French-American historian Jacques Barzun got it right.
“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and the reality of the game.’’
The Story wants to take that one step further.
Whoever wants to know the art and mind of pitching had better talk to Randy Jones, the 1976 NL Cy Young winner. Randy at the age of 71 still loves to talk the game – if you happen to run into him in San Diego or at one of his RJ Grills at Petco Park, featuring half pound hot dogs, hot links, kielbasa and bratwurst, this means you – Behind the Dish – because the knowledge of pitching flows from him like his curly hair flowed out from under his classic brown and gold Padres baseball cap on the July 12, 1976 cover of Sports Illustrated. “San Diego’s Confounding Randy Jones.’’
Simply put, Jones is a pitching genius. Some numbers first to back that up.
In 1976, the lefty won 22 games, two years after losing 22 games. He started 40 games that season, having pitched 25 complete games over 315 1/3 innings. Those led the league as did the 274 hits he allowed, only 15 them home runs. He surrendered only 109 runs. He struck out just 93 batters. And he worked fast.
“Think about those 93 punchouts,’’ Jones proudly told BallNine. “Half of those had to be the other pitcher. I only struck out like 40 real hitters. If I struck you out, it wasn’t my fault, it was yours, you just missed it.’’
Jones’ fastest fastball was 87 miles per hour. He would never throw it that hard.
“At 87 it would not sink, it would just tail,’’ he explained. “As soon as I’d drop it down to 81-82, then the ball would start sinking. I could throw 73 and the bottom would fall out of it and it would be in the same spot in the strike zone.
“I just changed speeds and my mechanics never changed. A lot of times I would throw a slider into a right-hander’s hands, and I would throw that harder than my fastball and they would look at me like: ‘How the hell are you getting in my kitchen?’ I’d throw the slider 83 and the fastball 78. It was fun setting up guys.
“I would wear out my spot out there on the outside corner, right below the kneecap. I wouldn’t throw a strike the whole game sometimes. I didn’t have to. They would call that pitch a strike and they would keep swinging at it and it was over. Here we go. I’d just live out there.’’
He could pitch. Then he offered this 2021 reality.
“I don’t even know if I would get drafted today. I don’t know about the analytics today. Either you can pitch or you can’t pitch.’’
Randy Jones knew how to pitch. And 1976, America’s Bicentennial, was some year for pitchers. Jones received 15 first place votes for NL Cy Young; another lefty, the Mets Jerry Koosman finished second with seven-first place votes. Over in the American League, Mark (the Bird) Fidrych was the Rookie of the Year and Jim Palmer won the Cy Young.
Jones faced 1251 batters that season, the most in the National League and as he often said, “I didn’t throw hard enough to break a pane of glass.’’
After his career ended, he was the king of pitching lessons in San Diego. Jones owns a degree in business from Chapman University so he always knew how to make a buck. One of his pupils was another lefty, who would go on to become 2002 Cy Young winner, Barry Zito.
“If you had seen our bullpen, you would have finished the motherf—ers, too.’’
“Barry was great, he just took it up like a sponge,’’ Jones said. “I gave him the knowledge and then he had to find out what worked best for him. I told him: The basics are basics. He’d miss that outside corner knee-high and I would say, ‘No, I will not tolerate that. He’d look at me and I’d say, ‘I’m not shitting you, man. If you can’t hit that spot nine out of 10 times you’re not worth a shit and you will never be in the big leagues.’ ’’
Tough love. Zito learned to hit the spot again and again.
“Every pitcher should have a money pitch,’’ Jones said. “My spot was down and away from a right-hander and I could hit a gnat in the ass most of the time. You’ve got to be able to do that. You see it time and again, they just throw the shit out of it now and just hope for the best. It’s frustrating.
