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The top reliever on our Top 100 countdown was picked up by the Indians as a minor-league free agent. The remarkable story of Doug Jones.
Douglas Reid Jones
Relief Pitcher, 1986-1991, 1998
Height: 6'3" Weight: 195 lbs
Throws: Right Bats: Right
How Acquired (1): Free Agent, April 3, 1985
Left Via (2): Granted Free Agency December 20, 1991
How Acquired (2): Trade, July 23, 1998: Traded by the Brewers for Eric Plunk
Left Via (2): Granted Free Agency October 29, 1998
If you look at today's closers, as a rule they have great stuff: a blazing fastball, a wipeout slider, or a cutter that saws off bats. A pitcher without those pitches usually doesn't even make it to a major-league bullpen, never mind a closer. For while outcomes are ultimately what counts (maximizing strikeouts, limiting hits, home runs, and walks), teams tend to start with pitchers who have those tools, even to the point of ignoring pitchers with success but no plus pitches. And while for the most part this philosophy will pick out major-league arms, there will always be exceptions to the rule.
Doug Jones was one of those exceptions.
Jones grew up in Lebanon, Indiana, and after pitching at Butler University and Central Arizona College, was drafted in the third round of the 1978 Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers. Despite drafting him that high, Jones got a fairly small bonus from the Brewers, and despite success at virtually all minor-league levels, the Brewers soured on his major-league prospects. Jones didn't have a plus pitch, and despite having good command of his pitches, he wasn't missing bats, that usually presaged bad things when he started to face major-league hitters. He got a cup of coffee in 1982, but nothing after that, and after spending the 1984 season in AA El Paso, the Brewers either released him or let him go via minor-league free agency.
Jones was a 27-year starting pitcher with high hit-rates and sub-par stuff, though with good command. That combination, then as now, isn't a good sign of future success. There was a good probability that Jones was done as a professional player. But in that 1984-1985 offseason, the Indians were desperate for pitching; their starting staff in 1984 consisted of Bert Blyleven (144 ERA+) and nothing else. Most of the rest of the starters the past season were made by Neal Heaton (79 ERA+), Steve Comer (73), Steve Farr (90), Rick Sutcliffe (80), Roy Smith (90), Don Schulze (86), and Dan Spillner (73). So Jones was allowed to come to the Tribe's spring trainer facility in Tucson (at his own expense) to show the club he could contribute. After a couple weeks there, they signed him to a minor-league contract. But instead of putting him in the starting rotation in AAA or even Cleveland, they turned him into a reliever, which he hadn't really done before.
Jones had had success, such as at was because of a four-pitch mix, but because of one dominant pitch. But that was about to change; the circle change, a pitch Jones had been using over the last couple years, turned out to be an out pitch. The pitch broke considerably down after appearing to be a fastball, and suddenly Jones' strikeout rates jumped considerably. After pitching 116.1 innings of mostly relief in AAA Maine in 1986, he was promoted to Cleveland in September and did fairly well. Despite his outstanding numbers, there were still people in the organization who thought that Jones would get rocked after they figured him out; Jones' fastball never got out of the mid-80s, and pitchers who threw that slow might get away with the first time through the league, but not after everyone had saw him.
But because the pitching staff was so awful in those years, Jones was given a chance, and he ran with it. The Tribe bullpen in those days (1987) consisted of guys like Ernie Camacho (good stuff but injured), Rich Yett, Ed Vande Berg, and Sammy Stewart; it wasn't exactly a stellar staff. So Jones got a chance a to close, and proved the naysayers wrong. Thanks to that devastating change, he quickly became one of the league's best relievers, becoming the closer half-way through the 1987 season and in his first full season as closer (1988) allowed just 69 hits, 16 walks and 1 home run in 83.1 innings. Aside from Brad Havens (131 ERA+), Jones was the only reliever on the staff worth anything, and if not for him, the Indians would have been in serious trouble. He was named to the All-Star team that season (the lone Indian selected).
Jones' plan of attack was deception via changing speeds. His "slow, slower, slowest" method of attacking hitters wasn't just a flash in the pan; it would serve him well into his 40s. In 1989 and 1990, Jones continued to serve as a dominant closer, and made the All-Star teams in both seasons. In 1990 Steve Olin and Jesse Orosco helped out as good setup men, the first time Jones had had such a luxury. In 1991, Jones had his first poor season, missing over almost two months after losing his closer's job to Olin. After the season, the Indians non-tendered him, and he signed a three-year deal with the Houston Astros. He traded to Philadelphia before the 1994 season (for 1993 World Series goat Mitch Williams), then signed with the Orioles after the strike. After poor showings with Baltimore and the Cubs, he landed with the Brewers, and regained much of his past success at the ripe old age of 40, leading the league in Games Finished at 73. Half-way through the 1998 season, he was dealt back to the Indians for Eric Plunk (#88 on our list), and that fall pitched in his first playoff game (ALDS Game 3). He was left off the ALCS roster, and after the season signed with Oakland. After two more seasons, he finally called it a career, having saved 303 games, 302 of which were earned after he turned 30.
Indians Career Stats
|CLE (7 yrs)||3.06||295||234||129||452.1||451||154||23||104||367||137||9.0||0.5||2.1||7.3||3.53|
AL All-Star: 1988, 1989, 1990
AL MVP: 1988-15th; 1990-23rd
AL Saves: 3rd, 1988-37; 3rd, 1990-43; 6th, 1989-32
AL Games Finished: 2nd, 1990-64; 6th, 1989-53; 9th, 1988-46
AL Wins Probability Added: 3rd, 1988-4.8; 10th, 1989-2.5
Cleveland Indians Career Leader
- 44th WAR Pitchers (10.2)
- 20th Games Played (295)
- 2nd Saves (129)
- 1st Games Finished (234)
- 19th Win Probability Added (6.4)
Cleveland Indians Season Leader
- t-36th Games Played (66, 1990)
- 4th Saves (43, 1990)
- 9th Saves (37, 1988)
- t-11th Saves (32, 1989)
- 2nd Games Finished (64, 1990)
- t-12th Games Finished (53, 1989)
- t-18th Games Finished (46, 1988)
- t-14th Win Probability Added (4.8, 1988)