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Edwin Jackson's Slider's Slippery Slope

Edwin Jackson's Slider's Slippery Slope

My first offering here at CubsDen focused on a positive contributor to Cubs pitching in 2013: Travis Wood. After signing a 4 year $46 million contract prior to the 2013 season the expectation among Cubs fans for Edwin Jackson were around what Travis Wood turned in during 2013. He came up a just a little short of those expectations.

Without going into a massive deluge of stats it's fair to say that Jackson suffered some bad luck that resulted in him coming just two hundredths of a point shy of an ERA of 5.00. His peripherals show that he probably should have been about a quarter of a run below an ERA of 4 last season. Now I don't want to be a cookie cutter contributor here at CubsDen so what I'd like to do here is go through Jackson's game log from last year and see just what went wrong in those starts where Jackson really went off the rails.

When doing research on Jackson it's almost impossible not to come across the mention of his slider. It's a devastating pitch for Edwin when it's on. The thing with Jackson is, well, he's not always on. He's always had this potential, much of it going unrealized, that teams dream on. (As a tangent, I've always thought of Edwin Jackson as MLB's version of a boat. They say that the two happiest days of a boat owner's life are the day that he buys the boat and the day that he sells the boat.) He's not a control specialist. Therefore his goal with the slider is to get swinging strikes on balls that dive out of the zone.

The hypothesis is this: When Edwin Jackson doesn't have full utility of his slider, he suffers. He'll be forced to rely on his fastball, one that he doesn't always have command of, and at this stage of his career he can't always rely on raw velocity to bail him out.

The method: Looking at Jackson's 5 lowest game scores by baseball-reference.com to see what his game log at BrooksBaseball.com tells us about that hypothesis.

Jackson's worst start of the year came on April 30 against the San Diego Padres. His line was sadder than my face while looking at the five day forecast the majority of this winter. Here's his pitch stats from that game:

e-jax 4.30.13 vs SDP

First thing you'll notice is his two most often used pitches are, as expected, his slider and fastball. What you'll also notice is that they're the pitches that most often didn't record an out. Not that he got many that day anyways. Eight sliders were put into play.  In 2013, 15.38% of Jackson's sliders were put into play when he threw one. When 62.5% of his sliders are put into play and don't record an out, you're probably gonna have a bad time. Throwing 30 sliders was just 5 above his season average for a start last season (25.62 per start).

Now as for those five sliders that weren't outs when put in play? Two singles, a double,  and a home run. Yeah, that doesn't add up to five so there's one missing from the raw data but you get the point. His slider got hit hard.  He wasn't fooling anyone with it. About ~50% of the time in 2013 batters swung at his slider. It's 63.3% of the time in this particular start and only 20% of those were swings and misses.

The four fastballs put into play were a single, two doubles and a triple for what it's worth. The average velocity in this game is one full MPH faster than his season average for 2013. If I were to take a stab in the dark, I'd say he was overthrowing it to compensate for the lack of success with his slider.

e-jax 9.28.13 vs STL

The above is Jackson's final start of the season against St. Louis, his second worst performance of the year. Less to draw from here because he only threw 60 pitches but as we can see he again failed to get outs on balls in play with his fastball and slider. What we can see, however, is that while his slider was ineffective yet again there's a trend on his fastball we can expect as he goes farther and farther to the otherside of 30 years old. It was late in the season so Jackson was probably fatigued which slowed the velocity of his fastball. Of the five balls in play, all of them left the infield and one of them went 441 feet to center field off Matt Holliday's bat. The ISO (isolated power) on balls in play for his fastball this day was .800. That's... not good at all.

