Jones looking inside to avoid sophomore slump

Jones looking inside to avoid sophomore slump
March 14, 2013, 1:15 pm
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- A year ago, Nate Jones was fighting for a roster spot. Now, he's aiming to avoid the pitfalls that come with a player's second year in the majors.

Jones enjoyed plenty of success in 2012, appearing in 65 games with a 2.39 ERA. He struck out 65, walked 32 and allowed four home runs in 71 2/3 innings. By the latter part of 2012, Jones was a go-to option out of the White Sox bullpen after being eased into high-leverage situations earlier in the season.

Opposing hitters didn't have much background on Jones last year, as the right-hander didn't debut as a heralded prospect after rocketing through the White Sox system. In fact, he never pitched above Double-A before pitching in the majors. The guy with a fastball touching 100 miles per hour and a wipeout slider was a relative unknown, which may have helped his cause as a rookie.

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Jones won't enjoy the relative anonymity he entered the 2012 season with this year. To combat that familiarity, he's working on throwing his fastball inside more often.

"Last year, I was mainly a fastball away guy. They started figuring it out, and they can get ready and dive a little bit at it," Jones explained. "If you start throwing in, they can't dive on it because they're gonna get ate up. Once you establish that fastball in, they can't dive and once you start throwing that slider away they have to just about swing at it."

It's a prototypical setup. Make hitters respect fastballs inside, and they can't cheat on the outer half of the plate on sliders. That's a combination plenty of power relievers use -- one of whom, Matt Lindstrom, didn't see a drop off from his first to second years in the majors.

The key for him, he said, was doing what Jones is aiming to do -- throwing inside at a higher rate.

"Hitters, your first year basically they're trying to get a look at you, see what kind of stuff you have and everything," Lindstrom said. "And then your second year, they have tape and scouting reports and everything like that. It is definitely different, because there's no disadvantage toward the hitter."

Jones mainly worked away from righties and lefties last year, throwing on the inner third only on occasion. That wasn't a problem in 2012, but as the league catches up to him, it's become a point of emphasis.

"Hitters, they have -- I wouldn't say advantage, but the luxury of looking at tape. It's not a surprise who they're facing anymore," Lindstrom said. "You kinda got a reputation of your tendencies, throwing fastballs or where they're gonna be, first pitches and stuff like that. I'd say that's a difference."

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Jones wants to throw more strikes, too, although the right-hander had an above-average strike percentage in 2012 (51 percent, compared to MLB average of 49 percent, per Fangraphs). With the arsenal Jones possesses, fellow reliever Matt Thornton sees throwing strikes as the biggest key to his continued success.

"When you have his kind of stuff, as long as he's throwing it over the plate it's going to be hard for him to have a slump," Thornton said. "He's going to give up hits, he's going to give up runs -- everyone will -- but at the same time he has a lot more room for error than a lot of guys do because how good his stuff is. It's just a matter of taking care of himself and staying healthy."

Jones' spot is secure on the White Sox, not just on the roster but as a key member of the team's bullpen. It's a deep group of relievers -- Jones, Lindstrom, Thornton, Addison Reed, Jesse Crain, Donnie Veal and Hector Santiago -- and one that could shape up to be a major strength.

But until the Opening Day roster is unveiled, Jones isn't getting settled in.

"I wouldn't say I'm comfortable because Robin hasn't came to me yet and said I've made the team," Jones said. "Mindset-wise, I don't think there's a lot that changed. I just want to come in again, prove I can throw strikes, make them hit the ball."