“If I threw 100 pitches in a game, how many do you think I threw above the belt – none. If I did it was an accident. If I was going to miss I would miss off the plate a little bit and I was going to miss down. The curve ball was my third best pitch. I’d bounce that son of a bitch. You want to see one, here. You can take a look at it. If you want to swing at it, you are on your own. I’m not going to get beat with my third best pitch. I’d just throw it for a ball to set up a sinker. That’s all I was doing.
“Sometimes I would get Pete Rose 2-0 damn near on purpose. He knew he was going to get the fastball, he just didn’t realize it was going to be only 73 miles per hour. And I’d get a ground ball,’’ Jones said. “You have to understand the weaknesses of the hitter and take advantage of it. Now they’d rather do the shift and have the pitcher out there change the complete character of how he pitches just to do the shift.
“If I pitched today I would say, do me a favor just leave everybody the fuck where they are supposed to be. I don’t need these shifts, now I’ve got to change the way I pitch this guy. That’s not how the game works. I’m just amazed.’’
This is Pitching Truth. Jones was drafted in the fifth round of the 1972 draft. The next June he made his Padres debut. He was soon filling up the ballpark and filling up the complete games column.
And get this, Randy was at Petco Park the other day and had a wonderful pitching conversation with Joe Musgrove, who threw a no-hitter against the Texas Rangers on April 12, the first no-hitter in Padres history. “He’s such a great kid,’’ Randy said of Musgrove, who grew up in El Cajon, a short ride to Jack Murphy Stadium where Randy’s Padres played. The Murph was torn down earlier this year.
Randy would know about Musgrove.
“I think I gave Joe two or three lessons when he was in Little League,’’ he said. “He’s a good kid, a hard worker. I told A.J. (Preller) getting Musgrove was one of the best trades you have made. That kid has figured it out.’’
Preller landed Musgrove from the Pirates in a three-way deal with the Mets.
In all, Jones got the most out of his 10-year career, eight with the Padres and his final two years with the Mets and was inducted into the Padres Hall of Fame. It was the way that he got hitters out which made him so special and in 1976 he was at his best.
“I was actually astonished by my consistency,’’ he told me. “I might have had three starts where I didn’t have my stuff, out of 40 starts. It was just phenomenal. It was just an amazing year. The fans embraced me and an extra 20,000 would show up at home every time I pitched.’’
The fans knew.
“They’d come on a Wednesday night and they knew they could bring the kids with them because I would be done at 9 o’clock. Get them back home and in bed and be ready for school the next morning.’’
His first start of the year he beat the Braves 1-0 in 2 hours and 14 minutes. Later in the month he put up another complete game in one hour and 47 minutes. On and on it would go. “A normal game for me would be about an hour and 50 minutes,’’ Jones said.
As the numbers show, he wasn’t about the strikeouts, he was about the ground ball with his extraordinary sinker. The fans loved him because they knew they would see a fast-paced game and most likely a Padres win when he was at his peak.
Randy Jones speaks in colorful ballplayer language. “I loved when I would go out there and throw those three-pitch innings,’’ he said. “I’d go out there and throw three sinkers, get three ground balls and I’d be running off the mound.
“I remember Bruce Kison one day with the Pirates, and he was slower than shit,’’ Jones explained. “He walked real slow getting off the field and he was always that way. I had a three-pitch inning and I looked over and he hadn’t even sat down and buttoned his jacket up yet. He was going, ‘What the fuck,’ and I was sitting back down.’’
That was a different game, facing the likes of all-time hits leader Pete Rose, Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Steve Garvey, Mike Schmidt, Joe Morgan and other stars. Jones was beating the hitters at their own game.
Former Padres ace Jake Peavy once asked Randy, “How did you ever complete 25 games in 1976?”
Randy’s answer was classic Randy.
“If you had seen our bullpen, you would have finished the motherfuckers, too,’’ he said.
Looking at today’s pitching game, Jones got right down to the heart of the matter. He’s never one to beat around the bush. Let me mention now that Randy was often my broadcast partner at 760 KFMB radio in San Diego during my 10 years in America’s Finest City, along with former Chargers special teams star Hank Bauer on SportsTalk. I’d be able to talk the Art of Pitching with Randy and then go over to see Tony Gwynn in the clubhouse to talk the Art of Hitting. That’s two damn good teachers, plus each one made every conversation special with lots of laughs.
