Jason Jennings

This article was written by Michael T. Roberts

Jason Jennings had what might be the greatest debut in baseball history. His first game at the major-league level was so impressive that no less an authority on greatness than the National Baseball Hall of Fame contacted the Colorado Rockies to inquire about displaying memorabilia from the game.

The Rockies promoted pitcher Jennings from Triple-A Colorado Springs on August 23, 2001, to replace reliever Jose Jimenez, who had been placed on the disabled list. Jennings was immediately summoned to start the game that evening at Shea Stadium in New York against the Mets. All he did was pitch a five-hit complete-game shutout, striking out eight and walking four. He also added three hits, including a home run. He is the only pitcher in baseball’s modern era to pitch a shutout and hit a home run in his major-league debut. 

Jason Ryan Jennings was born on July 17, 1978, in Dallas, the oldest child and only son of Jim and Connie (Cummings) Jennings. As of 2017 his father worked in the sporting-goods business in the Dallas area, and his mother was an administrative assistant in the athletic office of the Mesquite Independent School District. Sisters Krystal and Jamie joined the family in 1981 and 1984. Jason was influenced by his father, a former football player at the University of Texas, Uncle Bobby Cummings, a former TCU linebacker, and his grandfather. His father and uncle coached him growing up, and taught him to be “super competitive and humble.”1 His grandfather was a Dallas area broadcaster, with the result that young Jason spent time around many successful people. 

A standout in both football and baseball at Poteet High School in Mesquite, Texas, Jennings was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 54th round of the 1996 first-year player draft. Rather than sign with Arizona, he hoped to attend the University of Texas. But it was Baylor University that offered a baseball scholarship, and thus Jason became a Baylor Bear.

Texas’s loss was Baylor’s gain, as Jennings became one of the greatest players in Baylor history. He was a standout two-way player, excelling both as a hitter and on the mound. On offense, in 172 career games he had a .344 batting average on 207 hits that included 41 doubles and 39 home runs. His career as a pitcher includes 69 appearances with 34 starts, a 27-11won-lost record, 3.56 ERA, 15 complete games including three shutouts, 13 saves, 377 strikeouts, and 125 walks in 313⅓ innings.

Jennings was a three-time All-American, and earned Division I Player of the Year honors in his senior season of 1999. He was elected to the Baylor University Hall of Fame in 2009, and the university retired his number 17 in 2014. He also pitched for the USA National team in 1997 and 1998.

The Rockies made the brawny Jennings (6-feet-2, 235 pounds) their first pick in the 1999 first-year player draft, the 16th player chosen. Drafted as a pitcher, Jennings was assigned to the low-A Portland Rockies of the Northwest League to start the 1999 season. He pitched in two games and dominated the nine innings he worked, striking out 11, walking two, and giving up five hits. This earned him a quick promotion to the low Class-A Asheville Tourists of the South Atlantic League, where he went 2-2 in 12 starts with a 3.70 earned-run average. He struck out 69 batters and walked only eight in 58⅓ innings. His teammates included future Rockies standouts Matt Holliday, Juan Uribe, Juan Pierre, and Aaron Cook.

Promoted along with Uribe and Holliday to Salem of the high Class-A Carolina League for the 2000 season, Jennings made 22 starts, pitched 150⅓ innings, struck out 133, and walked 42. This earned him a late promotion to Carolina of the Double-A Southern League, where he went 1-3 in six starts, but continued to have an impressive K/BB ratio, striking out 33 and walking only 11.

Jennings started the 2001 season with Carolina, but was promoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs after four starts. In 22 starts for the Sky Sox, he went 7-8 with a 4.72 ERA. Those numbers do not stand out on their own; however the 2001 Pacific Coast League featured mostly hitter-friendly ballparks averaging five runs per team per game, and had an aggregate batting average of .275. In addition, Jennings was 22 years old, which was over five years younger than the average PCL player.

Brought up to the Rockies in August after the Jimenez injury, Jennings followed the memorable first start with six more starts down the stretch. He won again in his second start, going six innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers allowing eight hits and two runs. He won again in his third start, giving up only three hits in seven innings against the Giants in San Francisco. (One of those hits was Barry Bonds’ 58th home run of the season, on his way to a record 73.)

