Detroit – Approached in early September about the possibility of retiring, Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones looked at the reporter like he had spoken in tongues.
“I wasn’t thinking about retiring,” he said.
Apparently, he has since given it a lot of thought.
Jones, with the Tigers dating back to 1989 and the team’s pitching coach since 2011, announced Monday he was retiring.
“I was thinking about it the last half of the season,” Jones told the News Monday evening. “It didn’t really have anything to do with what went on during the season. But I had talked to my family about it, told them this might be my last year. It turned out that it was.”
Jones made it clear that he is leaving on his own terms.
“I talked to Brad (Ausmus) and to Al (Avila) and told them I was thinking about retiring,” Jones said. “Al said to take a little time. I thought about it and I talked to Al again on Friday and told him I was doing it.”
In a statement, Jones said he was grateful to the organization, especially to the Ilitch family, Dave Dombrowski, Jim Leyland, Avila and Ausmus.
“I've been contemplating this for a little while and at this point in my life I want to spend time with my family and grandchildren, and I am looking forward to it,” Jones said.
Jones said he has offered to help Ausmus and the organization transition to a new pitching coach.
“I have nothing but great things to say about everybody,” Jones said. “I told Brad that I’d be available to help whoever gets the job, if he wants my help. Anything I can do to help. I am a Tiger and I’ll die a Tiger. I wish them nothing but success.”
Jones was set to retire after Leyland resigned following the 2013 season. In-coming manager Brad Ausmus talked him into returning.
“I’m going to miss Jonesy, both professionally and personally,” Ausmus said via text message. “He was an excellent pitching coach who provided direction, honesty and levity. I wish him all the best and look forward to staying in touch with him.”
Ausmus, who has begun a search for Jones’ replacement, declined to discuss possible candidates. It is presumed the only in-house candidate is minor league pitching coordinator A.J. Sager.
Tigers reliever Alex Wilson said he began hearing rumblings about Jones possibly retiring toward the end of last season.
“He never said a single word about it to anybody,” Wilson said. “But I heard some rumors about it, so this doesn’t surprise me a whole lot.”
Jones only coached Wilson for one year, but he made a strong impression on him.
“His coaching style was perfect for me,” Wilson said. “He said something when he needed to say something and other than that, he let us do our own thing. When you get to this level, that’s a really good thing. ... Every time I needed something to be said, he was already coming in my direction.
“He had a great feel for the game.”
He was dubbed the "pitcher whisperer" by some in the media because of his uncanny knack for seeing subtle flaws in deliveries and being able to communicate that and fix it in very few words.
With Wilson, early in spring training, Jones noticed his delivery had gotten long, which is partly why he struggled early.
“He told me I was just a tick off and that it’ll come, keep working,” Wilson said. “During my outings or right after, he’d come up to me and say, ‘Hey, shorten up,' or, 'Try to stay back a little bit.'"
Wilson, called up to the Tigers in April, became one of the most reliable relievers in the Tigers bullpen, posting a 2.19 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP.
“He was one of my favorite pitching coaches,” Wilson said. “I wish I was able to spend more time with him. This was my best year and I think a lot of it had to do with him.”
Jones perhaps did his best work with starting pitchers. He helped Justin Verlander (Cy Young 2011), Max Scherzer (Cy Young 2013) and Anibal Sanchez (ERA crown 2013) take their games to another level.
Rick Porcello, Doug Fister and Drew Smyly also blossomed under Jones’ tutelage while pitching for the Tigers.
“Just the fact that we had the opportunity to play in the postseason for four of the five years I was pitching coach, that’s all you can ask for,” Jones said. “The guys were very responsive when I came in. We did some stuff with deliveries and whatnot, but it was a good group, a talented group. They did a good job and made me look good.”
He also presided over one of the worst bullpens in baseball the past two seasons. But, in that time, he’s helped develop young pitchers like Wilson, Blaine Hardy, Kyle Ryan and Drew VerHagen – all of whom had breakout seasons in 2015.
“He wasn’t a guy that wanted you to throw a particular way,” Wilson said. “He worked with your style and that says a lot about him. That’s tough to do. You’ve got so many guys who throw in so many different ways, but he was able to help every one of us.”
Jones’ professional career spanned 38 years. The Southgate High School standout was drafted by the A’s in the 13th round in 1977 and he pitched for 11 seasons, five with the A’s.
From 1995 through 2011, he served five different stints as the Tigers bullpen coach (1995, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2006). He was the pitching coach at Triple-A Toledo from 2000-06, and before that in 1990, 1993-94 and 1997-98.
His first coaching stint with the Tigers was in 1989, as pitching coach at Single-A Fayetteville. He spent two seasons as the pitching coach at Double-A London (1991-92) and one season as the pitching coach at Double-A Jacksonville (1996).
Jim Leyland finally hired him as the Tigers' pitching coach on July 3, 2011.
“What I will take with me is all the great guys I worked with and all the great coaches I was around and had the opportunity to learn from,” Jones said. “But I’m going to be around. I’m a Tiger for life and I wish them nothing but success. I’m going into a different phase of my life but I will probably watch every game.”