His defense can be spotty, he doesn’t run well, he grounds into too many double plays, and he once tested positive for a banned substance during a season in Japan; he contends a doctor injected him without his knowledge.
But Meneses can hit.
At ages 23, 24 and 25, when baseball was giving up on Meneses, he believed he was just beginning to create himself as a hitter. To develop his craft, he played, almost year-round, in the minors, the Mexican league and the Caribbean series. Just give him a uniform and he would play. He averaged an insane 177 games a year. And something finally clicked.
For the past five years, he has hit everywhere he played, with stats worthy of a first-rate prospect.
In 2018, Meneses was the MVP of the Class AAA International League and almost won the Triple Crown. With his path to the Phillies blocked by Bryce Harper in right field and Rhys Hoskins at first base, Meneses went for a payday — a $1 million contract to play with Orix in Japan.
In 2021, with Red Sox clubs in Class AA and AAA plus winter ball, Meneses played 150 games and — this shouldn’t surprise you — drove in 118 runs. Boston released him.
Nats General Manager Mike Rizzo, a talent thief when scrounging vets, grabbed him. In 2022, between Class AAA and the Nats, Meneses is hitting .298 with 32 homers.
Before we damn Meneses with the faint praise of “still a long shot,” consider that of all rookies in the past 50 years with 200 plate appearances, he ranks in the top 40 in slugging, OPS and weighted runs created plus. Most of the players on those lists became very good players or even huge stars. The sample size is too small for comparisons. But big enough to let us smile.
“I love to watch Joey hit,” said Nats Manager Dave Martinez after a game-winning homer by Meneses.
Hold that thought. A bet on Meneses costs little. The odds against him are still long, but he could pay off big.