One sentence can mean completely different things depending on who reads it. Take this one, for instance: “Jones entered the year looking like a potential top pick.”
That is the first sentence in Christian Jones’ scouting report from this Baseball America article written last year, where author Conor Glassey listed the top MLB draft prospects from the state of Oregon. To casual observers, it would be hard to interpret this “potential top pick” label as anything but positive. Jones, however, would probably look at that sentence and cringe.
Glassey goes on to write that Jones’ draft status was up in the air at that point (May 25, 2012) because the lefty pitcher was out for the year, recovering from the Tommy John surgery he underwent just before the season started. Not only was his draft stock falling, he had to watch the Ducks’ highs and lows last season without contributing a single pitch.
His mental anguish was apparent in these comments to KMTR before this season:
“It was pretty tough,” Jones said. ”Watching all of the guys that I played with for two or three years, it was nice and rewarding to see them perform the way they did, but selfishly I was like, ‘Man, I want to be out there with them.'”
It’s been a little over 15 months since the surgery, and although Jones hasn’t returned to form like Stephen Strasburg after his TJ surgery, he’s been ‘out there with them’ plenty of times for a Ducks team that’s been just as good, if not better, than it was in 2012.
Coach George Horton did a good job easing Jones back into action at the beginning of the season. Jones pitched 6 innings out of the bullpen in his first 3 appearances, shutting down the opposing hitters (4 Ks, 2 hits, 1 walk). Then on February 26th against Portland, Horton gave Jones the start; his first in almost two calendar years.
It was an exceptional outing for Jones (5 Ks, 2 hits, no walks), but it was basically just a glorified relief appearance; he only pitched three innings.
After the game, Horton discussed his handling of Jones:
“Obviously with Christian, it’s just a matter of keeping him healthy, moving him along, and taking steps forward. Sooner or later, I think he’s going to end up in our starting rotation.”
Horton’s plan never came to fruition; Jones’ start against Portland has been his only one all season.
For a pitcher who looked like he could have been the ace of the staff after his 2011 season, being utilized as a reliever has to be disappointing to Jones. One of Horton’s goals, “keeping him healthy,” has materialized, and this is the only outcome that Horton, Jones and anyone else involved could have hoped for going into the season. If Jones had become a regular starting pitcher and gotten hurt again, his season would have been a failure, even if he pitched well in those hypothetical starts.
If Jones is healthy, he’s effective. He’s too good of a pitcher to struggle when he’s at least close to full strength, and he’s proven it this season by being one of the most valuable bullpen arms on the team.
Only Jimmie Sherfy, Garrett Cleavinger, and Darrell Hunter have pitched more bullpen innings than Jones this season. Jones has struck out 20 batters, walked 6, and given up just 3 extra-base hits. His ERA is 2.86, which would be closer to 0.86 if not for two – only two – bad outings. For a reliever, a bad performance in a game usually means he threw a just couple of bad pitches, so if Jones made just 2-3 less mistakes and was a little luckier, his already impressive season would look elite.
This pitch exemplifies just how good he’s been all year:
This was a fastball thrown for a strike three call against Oregon State’s Michael Conforto, one of the best hitters in the Pac-12. You’re not going to see many pitchers throw a fastball down the middle to Conforto in a two-strike count without getting him to swing. Conforto did not expect that pitch at all, which illustrates just how good Jones is at mixing his pitches and keeping hitters (even the best ones) off-balance.
It’s pitches like these that give Jones hope for a baseball future after Oregon. Baseball America ranked him as 315th best prospect a year ago – even though he was out for the season – and he’s certainly still going to be on MLB teams’ minds come draft time, whether it’s this year or next. Jones is left-handed, has great stuff and command, and has been healthy all season. Even though he’s only been a reliever this year, he shouldn’t have any worries about getting drafted.
But the draft is a distant second on his priority list right now. With Oregon’s regular season almost over and the playoffs approaching like a hungry shark chasing a bleeding seal, Jones will likely have a bunch of chances to help his team avoid the same fate they did last year, when they lost to Kent State in the Super Regionals.
For a guy who just months ago had no idea how he’d recover from a devastating injury, it’s safe to say Jones is one of the happiest baseball players in Eugene right now.