Coming into Thursday afternoon’s tilt with the Milwaukee Brewers, Edwin Jackson had given up the 3rd-most 1st-inning earned runs in baseball. Only Kyle Kendrick (24) and Tim Lincecum (21) had allowed more than Jackson’s 20. One would have thought that his fall from Cubs fans’ grace had already reached terminal velocity.
Of course, that was before the Cubs starter took the bump and promptly gave up two runs to the Beermakers. After getting two quick outs to open the frame, Jackson walked both Jonathan Lucroy and Khris Davis, after which he gave up a 2-out, 2-run 2-bagger to 2B Scooter Gennett. Too much?
And while the free passes and early runs are bad enough in and of themselves, the selection and execution of Jackson’s pitches reveal why he has been so ineffective. Take the Davis at-bat, for instance. At that early stage in the game, Jackson’s heater had not quite warmed up and he was tossing it in somewhere between 90-92 MPH.
But his second pitch to Davis, a changeup, clocked in at 88. That might be enough to generate the 1.21 gigawatts required to power a flux capacitor, but it’s not enough of a drop in velocity to fool a major league hitter. As the game continued, the velo disparity grew (84-85 on the change and 92-93 on the FB), but the issue was still apparent.
Also apparent was Jackson’s reliance on the 4-seamer, a pitch that he’s been known to lean on heavily. At one point in the 4-batter second inning, he threw the pitch on 12 of 13 tosses, including 8 straight at one point. It was the bottom of the order and no damage was done, but the precedent had been set.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. The blueprint for the season was painfully evident in Spring Training, when questions about Jackson’s all-fastball approach in a start were raised.
Ironically, Khris Davis looked at two more 4-seamers in his 2nd AB before blasting a rare slider for solo home run to give the Brewers a 3-0 lead in the 3rd. Believe it or not, that total represents as many runs as Jackson had allowed in each of his previous 3 starts (3, 2, 3, respectively). He would go on to allow 5 runs over just fewer than that many innings.
His innings totals in those aforementioned games were only 6, 6, and 4, the former of which represents the deepest he’s gone into a game since he went 7 frames on May 17th. Big paycheck aside, this was supposed to an innings-eater, a guy you could count on as a workhorse. Thus far, he’s only pitched more than 6 innings three times, and he has yet to see the 8th.
But maybe I’m being too hard on the guy. Perhaps he’s just having a spate of bad luck and focusing on numbers like his 5.61 ERA (heading into the game) is preventing me from seeing the true measure of his worth. With that in mind, I took a look at his FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching.
For those of you unfamiliar with FIP, it’s a sabermetric stat that is gaining a great deal of credence as a more accurate measure of a pitcher’s performance. It takes into account only the outcomes a pitcher can control once the ball leaves his hand: walks, strikeouts, hit by pitches, and home runs.
Balls that fall in play are the defense’s responsibility and are also subject to too many variables to accurately reflect how well a pitcher is doing. The Cubs have taken great advantage of FIP picking up guys like Scott Feldman and Jason Hammel, and then Jake Arietta and, most recently, Jacob Turner.
Ideally, a pitcher’s FIP would be lower than his ERA, with the difference indicating that he’s simply been the victim of either bad luck, bad defense, or a bit of both. In Jackson’s case, his FIP heading in Thursday’s start was a pedestrian 4.17; not great, but certainly not as gaudy as his ERA.
So what gives then? Why has Jackson been so universally decried as the worst pitcher to step foot in Chicago in the history of baseball? Or since LaTroy Hawkins anyway? It will take a smarter man than I to answer that definitively, but I think the answer lies at least partially in the issues I pointed out earlier.
When you see a pitcher like Kyle Hendricks out there challenging hitters with lower velocity, he’s doing so with late movement and nibbling, not allowing solid contact. Even though FIP uses a constant for balls in play, it stands to reason that softer hits are more likely to be gobbled up by the defense.
And fewer hits allowed means fewer runners, fewer pitches, and so on and so forth. That’s exactly the problem for Edwin Jackson: as the season has worn on, he’s struck out fewer men and allowed more hits. Through his first 12 starts, Jackson allowed 71 hits and had struck out 65. Through his next 12 starts, those numbers were 78 and 52.
I have to believe that the decreasing gap in velo from the 4-seamer to the change, coupled with Jackson’s reliance on the former, has been his undoing. You can’t fool hitters if they know what’s coming and if there’s virtually no difference between the two pitches. Grooving pitches right down the pipe makes it easy on them too.
Perhaps he can work with Chris Bosio on a grip change that could help to shave a few ticks off of the change or maybe it’s a psychological issue that he needs to work through. Maybe a move to the ‘pen would shake something loose, would allow him to ramp up to max effort soon, better leveraging the gap between the heater and change.
So how much more time do the Cubs give their highest-paid player to figure it out? I don’t have that answer, but it’s probably about as much time as it will it take to stretch Turner and/or Felix Doubront back into starters.
One thing’s for sure though, and that’s that Edwin Jackson cannot be allowed to take up a roster spot if he continues to pitch like this. And given the youth movement and their success with former cast-offs, it may simply be time for the Cubs to cut bait and eighty-six 36.