Stop me if this sounds familiar.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have a right-handed pitcher in A-ball who can consistently throw 98-99 MPH. He was signed to a big bonus out of high school, away from a big name college. He strikes out everyone with his fastball and plus breaking pitch.
He also needs better control, and could possibly use a changeup.
Jared Jones was drafted by the Pirates in the second round in 2020. He was paid a $2.2 million bonus. He now throws 98-99 MPH on command, through a high-effort delivery, and mixes in a slider that helps him achieve a strikeout rate around 30%.
Over the years, the Pirates’ scouting department has done exceptionally well to identify young pitchers like Jones, who have gone on to quickly show elite stuff in pro ball.
Tyler Glasnow is the most notable example. Clay Holmes and Nick Kingham are two other prep pitchers who made it. They also had high first rounder Jameson Taillon, and Shane Baz for a brief period.
The recurring theme has been that the Pirates have shown a good tendency to identify future MLB pitchers from high school, while failing to see those pitchers reach their upsides in Pittsburgh. That’s a trend which has continued into the Ben Cherington years, with Holmes taking an almost instant step forward into elite reliever territory after being traded last year.
That puts a damper on any dreams of Jones leading the Pirates’ rotation, regardless of how much his prospect star shines.
We haven’t seen any evidence that this has been fixed at the big league level.
Mitch Keller is the latest former prep pitcher-turned top prospect who has struggled to find consistency in Pittsburgh.
Roansy Contreras might be the best sign of hope, beaming from his limited success in the majors. He also came over from the Yankees, and seemingly had taken a big step forward prior to the trade. That’s a plus for the pro scouting department under Cherington — a different group than the scouts who focus on amateur talent — though it leaves a question about the guys above.
What if their issue started in the lower levels?
Every former prep pitcher mentioned above graduated into a university of singular thought on how to develop a pitching prospect.
They were taught to keep their fastballs down in the zone, and often. They weren’t allowed to use their secondary stuff more than 30-40% of the time, combined. They were kept on strict promotion paths with strict innings requirements at each level, regardless of performance.
Putting myself in their shoes, if I’m a pitcher who has an explosive fastball, I wouldn’t want to try and control that to one location.
If I’m a pitcher with a breaking pitch that can’t be touched, I’m not going to save it for two strike counts and hope I can develop my other pitches to get into those counts. That’s the same logic that saves your best reliever for the 9th inning, allowing the lead to get blown in the 7th.
And if I’m a pitcher who is consistently shown hoop after required hoop that I need to jump through before anyone tells me that I’m a big leaguer, then it’s going to probably be difficult getting me to believe that it is within my own power to reach the majors.
I can see how the Pirates might have had development problems from the start, just by trying to mash everyone in the same box that strips every pitcher of his individuality. None of that approach works toward actually developing the individual pitcher.
Fortunately, if that was the issue, it’s gone now.
“He’s a big leaguer.”
Greensboro manager Callix Crabbe was direct when talking about the ability from Jared Jones.
“He’ll pitch in the big leagues one day with that arm that he has, but he needs to learn how to handle failure,” said Crabbe, who added: “He’s doing a really good job of it.”
That last part is not something that you hear said about a highly regarded pitching prospect, that they are doing a good job handling failure. That’s life in John Baker’s farm system, where a successful practice allows for a 40% failure rate, in order to provide learning opportunities.
Jones has, on the surface, struggled beyond that mark. He’s got a 5.88 ERA in 33.2 innings. He’s striking out 11.8 per nine innings, but is also walking 4.0 per nine.
Looking deeper, he’s had a few really bad outings, and a few dominant outings.
Looking deeper into those bad outings, he’s had a few innings that have spiraled out of control.
That’s what happened this past Sunday, when Jones gave up three in the first inning. He threw 31 pitches that inning, bringing on a mound visit to calm his approach.
“In my notes, as I was watching Jonesy get through the first inning, as much as we want pitchers like Jonesy, who has extremely elite stuff to dominate at all times, I think the greatest growth opportunities for them is when they are struggling,” said Crabbe, echoing a sentiment that was similar to something shared under the old farm system.
There might be a difference when you are struggling with your stuff, as opposed to struggling while being restricted from using your stuff.
Jones is using his stuff. He features a fastball that he likes to elevate, with some action to the pitch as he pushes forth the effort for 98-99 MPH consistently. However, the Pirates are trying to get Jones to realize that he doesn’t need all of his stuff all of the time to succeed.
“In that first inning, he was really over-throwing a little bit,” said Crabbe. “He was missing arm-side, and the sequencing upper body and lower body just wasn’t syncing up. So he wasn’t commanding the baseball like he usually does.”
Jones limited the damage the rest of the inning, though that did come with the three runs. For the rest of the start, Crabbe noted that he dialed the velocity back and focused on his timing, which I broke down further in my Baseball America feature this month.
For the next four innings, Jones threw shutout baseball, needing only 48 pitches to get through the rest of the frame. It’s definitely only a coincidence that this successful finish to his start represents 60% of the pitches he threw on his day.
The Pirates are aggressively pushing Jones, perhaps more than we ever saw Huntington push a non-first round player his age. It’s key to remember that he’s still 20-years-old, and a lot of what we’re seeing is a guy who hasn’t failed much, and hasn’t had to adjust his approach to this point. In other words, it’s common for a pitcher like Jones to be inconsistent from start to start, or even inning to inning.
What you’d look for is more consistency as he gains experience. Jones is one out away from 100 innings in pro ball. How he adjusts as this season goes on will be a big thing to watch in this system, where Jones is one of the top pitching options behind Contreras and 2019 first round prep pick Quinn Priester — the latter also having inconsistencies in High-A last year at a similar stage as Jones.
Last week I wrote about how The Build begins in Altoona.
Most of Ben Cherington’s plan has revolved around the group of prospects that have collected in Double-A. That group will largely determine the success or failure of The Build. If that group largely fails, it’s hard to imagine the Pirates finding a way to contend in the next few years, or ever under Cherington.
None of us know if Cherington’s plan or John Baker’s approach will work. We’re all speculating and looking for signs of hope that things are different.
Just as that Altoona group is the first indicator of the success of The Build, Jared Jones is the first indicator of a type of individual player success that has eluded Pittsburgh.
Jones is the first prep pitcher drafted under Cherington. He will be the first indicator if anything might be different from all of those prep pitchers taken under Huntington. He won’t be the lone proof — just as Quinton Miller didn’t define Huntington — but for now he will be a big focus.
And just like with Altoona, we don’t know what will happen. We just have to watch for encouraging signs.
For now, that might look like the immediate 180 that Jones did in his start on Sunday.
Later this season, that might look like Jones finding a way to completely eliminate the bad first inning.
Ideally, in the future, the encouraging sign would be Jones living up to his potential in Pittsburgh.
Wouldn’t that be a welcome departure from familiarity?