“It’s a shame that 90 percent of the pitchers don’t know how to pitch,’’ Jones told me of today’s game. “You have a bunch of strong-arm throwers and that’s where the game leans to, power and speed. That old scouting adage: ‘Hey you got a hell of an arm, they will teach him how to pitch,’ has gone by the wayside.’’
Jones nailed it, just like one of his worm-killing sinkers that got the batter to hit a harmless ground ball.
The Mets’ Jacob deGrom, of course, has mastered the art of velocity, command and pitching and that is why he stands out so far above the crowd.
“When I watch a game now it is all about swing and miss, they want to strike everybody out,’’ Jones said. “The mistakes are endless, missing location.’’
The batters play right into that philosophy by taking the same big swing on 3-0 as they do behind in the count 0-2.
“I laugh and just shake my head, you got the perfect guy up, a power hitter, the perfect scenario for a ground ball double play and they have no clue how to do that. Their first two pitches are 97 chest-high. That will get you a ground ball,’’ he added sarcastically. “It’s pathetic, really.’’
It sure is and thank goodness for former pitchers like Jones who speak the truth. I’ve had similar conversations with Tom Glavine, who used Jones’ philosophy 20 years later to frame a Hall of Fame career.
Jones learned the fundamentals growing up but “I basically taught myself how to pitch,’’ he said. “I had some arm injuries when I was younger, had a decent fastball, might have been 90 but when I lost that, that’s when I started turning the ball over, making the ball move and learned how to pitch.
“My command is what you see today in the elite pitchers. Hitting good spots, changing speeds… it’s kind of a lost art. These great young arms, when do they get good, when they learn an off-speed pitch, when they learn how to pitch and change speeds on the hitter; now all of a sudden that 96 mph fastball looks like 108. I just wonder when the game is going to figure that out, when are they going to get a Randy Jones in that rotation? You need one.
“How does a lineup change their habits for one game,’’ Jones said, noting such an approach would throw off the hitter’s timing.
That is such a smart point.
“I think that would be really hard for all these guys that are always gearing up for 96-97, now you get some guy throwing 78-84, it should work if he has command and movement, he should win a lot of ballgames,’’ Jones said.
Randy Jones receiving the 1976 Cy Young Award.
The power sliders and sinkers of today don’t move anything like Jones’ sinker and of course the stress on the arms is tremendous at that max-effort velocity as pitchers continue to get hurt at alarming rates. Just the other day the Padres lost starter Dinelson Lamet after his debut, a two-inning debut, to the Injured List with a strained forearm.
How would Jones compete against max-effort swingers?
“I would have an absolute field day,’’ he said confidently. “I’ll see an umpire give a pitch a little down or a little off the plate and you think these kids today can duplicate that pitch? They have no idea how they got there in the first place.
“I talk to these kids during batting practice and just try to get them to think about it, I use a lot of common sense and try to teach them a lot of times that less is better.’’
Jones is a San Diego institution, the greatest baseball ambassador the Padres could have promoting the game and his foundation does meaningful work reaching out to help military families. Randy and his wife Marie have been married for 50 years. They were high school sweethearts. “She’s been putting up with my ass for a long time,’’ Randy said with his hearty laugh. “I’m just happy we survived the pandemic, that was my first summer home. All of a sudden I’m home for dinner every night… But it’s been a great ride.
“I’ve just been really fortunate to be around baseball in San Diego. I’ve always enjoyed talking to the fans, I don’t care if it’s at a Rite Aid, a grocery store, a gas station, wherever I might go, I’ll talk baseball. Everybody and their mother knows who I am and I look forward to seeing these people. It’s a kick in the ass.’’
It sure is. 45 years after winning the Cy Young Award, RJ remains the real deal.