Edwin Jackson and the Abyss

Editor’s note: Brendan has previously written at Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, and Lookout Landing. He’ll be contributing to FanGraphs a few times a week, and we’re excited to welcome him.

Edwin Jackson is not pitching well. He’s running an 11.90 ERA, with a FIP north of eight and a DRA above 12. Toronto, deep into their rebuild, has no long-term attachment to Jackson, who at 35 years old was never going to be more than a placeholder. Despite everything, Jackson is still scheduled to start today against the Orioles. When asked why, Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo quipped “we don’t have anybody else.”

Obviously, that’s not the nicest thing a manager has ever said about his player. It’s more resemblant of Leo Durocher lamenting that his “center fielder can’t catch a f–king ball” than the polished schtick contemporary skippers feed to the local media. It does, however, convey how ineffectively Jackson has pitched in Toronto this year.

The famously nomadic right-hander is on his 14th big-league team. Rachael McDaniel covered some of the more romantic parts of that journey after his first start, a perfectly cromulent five-inning, three-run outing. Since then though, the wheels have fallen off:

Jackson’s Last Four Starts
Opposition IP Runs Strikeouts Walks Home Runs
Boston 5 6 4 1 1
San Diego 4 7 2 1 3
Colorado 2.1 10 4 3 1
New York 3.1 6 3 2 2

Clearly, his opponents have been strong; few pitchers would get through that gauntlet without fluffing up their ERA at least a little bit. One of those starts was in Coors. But even accounting for a small sample size and tough competition, Jackson’s numbers are ghastly. If anything, the stats at the top of the page undersell just how freely hitters are teeing off. Collectively, they’re batting a Bondsian .383/.442/.787. Opponents are hitting .394 on balls in play, which is amazing because they’re not exactly limiting their hard contact to singles and doubles. Among pitchers who have thrown more than 15 innings, Jackson’s 3.66 HR/9 ratio is the second worst in the league.

What makes his collapse so spectacular is not the raw numbers, but the baseline it stems from. Jackson pitched just fine last season: his 3.33 ERA looks a bit rosy relative to his peripherals, but a 4.65 FIP across 92 innings isn’t nothing, particularly for a guy Oakland signed off the scrap heap.

At a glance, not much looks different this year. He’s still averaging a little more than 93 mph on his fastball, as he has for the last two seasons. He’s neither added nor subtracted a pitch, and his mix looks just about the same as it did in 2018. He’s still generating the same number of groundballs as ever.

But baseball is a hard game and there’s a very fine line between adequacy and the abyss. While there could be an infinite number of factors plaguing Jackson this season, two small ones stand out.

The first is velocity. While Jackson is throwing his heater just as hard as in years past, he’s actually lost some juice on his secondary pitches:

Jackson’s Average Velocity
Year Fastball Cutter Slider Curve Change
2017 93.5 91.4 86.8 78.9 87.4
2018 93.2 91.1 86.3 78.9 87.1
2019 93.4 91.2 85.5 77.4 86.2
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

These aren’t seismic changes in velocity, the kind of drops that would suggest he’s pitching through an injury. But every tick on the radar gun is crucial; all else being equal, less velocity means less sharpness. It’s easier now for hitters to foul off a tough slider, lay off an average changeup, and thwack a bad curve than it was last season. Not surprisingly, batters are swinging and missing at his primary secondaries less often and hitting them harder when they do connect:

Batter Performance 2018 vs. 2019
Pitch Whiff Rate ‘18 Whiff Rate ‘19 BAA ‘18 BAA ‘19 SLG ‘18 SLG ‘19
Change 10.17% 6.25% .091 .250 .136 .500
Slider 19.37% 14.29% .240 .242 .400 .606
SOURCE: Brooks Baseball

It’s not clear whether Jackson has lost arm strength or if he’s doing any of this consciously. Perhaps he’s trying to take something off the ball, or is otherwise experimenting with grips. Regardless, what he’s done thus far hasn’t worked.

The second issue concerns Jackson’s fastballs, which are getting battered as well. His cutter, a late-career addition and his go-to pitch last year, has been hit even harder than the slider or change. Even worse, the sinker that he’s relied on for so long is increasingly a tough pitch to succeed with in the modern game. Batters throughout the league are better at driving balls low in the strike zone than ever before, and this year Jackson’s sinker has both mediocre velocity and less sink than normal. Not surprisingly, batters are torching it: He’s thrown 50 of them, and hitters are hitting .556 with three homers.

Both of those factors are exacerbated by a few things beyond Jackson’s control. He’s no longer pitching in Oakland’s spacious Coliseum, with one of the game’s finest defenses at his back. Four of his five starts this year have been in launching pads, and the Jays are still working out the kinks in the field. Moreover, the rabbit ball seems particularly unkind to guys like Jackson, dinger-prone hurlers without an out-pitch to miss bats with.

You’d have to search hard to find a silver lining in all of this. Watch Jackson’s outings, and there’s no hint that he’s about to turn a corner. Statcast only provides further indignities, revealing that he’s in the very bottom percentiles in both average exit velocity and the percentage of balls that opponents hit hard.

Still, there’s something morbidly compelling about watching someone at the very end of his career. A veteran like Jackson has wowed us before: He’s pitched in All-Star games and the World Series, thrown a no-hitter, and toiled seemingly everywhere. Watching such a durable player fade away is a reminder of our own waning skills.

There’s more to it than that though. One of the decade’s most gut-wrenching moments was watching Ramon Ortiz, a baseball lifer if there ever was one, openly sob after injuring his elbow, seemingly certain that he was leaving a major league mound for the last time. Ortiz was easy to empathize with because his reaction gave such visceral proof to what we all suspect: that big league baseball is not an easy thing to let go of. Knowing that, it’s captivating to watch players claw for their place in the game. As fans, we want the players to care. When Jackson slaps his glove in frustration, or looks bewildered as yet another homer sails into the seats, it’s clear he does.

So long as that last point holds true, there’s no glory in rooting for carnage today; I certainly hope that this isn’t the end of Jackson’s line. If you’re looking for a glimmer of hope, his career demonstrates the folly in declaring that someone is washed up. Jackson sure seemed cooked two years into his tenure with the Cubs — all the way back in 2014 — but a move to the bullpen sparked a return to form. Just last year, he appeared lost to minor league obscurity before reviving his career in Oakland. A start against the Orioles could be just the tonic he needs to get back on track.

But whether Jackson has one start left or 100, everyone’s time is fleeting. Enjoy baseball’s vagabond while you still can.

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Great stuff, Brendan. Looking forward to more.