Jones shows off 'big-time arm' in impressive duel with O's

Rookie righty logs 7 strikeouts over 6 strong frames, but Pirates drop home opener

April 6th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- dialed up 98 mph at the top of the zone, Colton Cowser swung through it and the rookie right-hander pumped his fist and let out a roar on the PNC Park pitcher’s mound.

Jones had been dealt a tough hand in the top of the fourth when Michael A. Taylor and Bryan Reynolds miscommunicated on a Ryan O’Hearn fly ball, resulting in a leadoff triple. But Jones escaped the frame without allowing him to score. Groundout, popout, then that big punchout.

"I don't think I need to find another gear,” Jones said. “I think my adrenaline is through the roof since pitch one. Just pitching with that and always having that in my back pocket's always nice."

Jones wound up on the losing side of a 5-2 Pirates loss to the Orioles in the home opener on Friday, but it’s hard to put too much fault on the Bucs’ No. 3 prospect and MLB’s No. 58 overall, according to MLB Pipeline.

While he allowed a pair of solo shots to O’Hearn and Gunnar Henderson, Jones was strong the rest of the way. He followed his 10-strikeout, 22-whiff debut on Saturday with seven more punchouts, while getting the Orioles to whiff on 21 pitches.

Those 43 swings and misses are the most for a pitcher in their first two starts in the pitch tracking era (since 2008), according to MLB Pipeline. And it didn’t take long for the 22-year-old fireballer to win the home crowd over, striking out Henderson and Adley Rutschman to start the ballgame.

"Every time he goes out there, you know he's going to pitch a good game,” said Jared Triolo, who belted his first homer of the season in the seventh inning. “The first inning was awesome. Hearing the crowd, the way they reacted to him, was pretty cool."

“For a young guy, that’s a big-time arm,” said Orioles manager Brandon Hyde. “We had our work cut out for us, but we did a nice job.”

Jones leaned heavily on his four-seam fastball, consistently throwing it up in the zone and averaging 96.9 mph. The Orioles swung at that pitch 26 times and whiffed 11 times, matching the number of swings and whiffs the Marlins had in his Saturday start.

The pitch grades out fantastically from an analytical and modeling standpoint, and with an average spin rate of over 2,500 RPM, it can give the illusion that it’s rising to the hitter, making those high placements in the zone even more effective.

“He’s getting swing-and-miss with his fastball, which is important,” manager Derek Shelton said. “That’s a sign of a good Major League pitcher.”

Another sign is how Jones responded to adversity. Both of his home runs allowed barely cleared the wall in center, with Statcast projecting O’Hearn’s fly ball in the second inning a homer only at PNC Park. Henderson opened the third with his homer, but after that, Jones was able to pitch out of jams, like in the fourth inning.

"Yeah, I mean that lineup's really good,” Jones said. “I'm sure they're going to be in the playoffs this year. And pitching the way I did and only having two pitches as mistakes, it's good signs."

Jones was able to go through that O’s lineup three times, mixing in the slider effectively as well, getting nine whiffs. There were a few signs that led to Shelton taking him out after 80 pitches, including Jones’ fastball velocity starting to dip a bit and him moving away from his breaking stuff late.

Still, it was the type of showing one could hope for in a home opener and from a rookie pitching in a new environment, whether that’s because he’s facing a playoff-caliber lineup or that the kid from La Mirada, Calif., had to pitch through the snow.

“He continues to show us things that make us continue to realize why he’s going to be a good Major League pitcher,” Shelton said.

Unfortunately for Jones, Orioles starter Grayson Rodriguez posted a nearly identical line, working around two solo shots to strike out seven over 6 1/3 innings.

“[Jones is] a young pitcher that is going to be in this league for a long time, and it was a lot of fun to see him pitch," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez’s effort helped deal Jones his first Major League loss, but if you want to look at it from a more macro sense, pitching through that adversity is a good sign for his future.

“If you like baseball and you like young, big arms, you would really like to watch our game today,” Shelton said.