Two things jump out when you watch Nate Jones deliver a pitch. The Chicago White Sox righthander has an unorthodox delivery and he throws hard. Working primarily as a setup man, he features a 97-mph fastball.
What doesn’t jump out is that he is putting up better numbers than last year. The 27-year-old Northern Kentucky product is 4-5, 3.86, compared to 8-0, 2.39. But a closer look tells a completely different story. Jones has improved in nearly every other category, with a markedly better FIP.
Jones, who has made 63 appearances this season, discussed his evolution as a pitcher — including his funky delivery — on a recent visit to Fenway Park. Also weighing in were former teammate, and current Red Sox reliever Matt Thornton, and White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper.
Jones on his season: “I feel like I am [better]. I can throw my breaking ball and my changeup in almost any count. If I fall behind and get in a fastball count, I don’t necessarily have to go back to that fastball.; I can throw a slider or changeup.
“I feel like I’ve learned from last year. I’ve also learned from the start of this year, which didn’t go well. You learn from your mistakes. Outside of early on, I think I‘ve pitched well.
“You can run into that one week — or, in my case, it was a month and a half — where I wasn’t consistent. As a reliever, that can kind of ruin your ERA for a year. I don’t know exactly what my numbers are, but they can be a little deceiving based on a few outings.
“When I started pitching better, it was a tad bit of mental and a tad bit of physical. I had to make sure I kept my confidence in every pitch. If I walk somebody, I can’t lose the confidence of going right after that next hitter. Physically, I started throwing off-speed more. That’s been a big key to getting guys off my fastball.”
On throwing more sliders this year: “With Coop [Don Cooper], that’s one of his first things in spring training. After you establish your fastball, throw that off-speed more, throw that slider more for strikes. The more you can do that, the more they have to respect it; they have to be ready for it, rather than just being ready for one pitch. No matter how hard you throw, anybody can time a fastball.
“I had to make that adjustment or I wasn’t going to be in the big leagues all that long. I was getting hit pretty hard at the beginning of the season. Part of pitching is making adjustments.
“I was throwing a decent amount of sliders early, but none of them were for strikes. Hitters were laying off, letting them hit the dirt. They were letting them be balls and drawing walks. They could just sit on my fastball. That’s changed now.
“I basically just started commanding my slider better. I got more confidence in it. That was another big thing, just having confidence in it, no matter what the count is, to throw it for a strike.”
On the rest of his repertoire: “On rare occasions I’ll throw a changeup. Once in a blue moon I’ll throw a curveball. Every once in awhile I’ll mix one of those in just to show hitters I still have it. I’ll even get a few swings and misses on my changeup, but fastball-slider is what has been working for me all year. I’m not ready to stray away from that just yet.
“My changeup is a variation of the two-seam circle. I kind of hold it on the horseshoe instead of on the top of the two seams.”
On his fastball: “I only throw two-seam fastballs. I don’t throw four-seams at all. In 2010, I was starting and Joe McEwing and Bobby Thigpen — they were with me then — wanted me to get later into games. They wanted me to get guys out earlier in the count, so I didn’t have a high pitch count by the fifth inning. One day they were like, ’Why don’t you throw all two-seamers today?’ That’s what I did, and it was one of the best starts I had in the minor leagues. Afterwards, they were looking at the numbers and the velocity. They said, ‘I thought you were going to have a slower velo, but you topped out at 97. That’s the hardest you’ve thrown so far. Why don’t you stick with it?’ Since the middle of 2010, that’s all I’ve thrown.
“My two-seamer doesn’t sink a ton. It’s hardly ever sinking or nasty. I’d call it more like a bore. It comes in a little bit, arm side, as opposed to being a nasty sinking thing. Sometimes it’s maybe straighter, and other times it moves more.”
On his delivery: “I’ve never had biomechanics conversations with anybody to talk about whether it’s safe or not. It’s just something I’ve always done. I’m the one doing the throwing — I’m not watching myself — so I’m not sure if I’ve done it my whole life, but I‘ve done it for a long time. I don’t know where I got it from, it just feels natural.
“Believe me, people made fun of me a little because of it, when I was growing up. Even in high school and college, but I’ve just always done it. Like I said, it feels natural. That’s how every pitcher should be. You shouldn’t be thinking about your arm action or how you throw, you should be natural. It just so happens that’s my way. I don’t think, I just grip it and throw it.
“Being able to go out there and pitch is what being a reliever is all about. I want to be a bulldog and pitch every day. You’re obviously going to run into problems — everybody does — just being tired and fatigued a little bit. You just battle through that. For the most part, I’ve been pretty healthy.”
Don Cooper on Jones: “His ERA isn’t as good this year, but his strikeouts, walks and hits-to-innings are all better. Is he having a better season than last year? Absolutely. He’s improved his percentage of first-pitch strikes. He’s improved his breaking ball and is throwing it more for strikes. His changeup is around the same, although we feel he needs to be throwing it a little more.
“On top of that, we’re throwing fastballs to all quadrants. Last year he was one-sided. He was basically away to righties. Last year, Nate dominated lefties and righties got him too much. This year he’s getting righties a lot more, simply because we’ve come up with a little better plan than he had. He was away, away, away, and now we’re doing so much more to righties. We’re adding more changeups to righties on top of it. We’re putting more element of doubt into hitter’s minds.
“His mechanics are fine. He’s tall, he’s back, and he’s closed. And he’s doing that more often. When his mechanics are right, he’s right. His key is to balance and work over the ball, work back to front and not side to side. That’s when he’s at his best. When he’s not at his best, he’s quick and coming around his stuff. That’s it in a nutshell.”
Matt Thornton on Jones: “Nate Jones has absolutely dominating stuff. Everyone knows that. He’s one of the most-untalked-about dominating arms, late-inning guys. He has some of the best raw stuff in the game. His ERA was high early — the first six weeks of the year — and he’s really brought it down. It’s come down slowly but surely.
“As for his delivery, we’d pick on him all the time. A guy throws 100 and has this unorthodox thing going on. You can’t explain it, but it works for him. Everyone is different. Everyone has a little tick and that’s his.
“Is it safe? You can’t worry about that. You just have to take care of yourself and strengthen yourself up. Look at Matt Harvey. Matt Harvey has really good mechanics and he blew his elbow out. It happens, and no amount of research will ever figure out why some people blow out. I’ve seen guys who have the most unorthodox, ridiculous deliveries, flying open and stressing their elbow. Look at Chris Sale. If you see a snapshot of him, what’s going on with his arm is unbelievable. And he has no arm issues. That’s the game of baseball. You can be completely wrong, yet you’re right.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.