Jones' approach helps Tigers' pitchers thrive

Jones' approach helps Tigers' pitchers thrive

Jones' approach helps Tigers' pitchers thrive
DETROIT -- This is what Jeff Jones was hoping for when he spent all those years in the Minor Leagues. As much as he thrived for years at Triple-A Toledo, he wanted a shot at the Majors, to see if he could finally stick.

Don't be mistaken, he could've been a career Minor Leaguer. But he wanted to see baseball on the highest level and find out if he could be the guy. He wanted the chance to compete for the highest honor.

Jones' playing career ended over 25 years ago. His coaching career, on the other hand, has been going on seemingly forever, all in the Tigers organization. Finally, he's getting the recognition he deserves, even if it isn't by name.

World Series

As the Tigers' pitching coach, Detroit's success this October is his success. The low-scoring wins the Tigers pulled out have his hand in them.

He isn't a pitching guru, and he doesn't have a system to boast. He's just an organizational guy who helped a quartet of pitchers overcome in-season struggles and ascend to top form when Detroit needed them most.

"I think you can get a lot of guys that are good in one area -- good with mechanics, good with a game plan, good with PFP, good with the psyche. This guy does it all," manager Jim Leyland said of Jones. "He's a total pitching coach, and they're hard to find."

To appreciate what Jones went through to get to this point, considering where he's been. His coaching resume has more callups and trips back to the Minors than many of the players he coached in a Mud Hens uniform for all those years.

He grew up in Michigan, but in the Minors, Jones was a big right-hander, wild but effective, in the Oakland A's system. He had stints in the Oakland bullpen for parts of five seasons, bouncing back and forth to Triple-A for the final three, then was never the same after missing the 1985 season.

Billy Martin was his first Major League manager, notoriously. Art Fowler was Martin's longtime pitching coach, and the opposing personality. Jones, not surprisingly, took after Fowler.

Jones finished his playing career in the Tigers system at Toledo, joined the organization as a coach in 1989, and was back at Toledo as a pitching coach a year later.

That's where the shuttle began.

Five times, Jones made it to the Tigers coaching staff, all of them as a bullpen coach. Five times, he was let go. He was there for Sparky Anderson's final season in 1995, for the Larry Parrish tenure at the end of 1998 and '99, for the end of the 2000 season under Phil Garner, and for the Luis Pujols period in 2002.

Once those managers were out, so was he. Each time, he stayed in the Tigers system, eventually ending up back as the Mud Hens pitching coach. When a pitcher needed fixing, he was the repairman. When a prospect needed finishing touches, he was the guy. Never, however, was he seriously considered for the same post in Detroit.

"A lot of guys have that knowledge," said Parrish, who managed in Toledo alongside Jones from 2003-06, "but the thing that makes Jeff successful, and he can do it at any level, is his ability to get along and relate to the guys that he's working with. He can be friends with them for the most part, but he can get on them. But he has the ability to get on them in a way that [the pitcher] knows that he's in their corner."

When Leyland moved Lloyd McClendon to hitting coach after 2006, Leyland became the latest Tigers manager to add Jones as his bullpen coach. Two years later, pitching Chuck Hernandez was let go, and so was Jones.

It was the new pitching coach, the guy Jones eventually replaced, who brought him back. Leyland's initial instinct was that he didn't want a pitching coach as his bullpen coach anymore, that two voices led to problems. Rick Knapp, however, felt he could use Jones' experience, having never been on a Major League staff.

They shared many of the duties, Knapp doing much of the day-to-day work, Jones helping put together scouting reports and game plans. When the pitchers other than Justin Verlander struggled out of the gate last year, the partnership ended.

Knapp was out. With no time for an extensive search, Jones was in. It wasn't the way Jones wanted his shot, but it might have been the one way he could finally get it.

"Jim has believed in him all along," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "I mean, we believed in him in the system."

Said Leyland: "There are a lot of guys that know pitching, but some of them can't relay it to the pitchers. Some of them can do mechanics, but they can't figure out how to get big league hitters out. I think in his case, he covers all the bases, and I think that's what makes him so special."

The Tigers were better down the stretch, eventually rolling through September to Detroit's first division title in 24 years. Among other things, Jones watched new arrival Doug Fister and dropped a thought that he might throw his breaking ball more often.

That work looked easy compared to this season.

When Max Scherzer was struggling with high pitch counts and early exits, Jones worked with him to spot a flaw in his delivery and change the positioning of his hands.

When Scherzer was asked about his effectiveness without his high-90s fastball since his shoulder scare last month, he credited Jones.

"That's a credit to working throughout the whole season with Jeff Jones on fine-tuning each pitch in our bullpens," he said, "so that it is more effective during the game."

When Fister was working his way back from side and groin injuries, Jones helped him get his work in.

When the Angels and Royals shellacked Verlander in the first inning, Jones worked with him to throw harder from the start without costing him anything at the finish. As strong-willed as Verlander can be, Jones has the low-key personality to counter it. They can frequently be seen talking pitches in the dugout between his innings.

"He's been awesome," reliever Phil Coke said. "He works with everybody [in the way] they go about things and the way they work. He works with us in the way that we need to be worked with."

When Anibal Sanchez struggled for the better part of a month after his trade from Miami, Jones worked with him to try to translate what he did with the Marlins to the American League.

"That's the thing about Jonesy," Parrish said. "He enjoys baseball. He enjoys working with the guys. He loves that part of it. He loves the teaching part."

As many projects as Jones took on at Toledo, it largely pales to what he faced this year. This might be the ultimate reward, watching the Tigers rotation hold the vaunted Yankees to two runs in four games. Their strategy, Leyland said, was to speed up the Yankees' bats, before slowing them down, changing speeds and tempos.

As a staff, the Tigers 1.74 ERA is easily the best of the postseason. As a rotation, Detroit's 1.02 ERA ranks among the best postseasons of all time.

"I think he deserves a lot of the accolades for this staff," Dombrowski said.

When the Tigers are introduced as the visiting team in St. Louis or San Francisco on Wednesday night before Game 1 of the World Series, so will Jones, who will take that big, lumbering walk to the foul line that Tigers fans are used to seeing him take to the mound.

He's finally getting the recognition he deserves.

"I think Jonesy would've enjoyed coaching if he had never gotten a job in the big leagues," Parrish said. "I think that's what makes him successful. It's because players realize he's coaching for them to get better."

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.