Randy Jones is a 26-year-old lefthander who began throwing baseballs as a Brea, Calif. Pee Wee Leaguer. Now, as a big-leaguer with the Padres, he is tossing them over the plate just a few taco stands down the road in San Diego. It is a low-mileage trip that a lot of folks in the National League wish he had not made. As far as they are concerned, Jones' whole act sinks.
Their gripe is that Jones is one of the most successful, briskly efficient, doggone frustrating pitchers around. Approaching his craft with the zeal of a Talmudic scholar, Jones adheres to a carefully programmed style designed to minimize stress on his arm and maximize the number of ground-outs by his foes.
Jones' pitching philosophy is simple enough. He throws almost nothing but knee-high strikes, the hardest kind of pitch for most batters to hit solidly. He accomplishes this by serving up low-speed sinkerballs on 70% of his deliveries. As its name implies, the sinker drops as it reaches the plate, thus producing an unusual number of ground balls. The strong-armed fastball strikeout pitcher may be more dramatic, but for sheer efficiency, Jones—who usually needs only one or two of his pinpoint lowballs to induce a batter to bounce out to an in-fielder—has no peer.
But as uncomplicated as Jones' approach to pitching sounds, execution of it is far from easy. "I always try to release the ball over a bent front leg," he says, enumerating the checkpoints he goes through on each delivery. "I have to let the ball go in front of me, not even with my head, but in front of my body. I also make sure I drop down on my back leg, the left leg that's on the rubber, so that I get a good push off the mound. Another thing I do is keep my right shoulder in, to get a little more arm speed. And I've got three other things I tell myself every time I get ready to make a pitch. If I throw 90 times in a game, I must remind myself 90 times to relax, to concentrate and to react to the ball."
May 16, 1976
Even while methodically going through his checklist, Jones works as though the stadium were on fire. "I hate a three-hour game," he says. On occasion he has even shown loathing for two-hour contests. In a 1-0 shutout of the Pirates last season, Jones completed the game in one hour, 44 minutes, throwing only 68 pitches. Forty-nine of them were strikes.
Against the Pirates last week, Jones needed just 85 pitches to earn a 4-2 victory and become the season's first five-game winner. So far he has completed four of his seven starts and compiled a 3.12 earned run average.
All of which is not bad for a pitcher who labors with a large handicap. Jones' fastball (due to arrive any minute) has been clocked at 73 mph by radar. That is 10 mph slower than the average major league fastball and about 20 mph cooler than the heat generated by hard throwers like Tom Seaver.
Jones hears a lot of razzing about his sinking fastball, which may be the only one in the National League with a measurable hang time. "It wouldn't take Randy so long to pitch a game if his fastball got to the plate a little quicker," said Third Baseman Doug Rader after Jones had beaten the Cards 5-1 in an hour and 47 minutes on April 23.
Jones offers a logical explanation for his lack of speed. "The pitch that brought me to the big leagues and gave me my success is the sinkerball," he says. "The thing is, if you throw it too hard, it doesn't sink. There's a perfect speed for the pitch that will make the ball move best for you. So my purpose actually is not to throw hard, because the harder I throw, the less effective the pitch."
Jones came to realize the importance of throwing low and slow the hard way. In his major league debut at New York in 1973, the first hit he allowed was a 400-foot homer by Willie Mays. "The first time I faced Henry Aaron, he also took me deep," Jones says. "The first time I faced Willie Stargell, he hit one. I didn't mess around. I got 'em all out of the way, then got down to business."
It was only after Jones had endured a prolonged disaster in 1974 that he mastered the techniques that now make him a big winner. That season Jones had an 8-22 record and ample grounds to sue the other Padres for nonsupport. In '74 San Diego finished last in team batting and RBIs, scored only 36 runs in all of Jones' defeats and committed 170 errors.
"I was really at a low point after that," he says. "I didn't know where to turn, and if someone had some advice, I was ready to listen." He paid keenest attention to Tom Morgan, the Padre pitching coach in 1975. Morgan revamped Jones' windup and delivery, drilled him on fundamentals and gave him the checkpoints he now uses. Jones responded with a 20-12 record in 1975 as the San Diego hitting and defense also improved. He earned a save in the All-Star Game, was second to Seaver in the Cy Young Award vote and had a 2.24 ERA, the National League's best.
As both the team leader and the pitching man's thinker, Jones obviously is a fine example for the rest of the San Diego staff. Already, one teammate, Butch Metzger, is following his philosophy and coming up with some Jonesian results. A 23-year-old rookie who, like Jones, consistently throws strikes, Metzger has not yielded an earned run in 19 innings of short relief. Using mostly fastballs, he has won three games and saved three others.
A pair of those saves came last week, when Metzger made two appearances and allowed only one hit. Unfortunately, he could do nothing to rescue Jones, who started against the Mets in quest of his sixth victory. In a way it was a typical Jones performance—only one of the first nine New York batters hit the ball in the air. The exception was Dave Kingman, who blasted a two-run, first-inning homer that sent Jones on the way to his second loss of the season and provided a lesson in how carefully a sinkerballer must check his checklist if he is to succeed. "I made one mistake, and it cost me the game," says Jones. "My sinker didn't sink on that pitch. I thought he might pop it up, and he did—300-some feet over the fence."