Again, small sample size though so we'll move on.

e-jax 8.6.13 vs PHI

One is a isolated incident. Two is a pattern. Three is a trend. That's how it goes, right? Jackson's start against the Phillies on August 6th yielded 44.1% of his sliders for strikes, above his season average of 32.15% on that pitch. He's not trying to throw it for strikes in the zone though. He's trying to get swings and misses for strikes. 11.8% whiff rate isn't going to cut it. That's a little over half of what he normally got in 2013 as a whiff rate on his slider (21.24%).

sinker e-jax phils

Instead of going to his fastball when the slider wasn't working, he went to the sinker in this game. If you're reading this E-Jax, maybe don't do that again. The Phillies absolutely clobbered that pitch. Of the nine at-bats where he threw sinkers and got an in-play result, he got a grand total of two that resulted in an out. One third of them were hit hard (as illustrated by the line drive rate).

e-jax 6:2:13 vs AZ

Jackson's 4th worst start of the year, or as I like to call it, the outlier. He averaged about 35 four-seam fastballs a game in 2013. [looks at count for this one, scans over to velocity] Oh dear. 22 more fastballs than normal and about a half a mile per hour lower than his average velocity. This is where I have more questions than answers. The slider got swings 52.2% of the time which is right in line with his season average. 17.4% of them were whiffs which is a little below his average whiff rate but not terrible. He only gave up three hits on the slider and all of them were singles. He also struck out two and walked none with it. The cutter is almost non-existent as is the sinker. When he threw a variation of the fastball there was a greater than 75% chance it was of the mostly straight four-seam variety. If any Arizona hitters were even somewhat paying attention I'd go up sitting on a fastball by the third inning.

Why did Jackson go to the fastball so much? Someone get the owl from the Tootsie Pop commercial on the phone.

Jackson's fifth worst start isn't even worth posting data from. He threw 88 pitches total, had only given up one run and two hits until the 5th which is where it all came apart. Two wild pitches, four hits (all of them on a variation of his fastball) and Dale Sveum wouldn't let him record the final out of the 5th. His slider statistics through the game don't support my theory because all his metrics (whiff rate, outs on balls in play, strike rate) are all in line with his season averages or better. This one start was the 5th dentist out of 5 that didn't think some product worked on your teeth. The other four are on my side.

Going forward Jackson is probably going to continue to see his velocity dip on his fastball. It's just what happens when you reach age 30 as a pitcher. While he's still in the 93-95 MPH range, it would be wise to somewhat reinvent himself if he wants to get a contract after the remaining three years on this one conclude. He's got an out-pitch for certain. It's his slider. But when that isn't working, he's going to need a secondary offering to mitigate the damage and still turn in quality starts.

Can he do that at age 30? [puts microphone in front of Chris Bosio]

Editor's Note:  We've added Adam Brown as a contributor as he has done outstanding work with pitching info and we expect more great work to come. Please welcome him to Cubs Den.

Filed under: Analysis, Pitching

Tags: edwin jackson, PITCHf/x

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  • Not exactly a resounding outlook for EJax. He doesn't seem to be the type to reinvent himself. When I watch pitch I find myself humming the old song 'Que Sara Sara'.(sp)

  • Small follow-up: I plan on looking at the location of his slider/fastball in these starts (probably more his location in all of '13) next week to provide more clarity in whether it's just bad luck, or if he's missing his spots.

  • In reply to Adam Brown:

    "probably more his location in all of '13"

    This is what I was alluding to below. He had poor fastball command, especially on 1st-pitch to batters. It was all him, not bad luck

  • "If you're reading this E-Jax"

    He would tell you that your hypothesis is wrong.

    EJax didn't suffer when he had a lack of slider command: He suffered from a lack of fastball command.

    The slider never got a chance to 'play up' as an out pitch because EJax consistently missed the zone early in counts with his fastball.

  • In reply to CubFan Paul:

    Maybe not wrong, just staying the obvious of "when fastball/slider guy's fastball/slider aren't working bad things happen." It definitely merits a follow up to dig more into the why, though. Luck? Location? Fluctuations in velocity?

    That's where the meatier answers love.

  • In reply to Adam Brown:

    Stating* .... Live*

    The convenience of commenting from the L, everybody. But I'm sure I got my point across.

