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:
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.
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.
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%).
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).
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.