Under The Hood: Edwin Jackson


No doubt that Theo Epstein did well when he went out and acquired RHP Edwin Jackson this off season. I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with that fact.

Mainly because almost anyone would have been an improvement on what the Cubs were working with in 2012…. but I digress.

Feb 18, 2013; Mesa, AZ, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Edwin Jackson (36) poses for a picture during photo day at Fitch Park. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the Cubs’ pitching staff being like vacuum of talent, Jackson has been known as a quality pitcher in the MLB with lots of experience for quite some time. Starting out in 2003, he’s spent time with many teams including the Dodgers, the Rays, the Tigers, the Nats and a few other teams who have little to no relevancy in this story what so ever.

Regardless of your beliefs on why Jackson has been passed around from team to team like currency in the last 5 years, the numbers have something to do with it.

Stability hasn’t been Jackson’s strong suit in the last while. His era has fluctuated wildly around the 4.00 mark in the last 4 years which shows he’s either a bad pitcher (which we know isn’t true) or he has some travels jitters. I know he’s a professional athlete, but I’m certain there’s an acclimation time when pitching in a new stadium. Can he be blamed for this trend? His xFIP says no, having only a .31 differential in the last 3 years.

Jackson just needs a home right? Then he’ll settle in and be the next Sandy Koufax. Bam. Cubs win.

As much as I’d love to believe what I just wrote, it ain’t happening that way. His xFIP in the last three years has been in mid 3’s at best and it’s hard to tell if that will continue to drop or not. He’s projected to have an xFIP greater than 3.70 from multiple sources, which probably means his ERA will be in the 4.00 range again this season.

Contain that rage, folks. I know it seems silly to ink a pitcher for 4 years/$52 million who has yet to really show any real dominance, but stay with me on this one.

Jackson is 29 years old, which puts him right in the “best years of his career” zone for pitchers (28-32 or so) and his numbers have been showing signs of stabilizing, even if just a little. I have no issue with the Cubs taking a shot at him right when his metrics are trending down and he’s entering that sweet-spot age.

A lot of why pitchers start to succeed at this age is because of approach. Knowing what they’re capable of and how to lace in a proper pitch mix takes years to refine, almost to the point where a lot of pitchers never quite pick up on it.

Jackson is most certainly picking up on it.

He’s been known to rely on his 4-seam fastball in the past but for the sake of argument, we’re looking exclusively at 2012 numbers.

Throwing a fastball on the first pitch is universally recognized as a fine choice and Jackson is no exception. He has no problem unloading at around 95MpH and can switch up with a 2-seam to keep batters off balance. However, fastballs lose their effectiveness as you pass through the order multiple times and that has been what has gotten Jackson in to trouble in the past. Rather than mix in some off speed stuff, he has tried to out-muscle a lot of batters as indicated by his 62% usage rate vs RHB and 64% usage rate vs LHB when the batter is ahead in the count.

Now, keeping this in mind, Jackson has indeed realized the folly of his approach and had made changes introducing his slider in as a K pitch. He worked that slider almost 50% of the time when up 2 strikes in the count and has found success with it to the tune of a 26.01 whiff percentage.

Nasty stuff for a batter to handle – but that’s not all.

Jackson also seems to be working a more even spread of pitches in 2013 including his sinker, that slider we just discussed, a curveball and a nice changeup (especially vs lefties).

Most notably of all these pitches? The curve. If 2013 is indicating anything so far, it’s that Jackson isn’t afraid to throw that arcing curve on the first pitch… but only against lefties. He still prefers the sinker, fastball, slider combo vs righties, and that’s a-ok with me.

The graphic data is the icing on the cake. What we have here is a chart showing Jackson’s release points for all his pitches vs lefties on top, and vs righties on the bottom.

These charts are borderline better than sex.

Why do release points matter anyway? If a pitcher releases a ball from the same arm slot every time, it’s much more difficult for a batter to determine what type of pitch he’s trying to hit before it reaches the plate. Jackson gives away next to nothing on his pitches especially against lefties. Of note, the curveball is going to naturally have a fuller arm slot release because of how the pitch needs to be thrown. It doesn’t much matter where the release point is as any MLB batter is going to identify the arcing nature of the pitch immediately. The curve is more about the 12-6 motion and sink, less than power.

Want more? Me too. These charts show the trajectory of select pitches from the third base line to show their action off the mound (vs lefties on top and vs righties on bottom)

Just what exactly are we looking at? Primarily, we’re focusing on the slider, 4-seam and sinker as they’re Jackson’s main weapons and there’s a lot to smile about in these charts. All three pitches have virtually the same trajectory for the first 3/4 of their trip to the plate. Again ignoring the curve, it’s the same principle as the release points. Masking pitches keeps batters off balance and having late sink or slide to any pitch will frustrate the living hell out of batters.

Damn those charts rule. Let’s just hope Jackson stays healthy, unlike the other Cubs’ pitching staff.

Jackson’s 2013 and beyond is full of promise because his pitch selection and match ups indicate he’s maturing. He’s no longer trying to simply wizz balls past batters and this is leading to a more diverse pitch mix which will keep batters guessing. It may have taken a few years for him to figure it out, but he’s more focused on locating pitches and putting them in good spots as opposed to being tee’d off on missed fastballs.

If I had to guess, I’d still say Jackson posts a winning record for the Cubs this season despite the so-so defense behind him.

Starting to like that contract that Theo and Jed inked up with Ejax yet? I know I am.