Nate Jones is better these days
By James Fegan
Hey, Chris Sale is still fine!
Previously on Southside Showdown, we wondered aloud why Nate Jones was leading all of baseball in appearances this month (with Addison Reed close behind) when the White Sox entered this month knowing they were playing for nothing.
To take a rosier view of this situation, this matters because Nate Jones has become a useful piece, probably the odds-on favorite to arrive in Arizona next Spring as the primary right-handed setup man. Last season, he exited Spring Training pretty damn happy to be the 25th man, and entering this June his ERA was still over 6.00.
It’s hard to get a discussion of Jones improving off the ground since his ERA has risen from last season’s 2.39 to this year’s 3.76, but that’s the difference between 2012 and 2013. In a division race, all the matters is the results, and relievers like Neal Cotts and Cliff Politte can be heroes just for getting the outs that matters, even if there are indications that they will struggle to record them in the future. In 2013, we’re all about what indicates future success, and Nate Jones is hitting all the go-to benchmarks.
–Strikeout rate: From 21.6% in his rookie campaign to 28.3% this season
–Walk rate: From 10.6% down to 8.8%
–Groundball rate: 45.5% up to 48.3%
–Infield fly rate: 7.8% up to 19.2%
And the best part is that Jones has thrown so many innings this season that the sample is already equal to his work from last year. I, and in turn you, could give a damn about those middle two figures. They didn’t move that much and I wouldn’t stake my reputation on those changes–which are positive!–being significant. What’s important is that neither went in a bad direction while Jones’ strikeout rate shot up by over 30%.
As a guy who averaged over 97 mph on his fastball and can touch 100, blowing away batters mercilessly is something that’s always been imagined for Jones, to the point that’s no one’s going to build a monument to Don Cooper for seeing him through to 30th best strikeout rate in baseball among relievers. But in 2012, he was 77th with the same heat.
That heat was never enough to make Jones much of a prospect after getting drafted in the fifth round as a 21 year-old in 2007. Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus never made much mention of his existence, the White Sox never pushed him enough for him to even be a fixture on MLB.com’s list when was graduating to the majors, and Future Sox never ranked him any higher than 12th during some of the worst years of the team’s system. Baseball America gave him the “Best Curveball in the System” award a few times. He throws a slider now.
And while Jones’ velocity is great, it really shines in what it sets up. Jones has credited his comfort with all his pitches, but really it’s just his slider, which he’s gone from using one in every four deliveries, to something he uses over 40% of the time, a rate similar to what Sergio Santos employed back when he was a healthy man. A pitch he lacked coming out of college, is now something that can serve as the last line of defense preserving leads in the major leagues.
Jones’ progression is the product of uncommon amounts of hard work and perseverance. But this is also the sort of tale of raw physical talent refining his game to where he can be an above-average reliever is a story told often enough that we become numb to it. One of the most remarkable cases just got traded to Boston last month. Jones could remain valuable for the Sox for years to come, but also serves a good reminder of the humble beginnings of your next most trusted reliever as well. Pair his raw career numbers next to Addison Reed’s some time, and see if you can pick out which one was the “Best Closer Prospect in Baseball.”