On June 24, 1957, Doug Jones was born. Jones would make his major league debut in 1982 and last through the 2000 season. During that time he not only would have a good career, but also mark a sea change in pitching roles.
Time for a confession: It was never exactly clear to me who Doug Jones was. Part of this is that he was at the end of his career by the time I started following baseball. Jones spent 16 years in the majors—debuting in 1982; this will be relevant later—but spent only six during the period I was really aware of baseball.
Moreover, while Jones was a sometime great reliever (more on this anon) he pitched largely for non-competitive, small-market teams. He also placed in the top 10 in saves eight times, but never led the league.
Compounding matters, right as I became aware of baseball, Doug Johns debuted in Oakland, the team with which Jones would finish his career, which only served to confuse me more.
Even writing this now, I can only sort of picture Jones. I’m think he was a change-up guy, but I’m pretty sure—and a Google image search confirms—that my mental image of Doug Jones is actually Paul Assenmacher.
In any event, I really ought to know more about Jones, because he was a pretty good pitcher for a pretty long time. He threw more than 1,100 innings, which is a lot for a guy with four career starts. He also did it with a 129 career ERA+, better than Goose Gossage.
While Jones was a strong pitcher on career numbers, he had an odd knack for mixing miserable seasons in with his best ones. After a miserable cup of coffee in 1982, Jones came up for good in 1986.
His first five seasons, Jones averaged 24 saves, including a career high 43 in 1990, with a 160 ERA+. He made the All-Star team every year 1988-1990.
He then put up a 5.54 ERA stinkbomb in 1991. At age 34 and a free agent, Jones was not taken back by the Indians, instead signing with Houston, where he promptly posted a 1.85 ERA.
The next year, he once again was bad, if not quite to 1991 levels, and Houston dealt him to the Phillies for Mitch Williams.
Jones would continue his pattern of alternating good years with ones of varying degrees of mediocrity; his 1997 season (231 ERA+, 80 innings at age 40) was probably his best. Throughout his career Jones relied on a change-up, or rather a slow change-up, and a slower one, and a slowest one. And then an even slower slowest.
He retired after his age 43 season, despite still being a relatively effective reliever, but perhaps he was content to be the oldest player in the league for only one season.
More than his own personal accomplishments, Doug Jones was a man for his time. The story of the “closer” and how Tony LaRussa and Dennis Eckersley created the modern sense of that role is an old one. But maybe no pitcher betters illustrates this than Jones.
Up to—but not including—Jones’ debut 1982 season, the career leader in saves was Rollie Fingers, with 272. Fingers, Sparky Lyle and Hoyt Wilhelm were the only pitchers with more than 200 saves, and just 34 pitchers had 100 or more. That season, Fingers would be the first pitcher to reach 300 saves.
Through the 1981 season, the single-season record for saves was held by John Hiller, who had 38 in 1973. Incredibly, by modern standards, that was one of only seven seasons of more than 35 saves in the entire history of baseball.
By the time Jones retired in 2000, the saves leader board was radically different. Thirteen players had now accumulated 300 or more saves, and two had more than 400. Now, of course, Trevor Hoffman has more than 500 and, barring injury, Mariano Rivera should join him by the All-Star break.
Single season totals also zoomed. After never having happened in the whole history of baseball prior to Jones’ career, the period saw 56 seasons of 40 or more saves, including 23 of 45 or more, and five of 50 or more. Since becoming a full-time closer, Francisco Rodriguez has four straight years of 40 or more saves, an unfathomable number just 30 years ago.
Even more than the raw numbers, Jones’ career covered a remarkable switch in the way a team’s best reliever was used. Prior to 1982, the fewest innings a pitcher had thrown in a 30-save season was 84.2, by Wayne Granger. Of the 22 seasons with 30 or more saves, only five—less than a quarter—were under 100 innings, and the median total was more than 115.
Over the course of Jones’ career, not only did the raw number of 30 save seasons skyrocket to nearly 200, but the fundamental breakdown of them was different. The fewest innings was 38.1 by Lee Smith, a total barely a third of Granger’s previous low. Just 17 of the 199 seasons—less than 10 percent—were over 100 innings. The median dropped to less than 75 innings.
During the period Jones was in the league, the entire notion of being a closer was changed, but in many ways he did not. As late as 1999, Jones threw more than 100 innings in relief, and he was one of a small handful of players to throw two seasons of more than 100 innings in relief during the 1990s.
Master of the slow change, and possessor of a terrific mustache, Jones managed a 16-year career despite pitching just 20 innings before age 30. Though he never led the league in a meaningful statistic, he was an effective reliever more often than not, sometimes a great one.
More than that, Jones managed to pitch through an era in which his very role evolved from one sort of work to another. Jones’ greatest accomplishment is managing not only to survive in many roles, but thrive as well.