Why is Edwin Jackson failing to live up to expectations?

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Remember him as you loved him then. // Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune

This article starts off with me explaining the basic principles of FIP then zooming to obscure pitch value and plate discipline stats with barely a warning.  I'd keep the stat primer open and go to FanGraphs Library if this intro is worrisome to you.  All stats thanks to TexasLeaguers.com, FanGraphs.com, and BaseballReference.com.

John Arguello of Cubs Den was doing an exercise where he tried to pick the best roster from the current versions of the Cubs and White Sox, and I couldn't resist chiming in.  Most expressly, he had an assembled an outfield of Soriano, Quentin, and Fukudome, and we were trying to figure out how to keep the pitching's staff BABIP south of .400 with this atrocious defense. 

I resolved to pick the staff based on entirely on their ability to induce groundballs, but with two exceptions.  No Doug Davis (too old and clearly washed up), and no Edwin Jackson (too unreliable). 

There was just no way I could conceive of being able to sell Eddie to a fan of our in-city rival.  If I struggle to convince myself that Jackson has been better than his results, convincing John would almost certainly not take.  Plus, then I couldn't fit Gavin Floyd and John Danks.  Love those guys.

Edwin Jackson has a 3.21 FIP, which is of course a representation of his
ability to limit home runs and walks, and record strikeouts, but
configured to look like ERA.  FIP assumes that there's just too much
variability to judge pitchers for balls in play, and they can be
decently judged in skill by how often they throw something that gets
pulverized, can't throw a strike, or dominate the hitter.  It's pretty
darn effective, and while not everyone treats it as dogma, it's value is
clear.  Until someone like Edwin comes and mucks everything up.

86.2 IP at 3.21 FIP gives Jackson the most wins above replacement on the
White Sox rotation according FanGraphs, which judges pitcher value
based on FIP.  Conversely, BaseballReference judges Jackson for the 4.47
ERA he's racked up, giving him the lowest WAR on the Sox staff besides
Peavy, who has had the obvious disadvantage of non-working groin and
shoulder parts.

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It was easier to go deep into games when you were striking out a batter an inning. // Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune

Jackson's .352 batting average on balls in play is the obvious culprit
for this disagreement, and when you see something that far out from the
general average of .300, it's typical to dismiss that Jackson is
unlucky, and if he keeps limiting walks, home runs, while striking
people out, then he should eventually be rewarded (Scott Boras will make
sure of it).  .352 is, in fact, the highest BABIP for any qualified
starter (above 70 IP) in all of baseball by 14 points.  Yowza.

Unless Jackson is sleeping in the middle of pentagrams every night,
that's gotta come down.  But by how much?  24.4% of Edwin's batted balls
have been classified as line drives--4th highest in baseball--which are
notorious for dropping for hits at a 70% rate, and being hard to
classify reliably.  Two of the guys ahead of Jackson are Freddy Garcia
and Randy Wolf, fly-ball pitchers who actually have low BABIPs.  The top
guy is Ricky Nolasco.

Ricky Nolasco's ERA has been higher than his xFIP by at least a run
three years in a row.  Ricky Nolasco has managed to have a consistently
above-average home runs to fly ball rate despite pitching in a football
stadium.  Ricky Nolasco recorded an ERA over 5.00 in a year where he had
a unworldly good 4.43 K/BB ratio.  If Edwin Jackson is Ricky Nolasco,
let's just flick off the computer and go weep somewhere now that he's
been doomed inexplicable mediocrity for all eternity.

But Edwin isn't Ricky Nolasco.  Just last season he matched his
peripherals with a 3.24 ERA in 75 innings with the Sox, and didn't rack
up all those darn line drives in the process.  Just like last year,
Jackson is basically a fastball-slider guy.  His slider declines
dramatically in use when he's behind in the count, and he's forced to
rely on a fastball that lacks movement and is slightly below average in
result despite having plenty of zip.  So it makes sense that if Jackson
is struggling, he must be playing William Tell with the strike zone
again

Yet as unreliable as it might seem to rely on a single off-speed
offering that he isn't uniquely consistent at throwing for a strike,
Jackson is getting first strikes at a rate only down 1% from last
season.  Still, for all that working ahead, his swinging strike % is
down to 8.8 when it was a dominant 11.8 for the Sox last season.  Hell,
it was even 9.7% when he stunk for the Diamondbacks early on, and his
slider in 2011 has declined from a dominant 2.28 runs above average per
100 throws the year before to 0.58.

Edwin's slider isn't the most consistent offering.  When it's off, you can tell, and when it's on, well...you remember this game still, don't you?  So maybe he just needs to tighten up.  That'd be nice, and would have a good chance of happening. 

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Even though he's almost certainly gone after this year, if Edwin leaves having not achieved his breakout, I will mourn the missed opportunity. // Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune

I have another theory.

Jackson had two advantages in the 2nd half of last season; he was
working with Don Cooper, and he was returning to the AL after hiding
away for half a season.  Coop simplified his approach, and emphasized
his strengths, and the AL saw a version of Ed that messed around with
his worthless curveball even less, stopped pounding the zone with his
straight fastball and upped the use of his best pitch--the slider--by
10% from his days in Detroit.

It resulted in Jackson finishing the year with the fourth lowest
outside-the-zone contact percentage in baseball, 55.9%, and his 53% with
the Sox would have led everyone alive over a full season.  If you
chased Jackson's pitches, you were a good bet to look stupid.

Now?  It's up to 62.3%  Not bad at all, but not near where he operates
when he's most effective.  Maybe his slider has leveled off from last
season, but it looks similar enough
to me.  Instead it appears as if batters have gotten used to Edwin's
new slider-heavy approach enough to stay with his pitches just a bit
more, and while he still stays low enough to not be driven over the
fence, it could be that the decrease in whiffs on his pitcher's pitches
(as Hawk would say) is making Jackson work in the zone a bit more where
he can be driven all over the field.  Hence the line drives, the
inflated BABIP, and the cooling of our love affair with him.

Jackson's BABIP and line-drive rate are both so outsized, they both are
probably regressing soon, and this should bring his ERA back toward the
'fairly effective' range, but the end of 2010 is looking pretty far away
these days.

This is all just a theory on my part, and if the length didn't clue you
in already, it took me a long time to settle on this idea.  But there's
gotta be something going on.

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