CLEARWATER, Fla. – Damon Jones went from a 19th-round draft pick receiving little attention to a 6-foot-5 lefty fast-tracking his way to the big leagues last season. A huge assist for that dramatic turn of events belongs to Trevor Bauer, a big-league pitcher Jones has never met or spoken to even though they both do offseason work at Driveline Baseball, a data-driven workout facility in Kent, Wash.
“I was on social media and I saw this clip of Trevor Bauer,” Jones said after a recent spring-training workout at the Carpenter Complex. “He was at the All-Star Game showing Pedro [Martinez] and some other guys on the panel how he gripped his slider. It was a little bit different than I had seen and I decided I’d try to spin it that way. It came out and it felt really good. It made the pitch a lot different than my curveball and I just kept kind of rolling with it, especially against lefties.”
He sure did roll, climbing from high-A Clearwater to triple-A Lehigh Valley, leading to his first big-league invitation to spring training where he has emerged as a hot name who could help the Phillies sooner rather than later. He also credits the birth of his daughter Charlotte and his wife Rachel for his outstanding 2019 season.
“I think when Charlotte was born it kind of helped me take my mind away from baseball and pitching became a little easier just because I wasn’t overdoing it,” Jones said.
It is the slider that has caught the attention of first-year Phillies manager Joe Girardi so far this spring.
“It’s impressive,” Girardi said. “It just is. It’s sharp, it’s funky and there are a lot of arms and legs coming at you. His downhill plane is good and there’s deception there that I see. And I have heard a lot of other people say stuff to me about him. Someone was telling me the other day that they were on a rehab stint and they were like, ‘You’ve got to see this Damon Jones kid.’ ”
That someone was reliever Tommy Hunter and he told Jones that he reminded him of Andrew Miller, one of the best relief pitchers in baseball from 2012 through 2017.
Jones, 25, has been a starter the last two seasons, but it’s possible he could transition to the bullpen if that is where the Phillies need him most this season. He pitched in relief some at Washington State and again in rookie ball at Williamsport.
But he also has enough variety of pitches to be a starter. In addition to the slider, he throws a mid-90s fastball, a spike curveball that he learned from minor-league teammate Zach Warren, and a changeup.
“I’m just always trying to pick other guys’ brains,” Jones said. “I played catch with Drew Storen for the first time the other day and we talked about changeup grips because I’m still looking for that changeup grip I can feel comfortable with. If I could get that fourth pitch, it would be huge for me.”
For now, the slider is the nastiest pitch in his repertoire, and it became the pitch that allowed him to dominate left-handed hitters in his third professional season.
In his first two professional seasons at Williamsport and low-A Lakewood, lefties batted .288 with an on-base percentage of over .500 against him. He handled right-handed hitters, holding them to a .227 average.
Last season, as he climbed from Clearwater to Lehigh Valley, he held lefties to a .176 average and right-handers only hit .190 against him as he went a combined 5-4 with a 2.91 ERA in 23 starts. Jones struck out 152 batters in 114 1/3 innings.
“The left-handed hitters would just take the slider for a strike and I’d put on the back foot to right-handed hitters,” Jones said. “It was a pitch that just really played well.”
After going 5-3 with a 1.34 ERA in a combined 15 starts at Clearwater and Reading, Jones did encounter some turbulence after being promoted to Lehigh Valley in mid-July. In eight starts with the IronPigs, he posted a 6.62 ERA and walked 26 batters in 34 innings.
“It was an adjustment period for sure,” Jones said. “I maybe tried to do a little too much.”
He also had to adjust to using a different baseball.
“Not to make any excuses, but when you throw 80 innings with one kind of ball and then you have to change balls completely and your ball does not move the same, that kind of plays into things, too.”
Jones is not the first pitcher to raise questions about the baseballs used at the triple-A and big-league levels. Many believe the balls are responsible for the dramatic increase in power numbers in recent years.
“They are quite different and they spin differently,” Jones said. “They are just wound a little differently. I just had to kind of figure out how I could make my slider and curveball move the same while keeping my fastball in the strike zone. Toward the end of the season, I felt like I was making steps in the right direction.”