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Jones acts as quiet mentor for Tigers' stellar rotation

Jones acts as quiet mentor for Tigers' stellar rotation

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Jones acts as quiet mentor for Tigers' stellar rotation

DETROIT -- If you want an idea what makes Jeff Jones work well as a pitching coach, watch him make a mound visit.

Keep watching. It takes a few seconds.

Jones doesn't march to the mound like an instructor about to lecture an unruly pupil. Physically, that slow walk is the product of reconstructive knee surgery a few years ago. Mentally, it's his way of giving his pitcher a chance to collect himself.

If you had to invade Justin Verlander's territory while he's at work and get that look, you might have a deliberate pace to it, too.

"Sometimes guys get locked in mentally and they don't really want any kind of break," Jones said. "And he's one of those guys."

Jones' visits with Verlander, and his ability to work with him, are one reason why he's here. The two have developed a rapport over the years that complement each other. Yet it goes beyond that.

On a pitching staff filled with stars, Jones is as unassuming as they come. And yet he's the calming influence on a pitching staff that carries a city's World Series expectations.

"He's very calm, very mild-manned," catcher Alex Avila said. "In the same way that he portrays to everybody out there, that's how he is when we're discussing hitters and things like that, or pitchers working on mechanics."

That includes the mound visits.

"Most of the time, it's so dry humor," Max Scherzer said. "Everybody thinks it's something serious going on at the mound. He comes out there and says, 'You feel good?' And I'll be like, 'Yeah, I feel good.' And he'll go, 'Well, that's good.'

"It's nothing serious. It's nothing really technical at that point. It's usually really simple. Most of the time, it's extremely bland."

At a similar pace, Jones spent two decades working for this opportunity. Unlike that walk to the mound, it wasn't always a direct route. He had five stints on Tigers coaching staffs as a bullpen coach, and four stretches at Triple A Toledo as a pitching coach.

Jones was let go five years ago, one of the fall guys for a 2008 team that ended up in last place. He was the bullpen coach then, but the team had already decided to part ways with pitching coach Chuck Hernandez. Manager Jim Leyland wanted the new pitching coach to be able to pick his bullpen guy, but Leyland had frowned on the idea of two pitching coach types on staff.

It was the pitching coach the Tigers hired, Rick Knapp, who brought Jones back. Three years later, it was Knapp whom Jones replaced.

Now, Jones is the coach behind the best rotation in baseball. And unlike others who could claim that in past seasons in other places, he gets very little credit for it.

"Honestly, I'm glad, because I want to win, but I don't ever feel it's because of me," Jones said. "I always feel it's because of their ability and their competitiveness."

Jones' manager knows his value. When Leyland has won, he has tended to have strong pitching coaches around him, from Ray Miller in Pittsburgh to Larry Rothschild with the Marlins in 1997 to Hernandez in 2006.

Jones fits the role, just from a different mold. He was an organizational guy when Leyland came on board, and joined Leyland's staff as a bullpen coach in 2007. Jones didn't get the job after 2008, but his work on the staff eventually won him over.

"He does a terrific job," Leyland said. "He's like a mother hen to them; he protects them. He's a nice buffer between me and the pitchers, which is very important. He's very supportive of me and my decisions. He's really done a whale of a job, to be honest with you."

With the talent assembled, some on the outside might argue that it's a tough job to mess up. Yet for those who have worked with Jones, his background -- from a former prep star in Michigan to collegiate pitcher at Bowling Green to A's prospect in the late 1970s to a Minor League coach -- makes him fit.

"He's not trying to reinvent the wheel to put his stamp on you," reliever Phil Coke said. "He's not that type of guy."

Jones never had a one-size-fits-all teaching system. He's not a system kind of coach. He's a tinkerer who spent years taking the pitchers that the parent club sent him and figuring them out.

"You run into two different kinds of pitchers in Triple A: Some that have already been to the big leagues and are trying to get back, and some that are on their way to the big leagues," Jones said. "It's kind of like a foundation of things that you learn from other people. I spent so many years in Triple A seeing guys come and go, and young guys coming to the big leagues, I think you just reach back to what you learned during that period of time to try to help guys."

Jones' approach is different with each pitcher, Coke said. He makes suggestions when asked, but he doesn't demand it. Even Jones' terminology differs from one player to the next.

With each one, however, there's an eye. With each starter, moreover, there's a point where Jones has made an impact.

"He's the eyes and ears of us," Scherzer said.

Jones' impact on Verlander is evident with each start. Their communication in the dugout is regular. Verlander knows his own mechanics as well as anyone, but Jones also knows what Verlander looks for when evaluating his delivery.

"Picking up on subtleties, some little things that might be going on," Verlander said. "He runs through a checklist. If something's not right, he'll kind of watch a few different things, check it off if it's all right or let me know if it's not."

Jones is good, players say, at picking out something awry.

"He can find the tiniest thing," Coke said. "That's what makes him really good."

Jones' recognition with Doug Fister came shortly after his trade from Seattle. He watched him snap off a curveball in his first side session and asked out of curiosity why he didn't throw it more often.

The breaking pitch became a major part of the curveball Fister threw the rest of the American League down the stretch, going 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA and transforming from a middle-of-the-rotation starter to a front-line talent.

Jones took a similarly quiet approach with Sanchez last year. He stayed out of the way until some August struggles had Sanchez looking for what might be wrong.

"If we get a guy in a trade, I'm not going to make wholesale changes, because obviously he's already good," Jones said.

The curveball was a major reason behind Scherzer's maturation this season, giving him another strikeout pitch. It was a process to develop, but it began with a suggestion in the bullpen late last year.

"He was always encouraging me to throw a backdoor slider for left-handed hitters," Scherzer recalled. "I told him, 'Jonesy, I just don't have a feel for it. It just doesn't feel natural to me. It just doesn't work.' So he said, 'All right, try throwing a nice big, slow slider. Don't try throwing a hard one.' And you know what, it looked good.

"He says, 'Hey, that looks good. Do it again, but throw it even slower.' I tried it again, threw it bigger and slower. He said, 'That one. That's it.' I said, 'That's a curveball.' He said, 'That's a curveball.' That's how it started."

Rick Porcello, too, can point to a curveball as his key to improvement this season, though he had thrown the pitch in the past. Unlike Detroit's other starters, however, Jones has been around Porcello from the beginning. He has been a mentor, watching him mature from a 20-year-old rookie into a veteran at 24.

"He's been great," Jones said. "He was already mature when he got here, but he's learned a lot about himself and his style, his delivery. It's been a learning process for him because he got here so young and he didn't really have much foundation, so he's kind of had to learn on the fly. I think he's handled it extremely well."

The combination has helped produce the stingiest rotation in the AL, and the most durable in baseball. Jones won't get much credit, even if they win it all this year. He'll watch with pride, though. For someone who waited so long for an opportunity, who nearly missed it a few years back, Jones is good with it.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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