Hard-throwing and dominant. That’s the name of the game for pitchers responsible for holding down the ninth inning nowadays.
However, there’s always an exception to the rule, as best exemplified by former Tigers closer Todd Jones during his two stints with Detroit.
The curly-haired, anti-athletic-looking Jones was never going to be confused for Francisco Rodriguez during his days of being a big-arm, electric closer for the L.A. Angels.
With a low-90s fastball and mostly average “stuff,” Jones didn’t always make the ninth inning look easy or allow the ends of games to be easy on the stomachs of Tigers fans. It’s the reason why he received the nickname “Roller Coaster” from broadcaster Ernie Harwell. Yet, most of the time, he found a way to get the job done.
The Marietta, Ga., native saved 319 of the 394 games he came in to close during his 16-season big league career (according to Baseball-Reference), which translates to approximately 81 percent of his save chances.
He recorded saves with an even higher efficiency during his seven and a half years with the Tigers.
In his first stint with the Tigs from 1997 until being dealt to the Minnesota Twins near the 2001 trade deadline, he closed out 142 ballgames in 166 tries, including an American League-leading 42 games in 2000. That gives him a save percentage of approximately 86 percent during that time span, a figure higher than the league average that time. Still, Jones was never mentioned in the same breath with the elite closers like Mariano Rivera.
The 1989 first-round draft pick of the Houston Astros re-joined Detroit as a free agent going into the 2006 season.
In three additional campaigns with the Bengals from 2006-08, Jones logged 93 saves in 108 tries, good for a save percentage of once again around 86 percent.
If you add up all the saves he compiled in Detroit, you’ll find that he converted 235 of his 274 save opportunities. It means that he converted about 86 percent of his save chances while with the Tigers.
With those 235 saves, he is the all-time saves leader for the Detroit Tigers. And the gap between him and the guy who’s second on the franchise’s all-time saves list — Mike Henneman — is not even close. If you were wondering, Henneman closed out 154 games during his time with the Tigers.
At his finest, “Jonesy” was a low strike-throwing machine. For instance, during the Tigers’ miraculous 2006 campaign, he issued his fewest walks ever for a single season with 11 in 64 innings pitched. He, then, followed that up with a lone walk permitted and an earned run average of zero in the ’06 postseason.
He also had the “tough as nails” mentality that it takes to close out games with regularity. But though he was a rugged competitor on the hill, his teammates and fans were also attracted to his fun personality and fan-first attitude. Jones always seemed to understand that there was a thin barrier between him and the people sitting in the stands. But there was also that tough approach to pitching in the clutch.
Jones had a routine when he came into a game: every single time he came out of the bullpen at Comerica Park he would violently push open the pen door, as if it had done something to him or a loved one.
Jonesy was also known for making his fair share of mistakes over the heart of the plate, allowing 93 home runs in his career. However, he had the ability to quickly forget about those mistakes. It’s a trait that many of the game’s best pitchers possess, and it’s the trait that largely separated Jones from pitchers with similar “B-level” stuff.
Large sects of Tigers fans still always wanted the club to upgrade the ninth with a sexier, harder throwing arm. I’ll admit I was one of those fans.
But now looking back at his time in Motown, it’s easier to appreciate Jonesy’s contributions to the club. Remember, he decided to re-join the Tigers in December of 2005, when the club was still viewed as a largely lackluster free agent destination despite the additions of Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez in previous offseasons.
Through it all, Jones understood that fans had a right to dislike him because of what he wasn’t. But his good nature won over most fans, even while many of them teetered on the edge of a nervous breakdown every time the big righty came in to close out a game. More often than not, “Rollercoaster” got the job done.
It’s time to show Jonesy the respect that he deserves for being the steady option he was at the back end of the Tigers pen.