    If anyone has suggestions for future digs on pitching pop them in the comments. At some point I should file a change of address with the usps because I pretty much live at BrooksBaseball. Whether it be guys on the Cubs in 2013 or if you want insight into new additions like Veras, Hammel, Wright etc.

  • In reply to CubFan Paul:

    E-Jax had a few terrible starts last year, so it's hard to say that his fastball command didn't play any part. Additionally, he has always been a hit-or-miss type of player. I remember in his no hitter for AZ a few years back he walked a ton of players. Despite that, what I think Adam's data shows is that the slider wasn't working as designed. If the slider was working correctly, it should have been out of the zone, but in these starts, the slider was getting hit particularly well. That leads me to believe that the slider wasn't sliding.

  • In reply to CubFan Paul:

    I think that's a good point. Everything plays off the fastball for Jackson (and most pitchers, for that matter). If you can command the fastball and get ahead in the count, that makes the rest of your stuff a whole lot better.

  • I'd like to see Jackson come up with a new wrinkle at this stage of his career or maybe develop the cutter as more of a legit alternative when the slider isn't working. His top two pitches are very good but doesn't seem to have much to fall back on when they're off.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Based on the Phillies game, I would recommend against the sinker.

  • In reply to KC Cubs Fan:

    Ha! Bosio has had some success teaching that two seamer but so far hasn't worked out with Jackson as well.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Does EJax though a legetimate Change of pace pitch? A change or maybe a curve might be a better pitch at times. Since Ejax is an over-the-top delivery pitcher, maybe the curve might work better than the slider?

  • Marmol's slider was/is even more devastating. However, more times than not, it ended up 2 feet outside. ML'ers, being ML'ers, are quick learners. Wait for the fastball.
    Bottom line? Jackson needs a third pitch.

  • Three starts support your theory, the 4th appears to be an abberation with bad luck (3 singles, with normal whiff and swing rates) and a the 5th doesn't support your theory at all. And in the first 3 starts his fastball was just as bad as the slider. Hardly compelling. Sorry.

    I think it basically boils down to the fact that Jackson is essentially a guy that relies on 2 pitches (FB/SL), so in any start where one (or both) aren't "on" he is going to struggle. Certainly doesn't bode well that heading into his 30s we would expect his FB to lose life.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    Just reread what I wrote and I sounded dismissive and like an a-hole. That wasn't intentional. Your research doesn't support the hypothesis in my opinion, but that isn't a bad thing, that is what science is all about. There is also the reverse hypothesis of when Jackson doesn't have his fastball and has to rely on his slider, he will suffer just as much. The data supports but both. Like I said, it is the classic problem for a two pitch pitcher, and really to me the compelling information would come from finding out if he had successful starts without getting results from one (or both) of the pitches.

    By the way... Welcome!

  • In reply to mjvz:

    A-hole? No way, man. Constructive criticism is all you gave. Don't worry about it. In fact, more of that is better.

    I totally stated the obvious here and it deserves a follow-up that digs deeper into the why of Jackson's struggles. I already have written down first pitch strike frequency (further broken down by which pitches he throws as a first pitch), location and of course, luck as further variables to investigate for the follow-up.

    Keep the criticism coming though. It's the only way I get both better as a writer and ideas for future pieces. Like I put in the first piece I did on Woody, I'm going to be wrong and I'm not always going to be the first person to realize I'm wrong.

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    This is just a gut feeling, but Edwin struck me as a "One bad inning" guy. The kind of pitcher that has just one inning where he falls apart, surrounded by 5 or 6 where he pretty much mows them down. The end result is average.

    Not sure if there is data to back that up, but I wonder if that fits with Edwin losing some command of that slider WITHIN starts

  • In reply to Zonk:

    aka Javy Vazquez disease

  • In reply to mjvz:

    Javy had the same EJax problem. When he was in NY, I remember there pitching coach trying to get Javy to junk either the slider or the curveball, saying throwing both was hurting his ability to throw one or the other(I believe they wanted him to junk the slider). Maybe Ejax needs a similiar transformation.

