Two weeks ago, Nate Jones was at his home in Butler, Kentucky, pitching off a mound he and his dad built in his back yard during last year’s pandemic shutdown. On Friday, having arrived at Oracle Park less than two hours before game time, he was rubbing elbows with Clayton Kershaw and Albert Pujols, and getting advice in the bullpen from David Price.
“I didn’t necessarily have a catcher, but I had a net set up with the strike zone and had a couple lawn chairs as my hitters,” Jones said Saturday. “That’s just how I stay ready. You just make do with what you got.”
Jones wasn’t home for too long. He was designated for assignment by Atlanta on May 7, and released on May 10. On May 14, he signed a minor-league deal with the Dodgers, one of a few teams that were interested in the 35-year-old right-hander. Jones said one of the reasons he chose the Dodgers was that they let him be himself.
But being himself meant adding a new pitch for Jones, who was primarily a two-seam fastball thrower during his career, but was encouraged last year in Cincinnati to throw a four-seamer, working up in the strike zone rather than down, where he was used to.
Jones only threw the four-seam fastball 1.6 percent of the time in 2020, per FanGraphs, compared to 51.2 percent for his two-seamer. He decided to fully make the switch this season, and to date has thrown the four-seamer 54.3 percent of the time, compared to just 7 percent for his two-seam fastball.
“I just maybe had a little bit less confidence in it, because it was new,” Jones explained. “But when I got over to the Dodgers, they reinforced that, ‘You’re good, you’re here for a reason. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Get ahead and attack, and we’ll figure it out from there.’
“No matter how many seams you’re throwing with, it’s the same game. You’ve still got to throw strikes and get ahead of guys, in order to get those guys out.”
Jones was one of the most effective relievers in baseball coming up with the White Sox, posting a 3.16 ERA and 3.11 FIP from 2012-16, including three seasons with 70-plus innings. He missed the bulk of 2014 and 2015 with Tommy John surgery, and spent three extended stints on the injured list with elbow problems since. He totaled only 70⅔ innings from 2017-20, posting a 3.82 ERA and 4.86 FIP.
After signing a minor-league deal with the Braves, his results were mixed in limited duty this season for Atlanta, with a 3.48 ERA in 12 games but also an 8.76 FIP and 10 walks, though four were intentional. He also allowed three home runs with Atlanta, a rarity for someone with a 46.2-percent ground ball rate entering this year. It was just 28.1 percent with the Braves.
On Friday night with the Dodgers, after having arrived at the ballpark at 5 p.m., Jones was asked to protect a one-run lead in the seventh inning, and retired all five hitters he faced. He struck out two, and two of the three balls in play against him were on the ground. He threw the four-seamer seven times in his 17 pitches, got one swing and miss and three called strikes, including finishing off a strikeout of Darin Ruf, and got Buster Posey to ground out on that pitch.
“The biggest thing I liked was the mound presence. There was no deer in the headlights, it’s that ‘been here, done that,’ which makes sense,” manager Dave Roberts said. “The command of the fastball, the swing and miss with the slider, the swing and miss with the fastball. I just liked everything.”