Five days later, again facing the Giants but at Coors Field, Jennings suffered the first loss of his big-league career. He gave up four runs on nine hits and three walks in 5⅔ innings in a game the Giants won, 7-3. It was his only major-league loss of the season.

In his final start of the season, on October 5 at San Diego, Jennings threw six shutout innings to earn the win in a 4-0 Rockies victory. His record with the major-league Rockies was 4-1, with a 4.58 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 39⅓ innings pitched.

Despite his impressive work late in the 2001 season, Jason was not a lock to be in the Rockies’ 2002 rotation. Veteran left-handers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, both big-name free agents the Rockies had signed before the 2001 season, were assured of two spots. The Rockies were hopeful two other veterans with past success, Scott Elarton and Pete Harnisch, the latter signed in February, would secure starting spots. This left Jennings in a battle with a couple of recent farm-system graduates, John Thomson and Shawn Chacon, as candidates for the fifth rotation spot. Jennings was a long-shot entering spring training, as both Thomson and Chacon had big-league experience.

Although he struggled early in spring training, Jason’s stock grew as injuries hampered both Elarton and Harnisch. By late March, the Denver Post’s spring-training notes declared that Jennings had all but earned a spot. The Post opined, “Jason Jennings didn't want to offend the chamber of commerce, but he made it clear he has no interest in leasing a place in Colorado Springs. After his start today, he may not have to worry about it. Jennings, barring injury or Pete Harnisch's remarkable recovery, should secure the fifth spot in the rotation.”2

Jennings did earn that last spot. Using primarily an effective sinker, he went six innings in three of his first four starts. He closed the month of April with his strongest effort in start number five, pitching seven shutout innings against the Phillies in Coors Field, surrendering only four hits to get the 4-2 win. This squared Jennings’s record at 2-2, with his ERA at 3.67. From that point on, he did not lose a game until June 18. He also reeled off a stretch of victories in five straight starts in August. He was especially effective at home, which was noteworthy as Coors Field was notoriously tough on pitchers.

In a USA Today Baseball Weekly feature, columnist Bob Nightengale commented that “Jason Jennings might be the best arm to hit Colorado since John Elway. …”3   Jennings was developing a reputation for toughness on the mound, not letting any particular ballpark, especially Coors Field, or any recent struggles affect his current work.

By September, Jennings was being talked about in terms of the likely 2002 Rookie of the Year. After his 16th win, the Denver Post exclaimed, “Despite their barren offense and shaky bullpen, the Rockies are nearly unbeatable every fifth day when Jason Jennings takes the mound. Further cementing his rookie of the year status, the burly right-hander devoured the Padres for seven innings as Colorado posted a 5-2 win Monday night before 31,837 at Qualcomm Stadium.”4 Jennings dropped two of his final four starts, the other two being no-decisions. He finished 2002 with a 16-8 record and a 4.52 ERA, a respectable number for a guy pitching half of his games in Denver. (The Rockies’ team ERA for 2002 was 5.20, worst in the National League.) Jennings’s victories were the most for a National League rookie pitcher since 1985. He was also a tough out at the plate, hitting .306 and driving in 11 runs. His batting mark was the best for a National League rookie pitcher since 1947.5

Jennings indeed won the National League Rookie of the Year Award, winning 27 of the 32 first-place votes. It was the first significant award won by a Rockies pitcher.

A strong 2003 spring training cemented Jennings’s spot as the Rockies’ number-one starter. His heroics were especially welcome to a franchise historically known only for its hitters. With hopes high, the 2003 regular season started with a thud. Playing the Astros in Houston to start the season, Jennings was rocked for eight earned runs on nine hits, surrendering three home runs in four innings of work. It was the most earned runs Jennings had allowed in a game up to that time. Relying more on a slider than the vaunted sinker, Jennings continued to struggle in the early going. He finished April with a 2-3 record and 6.97 ERA, which was primarily due to poor command as evidenced by 12 walks in 31 innings pitched. Despite Jennings’s struggles, the Rockies as a team looked to be much improved over the team that finished 73-89 in 2002. With a 15-12 record in the first month, fans were optimistic that once Jennings found his stride the Rockies could be serious contenders for the National League West title.

