Friday, February 25, 2011

What to Expect From Edwin Jackson In 2011

Every player in baseball has the ability to both dazzle and frustrate fans to varying degrees. That's true regardless of whether the player being discussed is Mark Teahan or Shin-Soo Choo. Still there are precious few players in the game who have the ability to so consistently tantalize a fanbase with their proximity stardom as Edwin Jackson.

Jackson has spent a career on the cusp, almost mocking the baseball gods with his mid 90s fastball that has always generated plus movement, a hard sharp slider that can dart away from the bats of righties and get under the swings of lefties, and a parachute changeup. Jackson is arguably one of the most talented pitchers in all of baseball. I would imagine that there are pitchers who would give a non-essential body-part to have his stuff. Despite all that talent however, Jackson has remained implacable.
White Sox fans of course are hoping that Jackson, now under the tutelage of the revered Don Cooper, can turn the corner. For at least five games, it certainly seemed to be the case as Jackson went on a tear immediately after joining the White Sox striking out 45 while walking just 8 in 36.2 innings. It was by far his best stretch ever as a starter. He'd then follow it up six games in which he'd strikeout 32 and walk 10 in 38.2 innings. Still very good, but much more like the Jackson of old.

That 10 of his 11 games with the White Sox came against the worst offensive teams in the American League in 2010 should also certain carry some weight. Barring any freakish quirks of scheduling, Jackson can't always expect to consistently face off against such offensively inept teams. Still, the changes that were made to Jackson are more than rhetorical, they're quantifiable.

Most notably, since coming over from Arizona, Jackson added a full mph (1.3mph to be exact) to his already impressive fastball and averaged 95.3mph during his time with the Sox. Unfortunately, the added velocity didn't do wonders for his slider as it flattened out. Actually, Francisco Liriano of the Twins went through a very similar velocity addition, slider-movement-subtraction after the all-star break, just like Jackson.

The second, and to me far more important aspect of the Edwin Jackson makeover however, was supposed to be a new found commitment to attacking the strike zone and allowing his plus stuff to come into play more often. Cooper certainly recognizes that Jackson is at his best when attacking hitters aggressively and allowing his stuff to do the work for him;
"We're asking him to get better at throwing strikes, and getting ahead in the count... When he struggles, he's falling behind and walking guys. We want him to put more balls in play."
Nothing Earth shattering about those statements, I think everyone understands that pitching from a 0-1 count is far better than pitching from a 1-0 count. But did Jackson actually do a better job of getting strike one since coming over from the Diamondbacks?

Sure, at least a little bit.

Of the 309 batters faced by Jackson since joining the White Sox, he managed to throw strike one to 58.6% of them. That's not a particularly good rate by any means. Actually, it's pretty bad when compared to elite strike throwers. Still it marked an improvement for the ever erratic Jackson who managed to get strike one against just 56.5% of batters faced during his time in Arizona. That 2% bump in ability to get strike one was translated pretty much across the board, as Jackson not only got strike one more often, he also threw strikes 3% more often overall (64% vs 61%).

Again however, we need to consider a couple things. One, the sample size is still just eleven games, and as pointed out earlier, it was against most of the worst the American League had to offer offensively. A 2% bump in ability to get strike one, if persistent is certainly an improvement. But when put into per-game rates, it seems less impressive. Considering that during his stretch with the Sox, Jackson faced an average of 29 batters per game, a 2% bump in strike one would mean he gets strike one on one more batter every two games. That's not the sort of change that's going to remake a pitchers career.

Taken together, Jackson's increased velocity, and modestly improved strike rates should help make him an effective pitcher - though he's going to want to regain the movement on his slider even if it means dialing the velocity back to it's previous level of around 94mph. How much more effective?

It's hard to say. On the one hand, Jackson's strikeout and walk rates with the White Sox were by far his best ever. A career 6.68/3.86 pitcher, his strikeout rate spiked to a phenomenal 9.24 while his walk rate collapsed to 2.14. Yet the data on his pitching shows little change other than a bump in velocity, loss of movement and incrementally improved command. Those improvements are enough to justify a small bump in his strikeout and walk rates. They aren't enough however to explain such a massive jump in his peripherals.

The improved strikeout and walk rates feel flukish to me. More easily explained by simply dumb luck combining with facing some horrible offensive teams than with tangible improvements.

What could prove to be a game changer however is if Jackson's ability to get ground balls sticks. Jackson has always been solid/average in the ground ball department, inducing them on 43.1% of balls in play for his career, but in 2010, that rate lept to 49.4%. A 6% leap in ground ball rates over a full season (10% better than his 2008/2009 rates) signals a truly fundamental shift in his pitching.

Unfortunately, in the move to Chicago, and with the subsequent gain in velocity, Jackson actually lost much of the key ingredient in what allows pitchers to induce ground balls - vertical movement.

2008 NA FB 94.2 10.84 39.1%
2008 NA SL 86.8 3.01 NA
2009 NA FB 94.5 10.35 39.1%
2009 NA SL 86.4 2.29 NA
2010 ARI FB 94.0 8.95 54.5%
2010 ARI SL 84.6 1.43 NA
2010 CHW FB 95.3 9.78 46.0%
2010 CHW SL 86.2 3.30 NA

When reading that chart it's important to understand that the lower the number in the V.Movement category, the better. Lower numbers equate to more drop, or sink.

It's pretty clear that Jackson's ground ball rates, which were at their lowest in 2008 and 2009 suffered from a fastball that wasn't getting much sink. However during his time with the Diamondbacks, despite throwing with less velocity than in any previous season, Jackson's fastball and slider displayed their greatest sink ever, and correspondingly, his ground ball rate rocketed. That trend reversed itself again when Jackon came to Chicago and began throwing harder again. Still, his 46% ground ball rate remained strong.

However, if Jackson can manage to pair the incremental improvement in his control to limit his walks and induce more a few more strikeouts while producing ground ball rates similar to last year, then real and sustained improvements in his performance are possible.

Of course, that's always been the problem for Jackson, hasn't it? Sustainability. His game shifts like the sands. From walk machine to strike out machine. From fly ball pitcher to ground ball pitcher. Jackson is, and always has been, an enigma.

Expect more of the same.

Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both,, and He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery. 

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