The Cubs biggest signing this offseason was tonight's starter, RHP Edwin Jackson, who signed for a 4 year, $52M contract that included an $8M signing bonus. One way to look at this is the Cubs just gave a pitcher $19M this season who so far has gone 1-7 with a 6.11 ERA.
Couldn't the Cubs have found someone to do that from AAA or the waiver wire?
Tom and I were talking today and we agreed it's far too early to give up on Edwin Jackson. We still think it's a good deal, just a slow start for a free agent who is adjusting to a new team and new environment. And maybe he's pressing a little bit to live up to his big contract.
So I decided to look into Jackson and the stats beyond those hideous numbers he's put up this season and to see what, if anything, has changed.
Is Jackson's stuff not as good?
The first thing I wanted to check was his velocity on all his pitches. Jackson has been a workhorse his whole career, so I wondered if maybe he's starting to wear down.
The answer appears to be no.
Jackson's velo is down slightly, but that's to be expected in the colder months, when velocity tends to be a tick or two slower. Jackson's 4-seam FB velo is down less than 1 mph from last season. The rest of his pitches aren't much different. The slider and change-up are roughly the same and his two-seamer is down about 1.4 mph since last season. I'm not worried about that. I'll chalk part of that up to the cold and part to just normal statistical variance.
Moreover, Jackson's strikeouts are up...way up. They are up to 8.83 per 9 IP, which is is his career high, nearly a full strikeout ahead of last year and more than 2 strikeouts better than his 2011 season.
Jackson isn't losing steam and hasn't lost the ability to miss bats.
So let's move on.
If it's not velo, perhaps it's his approach and this time I noticed a couple of changes from last year. Jackson is throwing more cutters -- 9.6% of the time, up from 5.2% last year. He's also thrown far less change-ups. Only 1.6% of his pitches have been change-ups compared to 8% last year.
He's also thrown more sliders (from 28.2% to 31.7%) and less curveballs (4.8% to 3.1%).
There is some variance here, so I don't want to make too much of it. Pitch F/X numbers are a little different and actually have him throwing more curveballs -- but they do have him throwing far less change-ups. The pattern here is that while Jackson is throwing roughly the same number of fastballs, he is relying more on his hard secondary stuff -- more cutters and sliders combined with less change-ups and perhaps less of his lower velocity curveballs as well.
We can also take a look at his control and we do see right away that the walks are up to 3.74 per 9 innings -- his highest since 2008. One factor is it seems hitters are less likely to swing at Jackson's pitches outside the strike zone this year, taking 4-5% less swings out of the zone than they did last season. But we'll talk about other possible factors a bit later in the piece.
Sometimes it's just old-fashioned bad luck and while I see some downward (but correctable) trends with Jackson, he's also been a little unlucky. The BABIP is at .341 compared to .278 last season and .313 in his career. The .341 mark is his highest since 2007. It seems that more batted balls are falling for hits than usual and that should turn around.
We should also note, though, that Jackson has given up more line drives, more than 5% over last year and 2.5% over his career mark. He's also given up more groundballs, some of which seem to have eyes this year. He's down in flyballs but his HR ratio per flyball has stayed the same, so his HR rate has fallen some. It also means he's given up less easily played flyballs in exchange for more line drives and groundballs, which have a better chance of falling or finding holes.
In addition, the LOB% is way, way down. Last year Jackson stranded a very normal 71% of baserunners, which is the same as his career number. This year that number is down to 56%. That has to improve over time. Jackson didn't suddenly forget how to pitch with men on base -- he's mostly been more unlucky and part of that luck has been BABIP.
Lastly, to use a more all-encompassing stat, Jackson's FIP (3.69) and xFIP (3.67) are pretty much in line with what they have been the past 3 seasons. That number alone bodes well for a turnaround.
As you might expect, Jackson's poor start is partly on him and partly on bad luck. The largest part that's on him is the control issue. He is simply putting more men on base. He's also relying more on hard stuff, perhaps giving hitters more of a chance to time his velocity -- leading to more line drives.
So what you have is a pitcher putting more men on base combined with having less luck with BABIP and strand rate. That's not a good combination.
You wonder if he's becoming more reliant on the strikeout -- maybe trying too hard to avoid contact, which would help explain the higher walk rate as well. And while I don't have the numbers on it, it wouldn't surprise me if he's trying to power his way out of jams, which only seems to exacerbate the situation. It's what some fans might call pressing and his pitch selection with men on base is something I want to watch carefully tonight.
The bottom line is that I don't think Jackson needs to change a whole lot. He just needs to relax, throw more strikes, mix in a few more changes and stop trying to overpower everyone -- especially when he gets into trouble. He needs to trust that good team defense and that a little less bad luck will help turn things around for him this season.
Hopefully it starts tonight.