It was June before Jennings looked like the 2002 version. He went 4-1 during the month, winning his first four starts, and lowering his ERA from 5.40 to 4.70. Perhaps his best outing of the season occurred on June 10 in Minnesota, where he threw 7⅔ innings of three-hit shutout ball, striking out seven.

The second half of the season saw both Colorado and Jennings unable to find consistency. The Rockies finished only one game better than the previous season. Jennings fell victim to the time-honored sophomore jinx, with a 12-13 record and a 5.11 ERA. He walked hitters at a rate of 4.4 per nine innings, up a full walk per game from the prior year. He was especially vulnerable to multiple-run innings. “I don’t know what causes it, but it has been a problem,” he commented after his final start, a game in which Randy Johnson threw a one-hitter against the Rockies. “Last year, it seemed I could make that big pitch to get out of that inning. I could get the double play.”6

The 2004 season was more of the same, with similar numbers as the previous year. Jennings again struggled with his control, walking batters at a rate of 4.5 per nine innings. And as in 2003, he started the season slow. After his first six starts his ERA was a whopping 10.57. There were even rumors that he was headed back to Triple A. Jennings did regain some consistency with his sinker, and won eight of 11 decisions from late May through July. But he failed to win a game after August 17. The Rockies’ weak bullpen was a big reason; Jennings had no-decisions in six of his final eight starts. He finished 11-12 with an ERA of 5.51. The Rockies regressed as a team, finishing at 68-94. Only their initial season as an expansion team in 1993 was worse.

The Rockies had some decisions to make after the poor showing in 2004. The top priorities were to improve the bullpen and to sign Jennings and fellow starter Joe Kennedy. Both were eligible for arbitration and thus had some leverage in negotiating an agreement. Despite his struggles the previous two years, Jennings was durable, starting a combined 65 games and throwing over 382 innings.

In January 2005, the Rockies and Jennings came to an agreement on a two-year, $6.9 million contract. It was only the third multiyear deal given to a pitcher by the Rockies, and a significant increase over his 2004 salary of $340,000. Jennings had become the franchise’s most successful home-grown pitcher, with 43 wins under his belt in just over three full seasons. What made him particularly valuable was a stellar 23-13 record in Coors Field, normally a death sentence for a pitcher’s statistics. In addition, ESPN named Jennings the best hitting pitcher in baseball. His career batting average of .257 was the best among active pitchers heading in to the 2005 season.

As spring training got underway, a Rocky Mountain News article claimed Jennings was to the pitching staff what slugger Todd Helton was to the lineup, “a cornerstone for the long-term building plan.”7 He had a strong spring, his best since joining the Rockies, however he was not chosen to be the Opening Day pitcher. That assignment went to left-hander Joe Kennedy. Never one to get off to a good start, Jennings hoped things would be different in 2005. "I think I'm more ahead of schedule coming out of spring (training) than I have been in the past,” he said.8 Pitching coach Bob Apodaca worked with him during the spring to refine his mechanics and be more consistent in his delivery.

Starting the second game of the season, things were no better for Jennings than past April starts. After facing three batters, he was already down 3-0. He lasted just four innings, giving up seven hits and six runs, four earned. He did fare better later in the month, throwing a complete game in a 9-1 win against the Dodgers on April 22. But that was Jennings’s only win until May 26, when he yielded a single run in seven innings at Wrigley Field. At that point in the season his record stood at 2-6, with a 6.37 ERA.

By July, Jennings had returned to the consistency that kept him atop the rotation. In his first three starts of the month, he pitched 20 innings, yielding only four earned runs and lowering his ERA from 5.75 to 5.08. He went seven scoreless innings and got the win on July 9, in the first-ever 1-0 game at Coors Field. With the July 31 trade deadline approaching, both the San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox showed interest in acquiring the big right-hander, but the Rockies were not willing to part with their ace. He looked to be headed toward a strong finish.

Then came July 20, and a start in Washington against the Nationals. Jennings had gone five strong innings, continuing a stretch of effective starts over the last two months. In the top of the sixth, with the Rockies up 3-2 and no one on base, he singled. Cory Sullivan bunted. Nats first baseman Brad Wilkerson fielded it and threw to second attempting to get the force out. Jennings slid into second and awkwardly caught his right hand on the base. As a result, his middle finger was fractured, ending his season. After seasons of 32, 32, and 33 starts, the injury held him to 20 starts in ’05. His final record stood at 6-9, with a 5.02 ERA.

