The contract given by the Chicago Cubs to Edwin Jackson heading into the 2013 season is roundly ridiculed by everyone who has ever seen Jackson pitch. At four years and $52 million, the Cubs signed Jackson for the same length and total money as the Milwaukee Brewers recently gave to Matt Garza.
Jackson was signed quickly after the Detroit Tigers topped the Cubs’ offer to Anibal Sanchez of five years and $77.5 million, so the four-year pact with Jackson didn’t seem quite so awful at the time. However, Jackson had never been offered more than a one-year deal leading up to the Cubs’ offer, so it seemed excessive for the Cubs to go to such lengths to sign a journeyman starting pitcher.
When you look into the numbers, though, did Jackson really deserve to be a journeyman pitcher for all those years? When the defense behind him is taken out of the equation, he was a quality mid-rotation starter for the three years leading up to the Cubs’ contract offer, as he posted consecutive FIP numbers of 3.86, 3.55, and 3.85 while averaging 200 innings pitched each season. Jackson continued that stretch with the Cubs last year, posting an FIP of 3.79 in 175.1 innings pitched.
While the results on the field didn’t match the metric, as Jackson posted an abysmal ERA of 4.98 last season, the blame should not be placed squarely on the pitcher as Jackson’s xFIP of 3.86 also confirmed that he was incredibly unlucky last year.
He may never be a starting pitcher that fans can be confident in during games that he takes the mound, but Jackson does possess one elite attribute that is becoming increasingly more valuable in MLB in his durability.
In this era of Major League Baseball, pitchers are dropping like flies with a new batch of Tommy John surgeries seemingly announced every week. The latest to succumb to the Tommy John diagnosis is Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Matt Moore. Moore becomes the 13th pitcher already this season to undergo Tommy John surgery, just six less than all of last season. With five and a half months to go, last year’s total of 19 Tommy John surgeries will most likely be surpassed, but the smart money says that Jackson will not be one of the victims.
Jackson’s durability may seem arbitrary if he cannot be effective on the mound. But the real problem with Jackson is that he is a poor No. 3 starter who would be a downright decent No. 4 starter and would look great in the No. 5 position. If the Cubs can add a true ace in the offseason, suddenly Jackson becomes a durable, dependable starter in the back of the rotation rather than a No. 3 starter no one has any confidence in.
There is also still the chance that Jackson can take the next step and become the mid-rotation starter that his stuff has always indicated he is capable of.
For most pitchers to take the next step, a new pitch is introduced. Lately for a lot of pitchers that pitch has been the cutter, as Mariano Rivera’s bread and butter has been popularized among the collective fraternity of pitchers. In Jackson’s case, the change-up may be the pitch that elevates him to a new level.
Jackson has thrown the change-up in the past but never with any regularity. After throwing his change-up over eight percent of the time from 2010 to 2012, Jackson threw it just 1.8 percent of the time last year. Last season Jackson’s change-up was replaced by a two-seam fastball, a pitch that was thrown 18.7 percent of the time in 2011 then just 2.6 percent in 2012 and back to 11.6 percent last year.
What these numbers are saying is that Jackson is still figuring out how to pitch. The stuff has always been there, as Jackson’s fastball routinely comes in at 94, combined with both a curveball and slider, but figuring out how to effectively deploy his secondary pitches has been an ongoing mystery for Jackson during his entire career.
At just 30 years old, it’s likely that the best of Edwin Jackson is still yet to come. While the contract given by the Cubs looks awful right now, Jackson will take the mound every fifth day and at this point fans can only hope that pitching coach Chris Bosio can help to unlock his true potential.