Once upon a time, 12 teams and 15 years ago, Edwin Jackson was a Dodgers phenom who outdueled Randy Johnson in a major-league debut that happened to fall on his 20th birthday. Six trades, one All-Star appearance, one no-hitter, and several free-agency signings — some lucrative, some humbling — later, he’s the co-holder of a record for colorful laundry. Forget the “E Jax” nickname, the 34-year-old righty should be known as “Transaction Jackson.” Suddenly, he’s come back from the brink of professional oblivion to pitching as well as he has in half a decade with a performance that has not only helped the upstart A’s take possession of the second AL Wild Card spot, but has almost exactly coincided with their surge past the Mariners.
Jackson, who tied Octavio Dotel’s major-league record of 13 teams played for when he donned the green and gold for the first time, has been on quite an odyssey since that 2003 debut. He’s been traded in deals involving Danys Baez and Lance Carter (from the Dodgers to the Devil Rays in 2006), Matt Joyce (from the Rays to the Tigers in 2008), Curtis Granderson, Max Scherzer, and Ian Kennedy (from the Tigers to the Diamondbacks in a three-way, seven-player deal in 2009), Daniel Hudson (from the Diamondbacks to the White Sox in 2010), Mark Teahen and Jason Frasor (from the White Sox to the Blue Jays in 2011), and Dotel, Corey Patterson, Marc Rzepczynski, and Colby Rasmus (from the Blue Jays to the Cardinals on that same July 27, 2011 day, without even getting to suit up for Toronto). In his first taste of free agency, he signed a one-year, $11 million deal with the Nationals in February 2012. In his next one, he signed a four-year, $52 million deal with the Cubs in December 2012 — the first big free-agent deal of the Theo Epstein regime — but after a so-so first season (8-18, 4.98 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 2.0 WAR), his performance deteriorated to the point that in mid-2015, having delivered just an additional 0.8 WAR and converted to a relief role, he was released with $15.63 million remaining on his contract.
It’s at that point, on July 27, 2015, where this particular journeyman’s journey through the majors reached the lightning round; since then, Jackson has pitched for the Braves (2015), Marlins and Padres (2016), Orioles and Nationals again (2017). Over that three-season, six-team span (including his final months with the Cubs), he threw 215.2 innings with a 4.92 ERA, 5.24 FIP and -0.6 WAR, the last mark the second-lowest total of any of the 204 pitchers with at least 200 innings in that span. In his three starts for the Orioles and 13 for the Nationals last year, Jackson pitched to a 5.21 ERA and a career-worst 6.14 FIP in 76 innings, “good” for -0.3 WAR.
Those kind of numbers generally spell the end; ZiPS projected Jackson for a 5.80 ERA, 5.53 FIP, and -0.2 WAR in 94.2 innings, which probably wouldn’t even cut it at the back of Baltimore’s current rotation. But because Jackson is a man who’s generally held in high regard by his teammates and his teams — and because his fastball still averages 94.0 mph and can top 97 — he keeps finding work. The Nationals brought him to spring training this year via a minor-league deal, but he lost out to A.J. Cole in the battle for the fifth-starter job and accepted an assignment to Triple-A Syracuse. Washington soon upgraded from Cole to March free-agent signing Jeremy Hellickson, but Jackson stayed put until he exercised a June 1 opt-out clause. On June 6, he signed with the A’s, who were hovering at .500 (31-31) despite a rotation that had been decimated by injuries: first Jharel Cotton‘s Tommy John surgery, then Paul Blackburn‘s forearm strain, Andrew Triggs‘ nerve irritation, Brett Anderson‘s shoulder strain, Daniel Gossett‘s UCL strain and Kendall Graveman’s forearm strain; both Gossett and Graveman eventually underwent Tommy John surgery themselves, as did top pitching prospect A.J. Puk. Only one A’s starter, staff ace Sean Manaea, has taken more than 16 turns.
