What would you call a pitcher with a 3.79 fielder independent pitching (FIP), a 51.3% ground ball rate, a home run to fly ball ratio of 9.9%, and an fWAR of 2.0?
My guess is you wouldn’t immediately call him the 2013 version of Edwin Jackson. But it was. We all know about the 18 losses (Don’t get me started on pitcher W-L record), the 4.98 ERA, and the meltdown innings where everything just fell apart for him. We know about all of those things because those are the narratives that drive Edwin Jackson’s “bust” label in his 35 starts as a Cub.
When you dig deeper than the box score, however, you find that he was actually pretty close to vintage Edwin Jackson. Since 2010, he’s managed to keep his FIP between 3.5 and 4.0 every season, in spite of being a part of six teams. His home run rate last season actually dropped from 11.7% with the Nationals in 2012 to 9.9% with the Cubs. The 9.9 mark falls right into his career norm. The drop can also be attributed to his *best* ground ball rate since 2006, and the best of any year where he was a regular starting pitcher.
What went wrong for Jackson last year, then? Well, two things.
First, he had some horrible luck. His BABIP allowed was .322. Apart from 2011 with the White Sox and Cardinals, that was the highest mark of his career. It was a bit hard to explain, too. With the ground ball rate that Jackson produced, his BABIP allowed should have probably been closer to his career mark of .309. Considering Anthony Rizzo and Darwin Barney were the best statistical defenders at their positions last season and Luis Valbuena played better than average defense, it is hard to believe that a ground ball pitcher would suffer as much as Jackson did. As a whole, the Cubs were one of the best defensive teams in the National League. For a guy who kept the ball in the ballpark as much as Jackson did and kept the ball on the ground as much as Jackson did, it’s really hard to explain how so many of the balls that were hit off of him found daylight and open spaces.
The other thing that bit Jackson last season – sequencing. Actually, this little bugger bit the entire team last season, but one could argue it bit nobody worse than it bit Edwin Jackson. In every respect, it would be seen in his “meltdown” innings. It was a fairly regular occurrence for Jackson to give up a bundle of singles as opposed to extra base hits. His singles allowed tended to snowball, going from one BABIP base hit to another, and as his pitch counts in innings increased, line drives became more frequent, and the innings got away from him for between three and five runs. While he worked a lot of clean innings, he had a plurality of innings that unraveled, and a 63.3 LOB%, down from a career mark of 70.4%, really highlights that. Just to note, in his start against the Reds on Saturday, he got a measure of sequencing revenge. While he gave up a base runner in each of the six innings he worked in, there was no sequence of events that led to runs until the sixth, where he gave up two runs before being pulled from the game.
The good news? These things tend to even out. As noted above, Jackson gave up some hits on Saturday, but didn’t do so in a sequence that hurt him until the very end of his start. Early on this season, things have been pretty similar to the way they were last season. Having only made four starts this season, though, I think it is fair to call it a small sample size. Jackson, himself, has a pretty solid history of bouncing back (or regressing to the mean) when he had down seasons, too.
In the end, it is entirely too early to call the contract Jackson signed a waste. First, because he is slightly over a quarter of the way through a deal that pays him about market value for a pitcher of his age and track record. Second, because he does tend to have positive regression when he flies off the handle to the negative side of things. Third, and maybe most importantly, because Jackson was a highly touted prospect when he was coming up. With the Cubs likely to acquire more pitching this year, and with existing pitching prospects developing, Jackson is a valuable presence and voice to have around as a mentor to being a professional and dealing with high expectations. Ultimately, the best reason to not write him off this this year is because it’s Easter. It’s entirely too early to make summary judgments of this season in any way, shape, or form right now.