Appreciating good players for doomed teams is the reason for the season, y’all, and no one represents the idea of a man overburdened with the task of lifting his peers up than The Only Non-Closer Robin Trusts to Get Important Outs, Nate Jones.
It’s crazy that we’re even here discussing this man and his triumph over the odds. As Future Sox wrote of Jones the prospect, “he was a big stuff, no control guy,” which is both stunning to put aside a guy with a sub-2.0 BB/9 walk rate at this point in his career, but also entirely logical. Guys who touch 100 mph with low-90s sliders and bizarre throwing motions don’t wait until age 26 to make their major league debut.
But all of that has been pushed to the background by a second miracle, of Jones coming back from 16-month absence, punctuated by Tommy John surgery, and seemingly not missing a step on his ascent to becoming a top-30 reliever in the sport. For 2016, he’s safely top-30 among qualified relievers in innings, ERA and FIP, and is potent against hitters of either hand. Right-handers have hit .174/.221/.226 against Jones in 2016, and while lefties are a lot more prone to make hard contact against him (.221 ISO), they also strike out nearly 36 percent of the time against his traditional fastball-slider combo.
He very easily meets the mold of someone a team would trust with getting important outs, which is fitting, since the Sox have seemingly trusted him with every critical out they could find.
Jones, who has been the No. 2 man in the bullpen since Opening Day, never lost his role, and have never appeared earlier than the seventh inning, has gotten some flak for “blowing nine saves.” Blown saves is a dubious concept for a setup man who almost never records saves and does not operate under the restrictions of a typical one-inning closer. A third of Jones’ blown saves occurred while he was working over an inning, including his June 30 outing against the Twins, where he came on in the seventh, allowed a single to score an inherited runner, and stayed on to pitch a perfect eighth. That’s an extreme example for this season, but the sort of stupid way setup men can pick up blown saves.
More than anything, Jones’ blown saves are a testament to how thankless it can be to pitch in every close game for a team that doesn’t score any runs. Pitching in one-run games is a part of any setup man’s life, but pitching in them constantly means he’s going to be the man on the mound for some blown leads unless he’s completely inhuman. He’s given up multiple runs just four times in his 67 appearances, half of which have occurred in the rare instances of garbage time blowout wins, and the other half actually blew up games. Two of his blown saves came when he wasn’t charged with any runs at all, and merely allowed inherited runners to score, which is pretty bad timing, since he’s allowed only six inherited runners to score all year and his 18 percent inherited scoring rate blows away the 31 percent league average.
The vast majority of Jones’ appearances (39 out of 67) have come in what qualifies as “save situations,” so if he actually stunk at holding leads, it would be pretty hard to post a non-awful stat line in general. Instead, he’s posted a 2.65 ERA and struck out 32 percent of opposing batters while issuing non-intentional walks to under five percent. These are great numbers, by the way.
Still not long removed from Tommy John surgery, and not blessed with a clean bill of health through his climb through the minors, Jones is not the surest thing in the world to remain elite. But the last few years have dismissed any idyllic notion of the Sox being able to churn out high level relievers at will, which makes having Jones on the South Side for the next five years if they wish all the more vital to any efforts to winning in the near future.
There are a few guys on the current Sox roster who make up their core of above-average players getting paid far below what they’d fetch on the open market, and keeping them tantalizingly close to looking like a real contender. Jones is in that group.
Lead Image Credit: Steve Mitchell // USA Today Sports Images