The Edwin Jackson disaster exemplifies baseball's razor-thin margins

Yahoo Canada Sports
Edwin Jackson has been brutal in his Blue Jays tenure. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Edwin Jackson has been brutal in his Blue Jays tenure. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

When Toronto Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo announced the club’s intention’s to start Edwin Jackson on Wednesday, it was met with disbelief.

Jackson had been given five starts already, and none of them had gone well. The veteran gave up 32 runs (26 of them earned) in those outings and averaged less than four innings per start. It doesn’t get much worse than an 11.90 ERA - in fact, 733 pitchers have topped 10 innings for the Blue Jays in a season and only Chad Gaudin in 2005 tops that number. Jackon’s 8.43 FIP isn’t much better, either.

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Any hope in the Statcast numbers?

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

That’s the hardest of no’s.

Sugarcoating what Jackson has done so far would be quite literally impossible. It’s been apocalyptically bad, possibly even “Old Town Road” bad.

For many, Jackson being ineffective isn’t much of a shock. He’s 35, he’s rarely been a star, and he’s spent at least some time in Triple-A in every season since 2016. On the other hand, just last year he gave the Athletics 92 innings of 3.33 ERA ball and helped drive their surprising playoff run. How does a guy go from such a feel-good story to such a liability in that amount of time?

Our first inclination is to assume, based on Jackson’s age, that his stuff took a big step backwards, but his arsenal is the same and the velocity of his pitches is relatively stable.

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

There’s some movement on his seldom-used curveball and changeup, but other than that it’s pretty consistent. A 93.2 mph fastball is nothing special these days, but it’s respectable and it’s clear Jackson hasn’t lost his gas.

He’s also held consistent on spin rate, which you’ll recall from the ghastly Statcast summary above is the one thing he’s got going for him this year. His four-seamer’s 2374 rpm is even better than last season’s 2265. On the curve, his 2519 is virtually identical to 2018’s 2514.

Those numbers aren’t exciting in and of themselves, but it shows that the stuff hasn’t fallen off a cliff. It wasn’t outstanding in the first place, but it was clearly enough to survive in the major leagues, because Jackson did last year.

If the stuff is fine, the problem has to lie elsewhere, but it’s not obvious in his strikeout and walk numbers. His K/9 is virtually the same this year (6.86) as it was in 2018 (6.65). His BB/9 of 3.66 almost perfectly matches 2018’s (3.62) as well. Those stats are a little bit warped, because a Jackson inning in 2019 involves facing 5.29 batters compared to 4.14 last year. So, his strikeouts and walks are actually both down even if they are the same on a per-inning basis.

Those differences are relatively subtle, though. The real issue is the home runs. Jackson is currently rocking a grisly 3.66 HR/9. That number is a combination of small sample size absurdity, the probably-juiced ball everyone is dealing with, and most importantly, command.

Here’s a look at Jackson’s four-seamer chart, for instance:

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

That mega cluster of centre-cut meatballs helps account for the fact guys are slugging a downright-bonkers 1.053 on the pitch. His slider also stands out as an offering he’s been unable to command:

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

Two of Jackson’s three hot zones with the pitch are precisely where you wouldn’t want to throw it, and as a result hitters are slugging .606 off of it - a virtually unheard of number for a breaking ball.

Nothing else looks wildly out of place, but the right-hander goes with one of those pitches about 50 percent of the time and they account for six of the eight dingers he’s allowed.

Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with Jackson that can’t be corrected. On Wednesday, he may even get back in track, especially considering he’ll be contending with a throughly unimpressive Orioles lineup.

That doesn’t mean it’s an easy fix, or that the Blue Jays should expect much going forward. There’s a reason their only justification for giving him another start was a lack of alternatives borne out of the desolate void where a supply of pitching depth should be.

More often than not, when you see an older pitcher’s command decline while his velocity remains the same it’s because he has to exert more effort to achieve that same velocity. It’s possible that Jackson is trying to balance stuff and location, and he’s in a nasty spot where if he dials it down his stuff will be too hittable and if he cranks it up he’ll be hittable due to command woes.

Just last year Jackson was a pretty damn effective pitcher. Right now he’s both a near-historic train wreck for the Blue Jays and a symbol of their inability to sufficiently stockpile pitching. Nothing about what he’s throwing is markedly different, the margins in the big leagues are just that thin.

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