The unsinkable Raul Ibañez

The Star-Ledger-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Raul Ibañez is easy to take for granted, until you realize just how strange his career has been.

In 2000, the Seattle Mariners had a 28-year-old outfielder who couldn't hit. That was okay, though, because he couldn't field either. Raul Ibañez had spent parts of five seasons with the Mariners, accruing 518 plate appearances and posting a .241/.295/.383 line. Most of that was in the Kingdome, remember, which was a bit more hospitable to hitters than Safeco Field.

It's not like he was a Triple-A masher who just couldn't stick for whatever reason. His career line in Triple-A: .278/.337/.447, with most of that coming in the high-offense Pacific Coast League. At the end of 2000, Ibañez became a free agent, and he left the major leagues for a few years, signing with the Kansas City Royals.

Then he was good.

Baseball is a tricky thing, and predicting it is a good way to look stupid. But you would like to think you know the future of a 28-year-old outfielder who can't hit that well in the majors or minors. Pick 30 of those types currently in the minors and track them. Check back in two years, and see where they are. You have a pretty good guess already.

So that's the first freaky piece of Ibanez history -- the origin story. One minute he's a mild-mannered janitor, cleaning the Paul O'Neill ray, when he accidentally flips the wrong switch, and whammo. He was good for the Royals, and he didn't stop hitting when he returned to the Mariners for a second tour.

Then it stays weird. Ibañez didn't decline like a normal player. He stayed healthy, productive deep into his late 30s. He's accumulated 3,185 at-bats since turning 35 -- good for 28th all-time. He has more post-35 at-bats than Cal Ripken, Wade Boggs, and Harold Baines. Ibañez has hit 133 home runs since turning 35, which is more than seven members of the 500 home-run club.

And at the age of 39, he had a down year for the Phillies, and that was the end of the story.

Well, it probably should have been. Just going by whatever we think we know about baseball, it should have been. But he was picked up by the Yankees, and he's just a homer shy of 20, which would be the eighth 20-homer season of his career.

It's not exactly a renaissance -- Baseball Reference has Ibañez close to replacement level this year, thanks to his defense, with FanGraphs pegging him at 1.2 WAR -- but it's much different than what you'd expect after his complete collapse last season. He's been a useful cog for the Yankees, with a penchant for well-timed homers.

The Yankees saw something in Ibañez. Courtesy of Texas Leaguers, here is Ibañez's spray chart from 2011:

All of those warning-track hits and outs had a better chance in Yankee Stadium. It's not like Citizen's Bank is a graveyard, but it's not quite as friendly to left-handed power hitters as Ibañez's new home. His spray chart from this year:

And so he continues on, doing his thing, long after he was supposed to fade away. His career makes no sense. When I look at the career of a player like Edgar Renteria -- who hit .309 as a 19-year-old full-time shortstop, peaked at 25/26, and was out of the league at 34 -- it seems like there's an easy way to make sense of it. Just shift his birthday a couple years earlier, and suddenly it makes a lot of sense. That isn't an accusation -- just one possible theory to explain Renteria's historically unusual career arc.

That doesn't make sense for Ibanez. He would have to have been in the majors at 15 for his career to add up. He'll probably stick around as a bench bat next yearl; if not with the Yankees, then somewhere in the American League. Or maybe he'll start. And maybe he'll keep hitting a little bit. It's not likely, but then neither is Raul Ibañez.

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