After three appearances for Oakland’s Triple-A Nashville affiliate, Jackson found himself back in the majors. On June 25, he fired six innings of one-run ball at the Tigers, striking out seven in a victory that pulled the A’s into a tie with the third-place Angels in the AL West standings. Since then, he’s made seven more starts, lasting at least 5.2 innings and allowing three or fewer runs in all but one. (He was cuffed for five runs in 4.1 innings by the Rangers in Arlington.) In 47 total innings, he’s posted a 2.87 ERA and 4.00 FIP; neither his 18.5% strikeout rate nor 7.4% walk rate are much to write home about, but they’re both better than his career rates, and his K-BB% of 11.1 points is substantially better than his career mark of 8.7. Meanwhile, his 0.96 homers per nine is down from his career mark of 1.07. The A’s have gone 28-9 since he joined the rotation, not only overtaking the Angels and the Mariners in the AL West race but taking a 2.5-game lead over the latter in the race for the second AL Wild Card. They’re 6-2 in his eight starts, losing only a pair against the Giants in which their offense scored just one run.
Jackson isn’t missing a ton of bats: his 8.5% swinging-strike rate is actually his lowest mark since 2008. In the spring, he spoke of a contact-centric approach, telling the Washington Post’s Jorge Castillo, “Right now my biggest thing is make ’em put the ball in play… If I can be aggressive around the strike zone and stay in pitcher’s counts and stay aggressive around the plate to let the defense work, I’ll take my chances.”
A good chunk of Jackson’s success owes to a .231 BABIP, which is in the 95th percentile among pitchers with at least 40 innings this year. Some of that owes to the A’s stellar infield defense, which — as Jeff Sullivan pointed out in the context of Trevor Cahill — has the lowest wOBA against ground balls of any team this year. Jackson’s 38.5% ground-ball rate isn’t in the same class as Cahill’s (54.8%), but he’s also generating a 13.5% infield-fly rate, which is second on the staff and in the 81st percentile overall.
Statcast supports the notion that Jackson has been rather hit-lucky. Among the 387 pitchers with at least 500 pitches thrown this year, his 53-point differential between his wOBA allowed (.275) and his xwOBA (.328) is 16th; that’s 96th percentile territory. But he’s hardly alone among the A’s:
Eight of the majors’ 32 largest differentials belong to Oakland pitchers. What’s more, only two of the 14 qualified A’s have wOBAs higher than their xwOBAs, both by fewer than 10 points. This is isn’t entirely a Coliseum thing, either: of the 20 Oakland pitchers with at least 250 pitches on the road, nine have differentials of at least -.020, and Jackson’s -.054 (.315 wOBA, .369 xwOBA) is in the 88th percentile overall.
However he’s getting by, Jackson is doing it with a new pitch mix. Though he had dabbled with a cut fastball from 2011 to -15, he had never thrown it more than 10% of the time until 2016. This is the first year he’s featured it as his most frequent pitch. Via Pitch Info:
Jackson’s results with the cutter have historically been all over the map, because hey, small sample sizes. In 2013, when he threw 255 of them (8.7% of his total pitches), 87 plate appearances ended with a cutter; on those, batters hit .250/.302/.400 for a 107 wRC+. In 2016, in 79 PA that ended with a cutter, it got smoked at a .352/.418/.606 (185 wRC+) clip; the numbers were similarly bad (191 wRC+) in 47 PA last year. This year, it’s a different, happier story: .200/.290/.345 (89 wRC+) in 62 PA.
Alas, Pitch Info and Statcast see Jackson’s arsenal quite differently, with the latter showing Jackson introducing a cutter for the first time this year but throwing it only 15.7% of the time. In terms of pitch frequency, the two resources can’t even come close to agreeing upon anything besides his curve and changeup; this year, according to Statcast, Jackson is throwing his four-seamer 26.4%, his sinker 17.4% and his slider 29.3%. Normally this isn’t a problem, but telling you that on what it reports as his cutter — which is less than half of them, apparently — he’s allowed a .233 wOBA and .249 xwOBA, well, that’s like saying that 44% of the time, it works all the time.
Regardless of how he’s doing it, Jackson is getting surprisingly good results, though his work in 47 innings amounts to all of 0.7 WAR, and he does appear primed for regression. Still, considering the long and winding road Jackson has taken to this point, it’s a joy to see such an underdog succeed.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.