Jones Wins WAR to Earn Place on All-Time Tribe Team
By Ronnie Tellalian
Many famous closers have sauntered their way through the Indians clubhouse. Jose Mesa was a superhero in 1995. Bob Wickman holds the Indians All-Time saves record. Mike Jackson earned MVP votes for his role as the Indians closer in 1998. Ray Narleski set the clubs saves record in 1959, and held it for nearly 30 years. One closer, however, stood out among the rest. He is the only relief pitcher in Indians history to make three consecutive All-Star appearances, and he held the All-Time and single season saves record for nearly 20 years.
Closer: Doug Jones
Doug Jones toiled in the minor leagues for the Milwaukee Brewers for nine years, pitching in only 2.2 Major League innings before signing with the Cleveland Indians in 1985. He earned a call-up late in the 1986 season, and made his mark in a short stint. In 11 games he pitched 18 innings, winning one game and striking out 12. The following year would be his first full season in the major leagues at age 30.
When thinking of the quintessential closer, most imagine a guy that blows hitters away with fastballs that reach speeds in the mid to high 90’s. Jones is the exact antithesis to this image. This may be one reason Jones struggled to advance through the Brewers minor league systems. Jones’ fastball meandered towards the plate at a modest 86 miles per hour. The pitched that earned Jones his 846 career games and 303 saves was his incredible change-up.
If any of you had been keeping up with this year’s MVP race, then you’ve probably seen the fella’s on ESPN refer to a statistic known as WAR. WAR is an acronym for Wins Above Replacement. WAR is an attempt by the analytical community to quantify a given players contribution above that of a replacement level player. Replacement defined as a Triple A player, or a player that could be picked up on wavers. This “replacement level” changes every season. WAR compares a player only to other players at his position in his league. Generally, a WAR of 1 is a bench player, a WAR of 2-3 is a starter, a WAR of 4-5 is an All-Star, and a WAR of 6 or higher is an MVP candidate.
In terms of WAR, relief pitchers and starters are not differentiated. Therefore relievers are judged on a scale of 1 being a good season, 2.5 being an All-Star season and 3.5+ being an all-time great season. The highest WAR ever put up by a relief pitcher is 5.4, this from Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter in 1977.
The breakout year for Doug Jones came in 1987. He earned a spot in the back of the rotation for the Cleveland Indians, the first team that gave the now 31-year old Jones a chance. He won six games in 49 appearances, earning eight saves in 91.1 innings. He struck out 87 batters, the second highest total of his career, and allowed only a 3.15 ERA. He also put up a powerful 2.8 WAR, a very high number for a reliever.
The 1988 season was even better for Jones. He won the roll of closer, and proved he deserved the accolade. He won three games, saved 37, and pitched to a 2.27 ERA. He struck out 7.8 per nine innings, and allowed only 1 home run in his 83.1 innings pitched. He made the All-Star team for the first time in his career. In the All-Star game, Jones pitched two thirds scoreless inning for the American League squad. An even more amazing feat, Jones produced an astonishing 3.9 WAR on the season.
To put that in perspective, only five relievers in Major League history have produced more WAR in a single season that Doug Jones did in 1988. Those five pitchers were Mariano Rivera, Bruce Sutter, Rich Gossage, Eric Gagne and Francisco Rodriguez.
More success followed in 1989. Jones earned 32 saves in 59 games. He won 7 games and threw 80.2 innings. He made his second consecutive All-Star game on the strength of his low 2.34 ERA. He also broke the club career saves record, surpassing long time holder Ray Narleski.
He continued to break records in 1990. His All-Star appearance in this season marked the first time ever that an Indians reliever made three consecutive All-Star games. He won 5 games on the season, and set a personal best with 43 saves. In 84.1 innings of work, he allowed only a 2.56 ERA.
The 1991 season would end Jones’ six year stint in an Indians uniform. He saved a mere 7 games that year, and put up some disappointing numbers across the board. He would return for a brief period in 1998, pitching in 23 games with an ERA of 3.45. In all, Jones spent 7 seasons in Cleveland. He won 27 games with a career 3.06 ERA. When he retired in 2000, he was the Indians All-Time saves leader with 129.
Jones wasn’t remembered by history maybe quit as well as he should. His 24.7 career WAR ties him with Billy Wagner for the third highest all-time by a reliever. Only five relievers in baseball history have 24 or more WAR over their career. Those are Mariano Rivera (38.3), Rich Gossage (29.6), Doug Jones (24.7), Billy Wagner (24.7), and Rollie Fingers (24.6). Gossage and Fingers are in the Hall of Fame, and Rivera is well on his way.
Jones didn’t blow guys away with a 97-mph heater, but he got outs any way he could. He used control and change of speeds to keep guys off balance and remain a strong bullpen piece for 16 years. Maybe he doesn’t belong among the top names in the game, but he was the Jack Morris of closers; a tough, gritty guy that got the job done.