Jennings’s goal heading in to 2006 was to put the injury behind him and earn the Opening Day starting assignment. He hoped to change his early-season misfortunes by adjusting his offseason workout, concentrating on routines to strengthen his back, shoulders and abs. "What I am doing has changed my body composition. I feel more solid," Jennings said in a Denver Post interview. "I am happy with the way the workouts are going and hope it makes a difference in (the way the season starts)."9 In addition, pitching coach Apodaca changed the pitchers’ spring-training work schedule, having starters throw more than in prior springs.

On February 24, manager Clint Hurdle announced that Jennings would indeed start on Opening day, becoming the fourth pitcher in Rockies history to make two Opening Day starts. By this time Jennings was the senior member of the Rockies staff, despite having only four full seasons in the big leagues. He was also the Rockies’ second-longest-tenured player, behind only Todd Helton.

Despite battling a flu bug, Jennings was impressive in the 2006 opener, a 3-2 win in 11 innings over the Arizona Diamondbacks. He threw seven innings of one-run ball. In postgame comments, Jennings said, “Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come. Usually as I get more tired (and) as the season wears on, I get better. Most sinkerball guys are like that. Hopefully, I can just come out this year and change the trend I've had since I've been here."10

Things did go a little better early on. Jennings earned his first win in start number two, going six innings at San Diego, giving up five hits and three runs. His final two April starts were rough, though; he allowed seven earned runs in San Francisco on April 21, and again in Philadelphia on April 26. But those were Jennings’s two worst starts of the season, as he settled in after that and pitched the best ball of his career. By July his earned-run average had dipped below 4.00. From June 15 through mid-August, he had an NL-best 2.03 ERA.11 He was threatening to break Joe Kennedy’s mark (3.66) for the lowest season ERA for a Rockies starter, checking in at 3.34 as of August 16.

Jennings pitched well, but his won-lost record did not benefit much due to some tough luck and the Rockies’ unusually weak offense in 2006. As of August 23, he had 19 quality starts (defined as at least six innings with three or fewer earned runs) second most in the National League, yet was only 6-6 in those games. He had the third lowest run support in the league.

As the innings piled up over the second half of the season, Jennings was less effective. By season’s end he was gassed. "I think it is fatigue as much as anything," manager Hurdle said after his final start of the season. "He had five walks and zero punchouts. He did not have a crisp fastball. The workload has piled up on him a little bit."12 His ERA had climbed to 3.78. There was some thought about giving him the start in the final game of the season, October 1. He would break the Rockies’ season ERA mark with seven shutout innings in that game, but due to the fatigue of the long season he decided to forgo the start and shut it down for the year.

In 2006 Jennings pitched a career-high 212 innings, the fourth highest total in Rockies history up to then. He had a career-low 3.78 ERA. His 9-13 record did not reflect his true value, and would have much better with more run support.

Because Jennings would be eligible for free agency after the 2007 season, rumors circulated that the Rockies were shopping him in the offseason to plug gaps in other areas, most notably center field. Despite his success at home, Jennings was open to the notion of pitching away from Coors Field. Negotiations grew tense between the club and Jennings in early December, when the Rockies made what amounted to a “discounted” offer to their star right-hander. The proposal was less than pitchers of his caliber had signed, and Jennings would not respond to the offer. Rockies owner Charlie Monfort felt Jennings was being unfair in not responding. General manager Dan O’Dowd felt he had no choice but to trade Jennings, given the likelihood that he would not sign the contract extension and could potentially leave the team as a free agent once the 2007 season concluded.

Jennings’s career with the Rockies came to an end on December 12, 2006. The Rockies traded him to Houston. While the trade was viewed as a good one for the Rockies, who received two promising young pitchers and speedy center fielder Willy Taveras, it involved arguably the best pitcher in Rockies history. Jennings held the club records for wins (58); innings pitched (941); games started (156); and shutouts (3). As the 2002 Rookie of the Year, he was also the only Rockies pitcher to earn an award.

