Randy Jones is a 26-year-old lefthander who began throwing baseballs as a Brea, Calif. Pee Wee Leaguer. Now, as a big-leaguer with the Padres, he is tossing them over the plate just a few taco stands down the road in San Diego. It is a low-mileage trip that a lot of folks in the National League wish he had not made. As far as they are concerned, Jones' whole act sinks.
Their gripe is that Jones is one of the most successful, briskly efficient, doggone frustrating pitchers around. Approaching his craft with the zeal of a Talmudic scholar, Jones adheres to a carefully programmed style designed to minimize stress on his arm and maximize the number of ground-outs by his foes.
Jones' pitching philosophy is simple enough. He throws almost nothing but knee-high strikes, the hardest kind of pitch for most batters to hit solidly. He accomplishes this by serving up low-speed sinkerballs on 70% of his deliveries. As its name implies, the sinker drops as it reaches the plate, thus producing an unusual number of ground balls. The strong-armed fastball strikeout pitcher may be more dramatic, but for sheer efficiency, Jones—who usually needs only one or two of his pinpoint lowballs to induce a batter to bounce out to an in-fielder—has no peer.
But as uncomplicated as Jones' approach to pitching sounds, execution of it is far from easy. "I always try to release the ball over a bent front leg," he says, enumerating the checkpoints he goes through on each delivery. "I have to let the ball go in front of me, not even with my head, but in front of my body. I also make sure I drop down on my back leg, the left leg that's on the rubber, so that I get a good push off the mound. Another thing I do is keep my right shoulder in, to get a little more arm speed. And I've got three other things I tell myself every time I get ready to make a pitch. If I throw 90 times in a game, I must remind myself 90 times to relax, to concentrate and to react to the ball."
Even while methodically going through his checklist, Jones works as though the stadium were on fire. "I hate a three-hour game," he says. On occasion he has even shown loathing for two-hour contests. In a 1-0 shutout of the Pirates last season, Jones completed the game in one hour, 44 minutes, throwing only 68 pitches. Forty-nine of them were strikes.
Against the Pirates last week, Jones needed just 85 pitches to earn a 4-2 victory and become the season's first five-game winner. So far he has completed four of his seven starts and compiled a 3.12 earned run average.
All of which is not bad for a pitcher who labors with a large handicap. Jones' fastball (due to arrive any minute) has been clocked at 73 mph by radar. That is 10 mph slower than the average major league fastball and about 20 mph cooler than the heat generated by hard throwers like Tom Seaver.
Jones hears a lot of razzing about his sinking fastball, which may be the only one in the National League with a measurable hang time. "It wouldn't take Randy so long to pitch a game if his fastball got to the plate a little quicker," said Third Baseman Doug Rader after Jones had beaten the Cards 5-1 in an hour and 47 minutes on April 23.
Jones offers a logical explanation for his lack of speed. "The pitch that brought me to the big leagues and gave me my success is the sinkerball," he says. "The thing is, if you throw it too hard, it doesn't sink. There's a perfect speed for the pitch that will make the ball move best for you. So my purpose actually is not to throw hard, because the harder I throw, the less effective the pitch."
Jones came to realize the importance of throwing low and slow the hard way. In his major league debut at New York in 1973, the first hit he allowed was a 400-foot homer by Willie Mays. "The first time I faced Henry Aaron, he also took me deep," Jones says. "The first time I faced Willie Stargell, he hit one. I didn't mess around. I got 'em all out of the way, then got down to business."