You’re likely familiar with Jackson’s story by now. By 19, he was in AA and whiffing over a batter per inning. Prior to the 2004 season, Baseball America named Jackson the best prospect in a Dodgers top 30 list that included the likes of Franklin Gutierrez, Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton and Russell Martin.
BA gushed that Jackson was “the complete package,” fitting “the profile of a top-of-the-line starting pitcher to a tee.” He beat Randy Johnson on his 20th birthday. Jackson looked poised to take LA by storm.
Except he didn’t. The next three years of Jackson’s career were essentially lost, as he got pummeled in AAA and the majors. He couldn’t find the strike zone with a GPS. Exasperated, L.A. jettisoned Jackson to Tampa Bay in January of ’06 for middle relievers Danys Baez and Lance Carter. From 2004-2006, Edwin posted rates of 6.95 K/9 and 5.21 BB/9 between AAA Las Vegas and Durham. He was a mess.
Two seasons in Tampa’s rotation produced FIP’s of 4.90 and 4.88, respectively. After Jackson’s trade to the Tigers, we chronicled his tenure with the Rays. His ERA dropped dramatically from 2007 to 2008 (5.76 to 4.42), but that supposed progress seemed questionable. Jackson’s walk rate improved, but that came at the expense of considerably fewer K’s. His BABIP dipped 50 points from ’07 to ’08, thanks to historically improved D in Tampa.
One season later, Jackson’s ERA has again dipped by a big margin. In 2009, he registered a 3.62 ERA in 214 frames. With the Tigers facing a payroll crunch (I suppose that can happen when a club has a combined $65.5M tied up in Magglio Ordonez, Jeremy Bonderman, Carlos Guillen, Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson in 2010), Detroit is reportedly willing to listen to offers for Jackson. Is Edwin finally making good on the Baseball America’s bold prognostication?
The 26 year-old did make legitimate progress this past season. His K/BB ratio climbed from 1.4 to 2.3, as he raised his K rate to 6.77 per nine frames while issuing 2.94 BB/9. However, Jackson’s performance was more commensurate with a low-to-mid four’s ERA than his mid-three’s mark. He benefitted from a .281 BABIP, which helps explain the discord between his 3.62 ERA and 4.28 FIP.
Jackson’s searing mid-90’s fastball wasn’t all that special (-0.41 runs/100), but a biting upper-80’s slider (+1.89) made life difficult for opposing batters. He improved his outside-swing percentage from just 21.7% in 2008 to a healthy 27.2% in ’09 (25% MLB average).
As he reached unprecedented territory in terms of innings pitched, Jackson appeared to hit the wall:
April-June (6.98 K/9, 2.41 BB/9, 3.25 FIP)
Fastball/100 pitches: +1.06
Slider/100 pitches: +2.0
July-September (6.56 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 5.35 FIP)
MLB avg Z-Contact% is 87.8%
MLB avg Zone% is 49.3%
MLB avg F-Strike% is 58.2
Keep in mind that the run values for the fastball and slider are subject to things like BABIP and HR/FB rate. In Jackson’s case, he had a an extremely low BABIP during the first three months, while giving up few homers. In the second half, his BABIP regressed, as did his HR/FB rate.
But even so, Jackson clearly had problems locating from July onward. His rate of pitches thrown within the strike zone fell three percentage points, and his first-pitch strike percentage plummeted from league-average territory to barely over 50 percent.
In all, Jackson provided 3.5 Wins Above Replacement for the Tigers, a performance worth nearly $16M on the open market. The former Dodger and Ray has two years of team control left.
Jackson clearly took a step forward in 2009, but it’s important not to get too caught up in his ace-like ERA in the first half or his punching bag act in the second half. The truth lies somewhere in between those two extremes. A top-of-the-line arm? Not at the present moment. But Jackson looks like an above-average starter.