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With each passing month, the list of minor league position players transitioning to pitchers continues to grow. Most of the attempted converts are struggling hitters in the low minors, seeking a way to extend their professional careers.
That’s where James Jones is different.
Jones, 27, played parts of the last two seasons in the majors as an outfielder with the Mariners and Rangers, but has now gone back down to the low minors to reinvent himself as a lefthanded pitcher.
A two-way standout in college at Long Island as an outfielder and lefthander, Jones is attempting to make the change much later than others around him have, and with a much more accomplished resume in pro ball.
“James approached us on it and it was something we thought was a good idea and one that we supported,” Rangers farm director Mike Daly said. “We both—the organization and James—felt it was best to make the conversion sooner rather than later.”
Jones, who approached the Rangers about making the change in July, had not pitched since 2009 in his junior year at LIU. There, he had a .323 batting average with 18 home runs and 47 stolen bases compared to a 6.60 career ERA in three seasons with the Blackbirds. Some teams leading up to the 2009 draft, however, preferred Jones as a pitcher based on his strong 6-foot-4 frame, elite athleticism and fastball that touched 95 mph from the left side.
The Mariners, though, drafted him in the fourth round as an outfielder and developed him there exclusively. It is hard to say that was a mistake given Jones’ .276/.356/.423 career slash line in the minors and his 136 career games in the majors as an outfielder with the Mariners and Rangers.
But with Jones, who turns 28 in September, slumping to a .232/.297/.330 line at Triple-A Round Rock this season, he approached the Rangers about making the switch, and they were on board.
“We honestly feel he has a real opportunity on the mound to be a major league pitcher,” Daly said. “There was not a lot of hesitation on our end.”
It is a switch that has become increasingly common in today’s minor leagues.
The Cardinals’ Rowan Wick (outfield), the Braves’ Jordy Lara (first base/outfield), the Royals’ Reid Redman (second base), the Mariners’ Dillon Moyer (shortstop), the Dodgers’ David Reid-Foley (catcher), the Tigers’ Steven Fuentes (third base) and the Padres’ Jose Ruiz (catcher)—all righthanders—lead the current crop of active minor leaguers who have made the switch from position player to pitcher and are working their way up their respective systems.
Fitting The Profile
The path set by Wick in particular is appealing. Like Jones, and unlike many others who made the switch, Wick demonstrated offensive ability at one point. The 2012 ninth-round pick out of Cypress (Calif.) JC hit .378/.475/.815 at short-season State College in 2014 and tied for the New York-Penn League lead with 14 home runs.
It wasn’t until the following season, with Wick hitting .198/.226/.333 at high Class A Palm Beach, that the Cardinals made the switch.
Now, less than a year after moving to the mound, Wick is at Double-A Springfield and averaging more than a strikeout per inning at that level. Overall Wick has a 2.29 ERA and a strikeout rate of 12.2-per-nine innings across two levels this season, with an arsenal topped by a mid-90s fastball and a power curve that is increasingly landing in the zone.
“When we started the process, one of the first things we did was we took our time with going through the mechanics phase of it for Rowan’s benefit,” Cardinals farm director Gary LaRocque said. “There was really no rush at the beginning. And although you say that and say, ‘Jeez, he’s in Double-A already’, he got to the level of the league quickly with the stuff he brought to each outing, which is a credit to him.”
Jones, Wick, and the rest have a template of success to follow.
Troy Percival and Trevor Hoffman both began their pro careers as position players–Percival as a catcher and Hoffman a shortstop–before converting to the mound and becoming two of the most dominant closers of all time.
Kenley Jansen and Jason Motte (catcher), Joe Nathan (shortstop) and Sean Doolittle (first baseman) are the most prominent of a handful of active relievers who began their professional careers as position players.
Percival, now the head coach at his alma mater UC Riverside, said the key to making the transition successful is largely mental.
“A team is not going to make a change if they don’t think you have the physical part of it,” said Percival, who hit .203 with Angels short-season affiliate Boise in 1990 before converting to pitcher. “Developing the mental part of it, of ‘I am a pitcher now, and I need to learn as fast as I can’, that’s what separates the guys who make it successful and the guys who don’t.
“I picked everybody’s brain. I watched and learned and talked. Same thing when I got to the big leagues; I chewed on Lee Smith’s ear every day. I think guys who take it for granted they have a good arm and don’t try to learn something every day, they’re behind the eight-ball because those guys who have been pitching that whole time have all the experience. You’ve got to be a sponge and open up to the right people and learn as much as you can.”
While many players are making the switch from position player to pitcher in the minor leagues right now, very few are doing it the other way around.
One factor in that is, historically, going from position player to pitcher has a higher success rate than converting from pitcher to position player.
While Rick Ankiel successfully converted from the mound to have a long career as an outfielder, you have to go back to Bobby Darwin in the 1970s to find the previous time such a transition made at the professional level led to a long major league career. Stan Musial managed it in the 1930s, starting his pro career as a lefthander in the low minors before converting to the outfield.
That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been tried recently. Former Diamondbacks righthander Micah Owings, Royals 2000 first-round pick Mike Stodolka and Dodgers 2009 supplemental first-rounder Aaron Miller are some of the more prominent players to try to convert from the mound to full-time position player, but each failed to make it to the majors in that role. Kyle Drabek will be the next to try after signing as a third baseman with the Giants on July 19, three months after his final big-league appearance on the mound.
“I was there in St. Louis with Ankiel when he made his switch,” said Percival, a teammate of Ankiel’s with the Cardinals in 2007. “He was just so good at everything it worked. Not many people have that kind of skill.
“There is so much to being a position player. You’ve got to play both sides of the game for one. You gotta be able to hit, and play defense, and run the bases. If you’re going to switch to pitching, all you’re going to need is a good arm and some intelligence and be coachable. There’s just so much more to learn on the other end.”
And so Jones begins his path of becoming the latest position player-to-pitcher convert. He played his final game as an outfielder with Round Rock on July 10 and reported to the Rangers complex in Surprise, Ariz., shortly after to relearn the finer points of pitching.
He made his first mound appearance on Aug. 4 and pitched a scoreless inning of relief for the Rangers’ Arizona League affiliate, punctuated by his first strikeout. He made one more scoreless appearance there before being promoted to low Class A Hickory. After one appearance at Hickory, where he showed a 90-93 mph fastball, he went on the disabled list with an elbow impingement.
If all goes according to plan, Jones can become one of the rare few to appear in the majors both as a position player and a pitcher, and possibly lay the groundwork for more such conversions in the future.
“We have no doubts he’ll be able to make the successful conversion,” Daly said. “It’s something where we feel so highly of James as a person—his makeup, his work ethic—that once he was committed to pitching, he was not going to have any problems.”