In first professional season, Cornell product Brent Jones impresses
Fourteen baseball players have been drafted out of Cornell since MLB established the June Amateur Draft in 1965, and a grand total of zero have made it to the highest level. And who was the last Cornell product to have a substantial career professionally? It was Joe Birmingham; he played for Cornell in 1905. But for recent draftee Brent Jones, there is one person who is confident that he can be the most successful professional player from Cornell in the past one hundred years: Brent Jones.
Jones first drew attention on scout day at Hoy Field just over a year ago, where scouts were astonished to find an Ivy League pitcher who could top out at 96-97 mph with vicious life on his fastball. And while many Ivy League players are quickly dismissed if they experience any trouble at all throughout the season, Jones did not disappoint in the 50.1 IP he tossed for the club. He put up an excellent 2.50 ERA, struck out 47, and walked only 13. By the end of the season at Princeton, every single professional team had a scout in attendance to watch him play. And surely enough, draft day came and he waited for the call.
Jones described the day as such: “I was back home with my family… sitting in the kitchen on my computer. I was pretty anxious; I had been getting calls all morning, ‘Will you go for this amount of money?’. Then Arizona called and asked if I would go for slot, and then I said I would”. And just like that, Jones was a Diamondback.
After agreeing to the appropriate signing bonus, he reported to the Diamondbacks’ Short Season affiliate in Hillsboro, OR, the Hillsboro Hops. After just six starts, the organization realized that his stuff was too advanced for Short Season. He pitched to a 3.90 ERA and 4.76 FIP (Fielding Independent ERA) and recorded a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.80. He was then sent packing to the next level: Low-A with the South Bend Silver Hawks in South Bend, IN. It’s there, according to Jones, where he met the first true challenge of his professional career.
Hitters in Low-A, as opposed to Short Season, “…were more professional. Short Season felt like an elite college level, but hitters at South Bend were much more professional”, Jones said. This professionalism made the strike zone much smaller, and that’s where Jones saw some of his weaknesses exposed; he admitted that he had to get better with “…locating off-speed pitches. Guys at that level were good enough to foul that off, I couldn’t just expect to drop in a curveball to freeze them”. But regardless of his perceived struggles, he recorded success by the numbers. In eight starts he put up a 2.80 ERA and 3.60 FIP with a 2.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That doesn’t mean he’s satisfied or complacent with his success; if anything, it motivates him to work even harder.
After just 63 innings of professional play, Jones understands exactly what he needs to work on for the upcoming season, and he couldn’t have done that without the Diamondback’s professional coaching staff. With Short Season Jones worked with 1990 Cy Young winner Doug Drabek, who helped him work on his mechanics. That mechanics work continued into Low-A as the coaching staff gave him “…an app [to do] a lot of video work, where he [I] could watch his [my] bullpen sessions”. He feels as though these changes will be critical for his success in 2015: “I’ve been trying to stay closed better. I’ve been working on it by doing mirror work by running through dry reps of my mechanics”.
And even though he recognizes his weaknesses, that doesn’t mean he’s going to remain lax on his strengths. Even though he’s been consistently hitting velocities around 94-95 mph, he feels he can get even stronger: “I think I’ve been throwing a bit harder, and I think that’s what I’m capable of. I had knee issues the year prior, so before that season I only had one full offseason. I think now I’ll be coming into the spring the strongest I’ve been.” And once he hammers out his command issues, he feels he’ll have the 70 grade (on a 20-80 scale) fastball he’s looking for.
Now that he’s jumped up through the system quickly, professional scouts are already beginning to notice. After the Diamondbacks traded away two prospects for Jeremy Hellickson just last week, Jones jumped up into MLB.com’s Top 20 prospects in the Diamondback’s organization. He also made his way on to FanGraph’s “Evaluating the Prospects” series for the Diamondbacks, where writer Kiley McDaniel had the following to say: “RHP Brent Jones was a 4th rounder out of Cornell in June and has some effort to his delivery but lively stuff that flashes plus at times and will be pushed like [Braden] Shipley and [Aaron] Blair to see if he can start long-term.” How does Jones feel about this new attention? He said, “It gives me more motivation… the card on MLB.com is from draft time, and I feel like I’ve gotten better since then”. And considering the draft card grades him as a 45 on a 20-80 scale, Jones’ evaluation gives credence to the idea that not only can he make the big leagues, but that he can thrive there.
He has a little more time in his offseason, but he’s incredibly happy to be back in Ithaca to see his friends, former teammates, and coaches. When he heads to Arizona for his first Spring Training come February, he looks to continue his march to the big leagues, and to achieve a feat no Cornell draftee has ever accomplished.