  • Nice work Adam and welcome aboard!

    I don't think E-Jax lives & dies with the slider. He lives & dies with the FB. If he can locate that, then the slider becomes plus-plus. If he's on, he should never be throwing the slider for a strike anyways. I'd be willing to bet that when you look at locations, all of his slider that were hit were up in the zone where they don't belong. Like you said, it's an out pitch; designed to get whiffs.

    Having said that, he is historically very jekyl/hyde. That's why he's bounced around so much. Not to say that he can't finally realize his potential. But like you said, he's going to be 30 and should have harnessed his command by now. I think the cutter/sinker is something Bosio is working on with him so he can get a ground ball out to help him get out of trouble. I wouldn't expect a huge improvement from him this year, but he is in line for a little better results I would imagine.

    P.S. the same can be said of Shark, just replace Slider with Splitter.

  • I see the O's just released Chris Jones... maybe another loogy option?

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    Wasn't ejax 4 yrs 52 mil?

  • In reply to SKMD:

    Yes you are right. I remember him getting a 8 mil signing bonus and 11 mil a year for the remaining 4 years. He is owed 33 mil for the next 3 seasons.

  • In reply to SKMD:

    Yes, it was for $52MM

    http://espn.go.com/chicago/mlb/story/_/id/8803555/chicago-cubs-announce-deal-edwin-jackson

  • Part of the blame with EJ pitches are a real estates salesman's mantra: Location, Location, Location. The catcher gives him the wiggle, EJ throws, and whiff, strike one. Next pitch, a slider that doesn't "slide", it's an off-speed 1/2 cutter, 1/2 fastball. This one goes down the line for a double. Sounds like his mechanics are a tad off. Hopefully, Bosio and the staff can figure out what's in his head, that should be going down to his hand. Welcome aboard Adam!

  • The stats you point out go a long way to figuring out why E. Jackson has had such a journeyman's career,...

    Man he looks good when his top two pitches are on,.... and when he is on he is nearly #1/#2 starter material. But when he is off - he beats himself. And at his age - if he was going to develop consistency he probably should have demonstrated it by now.

    In that way he seems similar to guys like Strop, and Arietta.

    Love the 'boat owner' anology btw. Very applicable.

  • I have always thought that Jackson's problem is not in his stuff, but rather in his daily preparation for games. It would be interesting to see his ERA by inning. And welcome, Adam!

  • I agree about E Jackson needing another pitch to rely on, maybe a splitter... I wonder if he struggles again, if the FO will have the courage to send his contract to the bullpen.

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  • Adam, You obviously put a LOT of work into this writing! Thank you! I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.

    You analyzed his five worst starts; do you have any analysis of his 5 best starts which all came consecutively during the month of July?

    During July, EJax was lights out - going 3-1, a 1.83 ERA, almost 7 IPs per start, 0.87 WHIP, and .197 BAA. What was he doing differently during that span of 5 starts?

  • In reply to DropThePuck:

    I can look into this in the follow-up for sure.

  • Just pitch faster.
    Is that too much to ask??

  • In reply to hoffpauir6:

    That would help,..... some anyway.

  • As John mentioned above, I encourage all pitchers to try to get ahead with fastballs if they can, and I even like fastballs when pitchers are in jams.

    I still think it's the ultimate out pitch, though I don't have the numbers to back it up.

    The key is, of course, control and command. I really don't see Ejax developing a good off-speed pitch, but I would like to see what he could do on further developing his 2 seam fastball as another tool to get to his slider.

    For whatever reason, I don't see good off speed potential with his arm action. I really don't think he will get full control of his slider, so it might be best to work further on the cut and 2 seam fastballs and trying to locate the 4 seam better.

    Is it too late and dangerous to switch arm slots? What do you do with a pitcher to increase his control exactly?

  • Great stuff, Adam!

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    Hi Adam,
    Great first post. Look forward to more.

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