It’s way too early for “I told you so” except, of course, in situations that have already come to their conclusion. Three starts aren’t enough to make concrete judgments from, but after talking him up this offseason, I do like what I’ve seen of Edwin Jackson so far. Last Thursday’s outing against the Astros was abnormally rocky — I somehow doubt that giving up multiple triples in one inning is going to become a habit for Jackson — but even amidst a tough outing, there were some good signs.
The first thing I like about Jackson’s first few starts is his walk rate. Jackson isn’t known for his efficiency — his 149-pitch, eight-walk no-hitter is certainly best testament to that — and while he isn’t quite the walk machine that Jonathan Sanchez is, it has been an area of concern for most of his career; his career walk rate is 3.6 per nine, which is about half a walk per nine above average. So far this year, Jackson has walked three, full stop; it is the fewest number of walks he has ever allowed in the first three starts of the season. If he were to keep his walk rate close to its current level, this would be the third year in a row that the rate declined, so this step toward efficiency isn’t unprecedented.
I like Jackson’s increased strikeout rate and I think he’ll keep it up. I’m not buying him as a 9 K/9 pitcher quite yet, but I’ll be less surprised if he finishes the year in the 7.5-8 K/9 range than I will be if he regresses all the way back to his career rate of 6.7, largely because of his increased use of secondary pitches. Jackson has always been a fastball/slider pitcher, mixing in his slider at about a 28 percent rate, with a changeup and curveball filling in the remaining pitches. Jackson’s fastball usage has been on the decline since 2008, and while that previously meant more sliders, this season’s drop in fastball usage has come because he’s throwing his change and curve more frequently.
His slider is still his best swing and miss offering, but his curve is another pitch that generates a decent whiff rate — 25 percent so far this season, though just 13 percent for his career. Anything that keeps hitters off his fastball and slider are going to make them more potent pitches since hitters can’t sit on them the way they could in the past. Jackson is getting hitters to swing at his pitches out of the zone at a career best rate, which leads to whiffs, but also leads to bad contact.
I do fear some regression from Jackson as I’m not quite buying his 51 percent groundball rate or his .250 BABIP, but I’m less worried about what will happen when those approach the mean if he can keep from giving hitters free passes. If that walk rate stays down and his strikeout rate stays up, both of which I think he can do if he continues to be effective with his curveball, the odd hit here and there that brings his BABIP back closer to his career level of .310 aren’t going to be nearly as damaging as they would have been in the past.
If there’s anything that seals my hope with Jackson, it’s that he has finally reversed one of the odder career trends out there: Jackson is one of a few pitchers who pitch demonstrably better with runners on base. For his career, Jackson allowed hitters a .791 OPS when the bases were empty, but just a .746 OPS when there were runners on base. His second best base-state is bases loaded where he allowed hitters a .692 OPS; his best is runners on first and second, he then only allows the hitter a .690 OPS.
This season, Jackson has reversed the trend, allowing hitters a .324 OPS when the bases are empty and a 1.067 OPS with runners on. I expect those levels to stabilize of course, but the point stands: He’s finally pitching well out of the wind-up, something he has struggled with for most of his career.
Nats starters are rolling right now. They’re on a streak of 22 scoreless innings allowed and while that’s no surprise coming from Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, the fact that Ross Detwiler and Jackson are responsible for 11 of those innings is a big part of the reason I’m buying the Nats’ start as potentially sustainable. Jackson is available in 30 percent of ESPN leagues and 40 percent of Yahoo! leagues, but every good performance is going to lower that number as it becomes easier and easier to believe that his success as repeatable.
There is still plenty of games left for Jackson to make a fool of me, but for the time being everything looks good and, perhaps most importantly, almost all of what is making him successful now is sustainable.