But Jennings’s major-league career went downhill after he left Colorado. In 2007, his lone season with Houston, he struggled to a 2-9 record with an ERA of 6.45. Elbow problems, which he disclosed in August as having dealt with “for well over a year now,” kept him on the disabled list most of April and May.13 His season ended in August when it was determined surgery was required.

Houston did not bring Jennings back for 2008. A free agent, he signed a one-year agreement with the Texas Rangers at a guaranteed $4 million, with incentives based on pitching appearances and milestones. Everything looked bright: Jennings would be pitching for his hometown team, and felt healthy for the first time since early 2006.

Despite the optimism, it was more of the same in 2008. Jennings struggled, with what was becoming a chronic sore elbow. After just six starts, he was placed on the disabled list. He missed the rest of the season.

Jennings re-signed with the Rangers for the 2009 season, and was moved to the bullpen. It turned out to be his last season in the major leagues. He pitched well over the first half of the season, but was hit hard from late July on, and was released in August. He closed out his career with 44 appearances in the season and a 4.13 ERA. He signed a minor-league deal with the Oakland Athletics for 2010, but did not make their major-league roster.

Jennings continued to play minor-league ball through 2011. He was 10-2 for the independent American Association champion Grand Prairie AirHogs before retiring from professional baseball in 2012.

Through the 2017 season, Jennings was in the Rockies’ top 10 in nearly all major pitching categories. He was fourth in wins (58), innings pitched (941), and games started (156). He was tied with Ubaldo Jimenez for the club lead in shutouts (3), and was fifth in strikeouts (622).

As of 2018 Jennings lived in Frisco, Texas, with his wife, Kelly; sons, Keathan and Braden; and daughter, Bailee. He founded and operates Pastime Training Center in Frisco, dedicated to training youngsters in baseball and softball skills, and life lessons.

Last revised: March 1, 2018

 

This biography originally appeared in "Major League Baseball A Mile High: The First Quarter Century of the Colorado Rockies" (SABR, 2018), edited by Bill Nowlin and Paul T. Parker.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted thebaseballcube.com, Baseball-Reference.com, and Retrosheet.org.

 

Notes

1 Email correspondence with Jason Jennings, September 2017.

2 Troy E. Renck, “Colorado Rockies Spring Training,” Denver Post, March 24, 2002: C-4.

3 Bob Nightengale, “Jennings Proves Coors Can Be Tamed,” USA Today Baseball Weekly, August 28-September 3, 2002: 5.

4 Troy E. Renck, “Jennings Lights Up Dim Scene, Rookie Making Case for Award,” Denver Post, September 3, 2002: D-06.

5 Troy E. Renck, “Jennings Top NL Rookie/Pitcher Says Changeup Will Keep Him in Groove,” Denver Post, November 5, 2002: D-01.

6 Ibid.

7 Tracy Ringolsby, “Jennings Armed For '05 — Rockies Pitcher, With 2-Year Deal, Ready for Business,” Rocky Mountain News, February 19, 2005: 1B.

8 Jack Etkin, “Jennings Eyes Quicker Start — Right-Hander Confident He Will Bring an End to His April Woes This Year,” Rocky Mountain News, April 6, 2005: 6C.

9 Troy E. Renck, “Rockies — Getting to Core of the Matter — Jennings Uses New Winter Workout,” Denver Post, January 2, 2006: C-02.

10 John Henderson, “Sinkerball Lifts Jennings' Recovery — Flu Bug Squashed — The Opening-Day Starter Reverses a Trend of Getting Off on the Wrong Foot With Seven Strong Innings,” Denver Post, April 4, 2006: D-09.

11 Troy E. Renck, “Untimely Generosity Puts L.A. Back in First/Dodgers 4, Rockies 3,” Denver Post, August 11, 2006: D-01.

12 Tracy Ringolsby, “Dodgers Get in Way of Jennings' Pursuit — Pitcher Loses Game, Ground in Quest for Rockies ERA Record,” Rocky Mountain News, September 27, 2006: 4C.

13 Jose de Jesus Ortiz, “Astros’ Jennings Faces Season-Ending Surgery,” Houston Chronicle, August 22, 2007.