Spencer Jones earned a reputation as a hitter — a big, strong lefty with a beautiful stroke, power and speed.
Then La Costa Canyon High baseball coach Justin Machado — short on pitching in the middle of last season’s Lions Tournament — decided to give the 6-foot-7 Jones a pitching start against No. 1-ranked Eastlake in front of about 25 major league scouts who had come to see Titans right-hander Grant Holman.
Holman didn’t disappoint, touching 94 mph in beating the Mavericks.
But when Jones hit 92-93 mph on the radar guns, he sent the scouts scrambling.
“I had never been more than a mid-80s guy,” Jones said. “All of a sudden, I’m in the low-90s, and people are buzzing.”
Jones threw only 271/3 innings last season, but he struck out 33.
That’s the upside.
The downside was 33 walks and a 4.09 ERA.
To smooth out his mechanics, Jones enlisted the help of Dom Johnson, a pitching guru, who works with a number of major leaguers.
“Spencer was clueless, a rudderless ship,” Johnson said.
“At 6-7, there were a lot of moving parts. But he’s very intelligent. He’s a great listener. He wants to get better.
“He had no experience as a pitcher, but the talent is there. He has worked hard to smooth his delivery, but he still gets out of whack at times. That will get better with experience.”
Jones said he considers himself a hitter who pitches. And the numbers back him.
He hit .414 for LCC last season with five homers, seven doubles and 32 RBIs. Plus, he had 12 stolen bases and struck out just 14 times in 123 plate appearances.
“We always thought of Spencer as a hitter,” said one major league scout, who spoke on condition his name not be used. “But he has opened some eyes with his pitching.
“You don’t get a lot of lefties throwing 92-93-94. Plus, he’s tall, so he has some downhill tilt. His pitches have a left-hander’s natural movement.”
A summer on the showcase circuit that included trips to Georgia, Florida, Texas and Illinois put him in the national spotlight.
At the end of the summer, he turned scouts’ heads at the Area Code Games in Long Beach, then threw a great inning at the Perfect Game All-American Classic in Petco Park.
After his inning in Petco, he led off the next inning with a line-drive single to center.
“Impressive. Really, really impressive,” another scout said.
MaxPreps lists him as a preseason All-American.
Baseball America has him ranked as the 26th-best draft-eligible player. Street & Smith’s Baseball Annual has him rated No. 31. And that includes college and high school players.
Those numbers put Jones squarely in the crosshairs of the first round of the major league draft.
“We’re used to having major league scouts buzzing around here,” said Machado, who has third baseman Phillip Evans in the big leagues and saw Mavericks center fielder Mickey Moniak drafted No. 1 overall by the Philadelphia Phillies two years ago.
“But this is different.
“The scouts knew if we were playing, Mickey was going to play center field and hit at the top of the lineup.
“But it’s labor intensive when pitchers are involved. I’m getting tons of calls.
“The scouts not only want to know when Spencer is going to pitch, but against what team and how long I plan to have him out there.
“He’s scary good now, and he’ll only get better. He’s a big puppy dog, who is going to grow into his body.
“And don’t forget, he’s one of the top hitters in the country.”
Jones has signed to play at Vanderbilt — a top-flight academic and baseball school.
The Commodores want him as a hitter and pitcher. That appeals to a player who carries a 4.2 GPA.
“I’ve been a hitter for 10 years,” Jones said. “I’ve been a pitcher for a year. I may end up doing just one thing. That will work itself out. And I’ll be the first to know it.”
Scouts also like the fact Jones has a plus-breaking ball, delivered from a high-three-quarters arm slot.
After sessions with Johnson, he has added a change-up.
“I tried all kinds of change-up grips — splitter, choke, circle,” said Jones. “Nothing felt comfortable.
“Then, while I was working with Dom, Chris Devenski of the Astros came over and showed me his grip. And I loved it. It felt natural.
“Now I need to work on it, use it in games to show the scouts — and also the hitters — that I have more than two pitches.”
Jones saw what Moniak went through in the draft. He saw the money his former teammate received. He has benefited from Moniak’s donation back to the program to refurbish the clubhouse.
“It’s weird to think I could be a pro,” Jones said. “If I sign out of high school, I’d be the first person in two generations of my family not to go to college.
“I’m still only 17, and I have a lot of things to think about.
“College is a place to get better as a person and player.
“Pro ball is pro ball, a chance to get to the major leagues.
“My goal right now is to be the best I can be for my team. I’m a senior. This is my team. It’s my responsibility to lead on the field and by example. I want to take on that burden.
“If pro ball is right, I’ll be the first to know it.
“I still have a few months for all that to play out.”
-- John Maffei is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune