In terms of flashy major league debuts, no one can top Edwin Jackson. On his 20th birthday, the fireballing Dodgers rookie defeated Randy Johnson, punching out four batters in six scoreless innings. A 6th round pick in the 2001 draft, Jackson came equipped with an ideal pitcher’s frame (6-3, 190) and a fastball that crept up near triple digits at times. Considered one of the brightest prospects in a fertile Dodgers farm system, Jackson figured to play a prominent role in LA’s future.
That plan never came to fruition, however, as the German-born right-hander spent the 2004 and 2005 seasons sipping sour cups of coffee with the Dodgers (62 H, 42 R in 53.1 IP) and getting clobbered at hitter-friendly AAA Las Vegas (126 R in 145.1 IP). He found some measure of success upon a demotion to the AA Southern League in ’05 (6.4 K/9, 2.6 BB/9), but on the whole those two seasons were brutal. Los Angeles eventually grew tired of Jackson’s lack of progress and jettisoned him (along with lefty Chuck Tiffany) to Tampa Bay for Danys Baez and Lance Carter prior to the 2006 season.
Jackson more or less trudged along the same disappointing career path in 2006 (5.45 ERA) and 2007 (5.76) as well, before posting a mark below the league average for the first time in his career this past season. Still just 25 and coming off a campaign in which he shaved his ERA down to 4.42, Jackson only figures to get better, right?
Well, the Tigers certainly think so. The club shipped rangy, cost-controlled outfielder Matthew Joyce to the Rays to acquire Jackson’s services a few days ago in what Dave Cameron called a “ridiculously bad trade.” While Detroit’s starting staff ranked just 21st in WPA/LI and could use some external help, there just isn’t much evidence to suggest that their newest arm actually made significant progress in 2008.
In 2007, Jackson posted a 4.90 FIP. In 2008, despite the huge difference in ERA, that FIP figure remained static (4.88 FIP). While he knocked off over a walk per nine innings from his line (from 4.92 BB/9 in ’07 to 3.78 BB/9 in ’08), his strikeout rate dipped considerably, down from 7.16 per nine in 2007 to just 5.3 in 2008.
It wasn’t really Jackson that improved, but rather the defense around him. The dramatic shift in the quality of Tampa’s D has been well chronicled. After posting a gruesome -54.2 UZR in 2007, the Rays skyrocketed to +70.6 in ’08 (for those of you scoring at home, that’s about a twelve-and-a-half win swing). Jackson’s BABIP was .351 in 2007, but with the best defensive squad in the majors flanking him in 2008, that number dropped to .301. He also benefitted from stranding 76.1% of runners on base, well above his 69.7% career average.
Jackson is a great example of velocity not being everything for a pitcher. Despite routinely popping the catcher’s mitt at 94 MPH, Jackson’s swinging strike percentage was just 7.7% in 2008, slightly below the 7.8% average for starters. For comparison, former teammate Andy Sonnanstine (he of 87 MPH heat and four offspeed pitches) generated swinging strikes at a 7.3% clip and bested Jackson with 5.77 K/9. So, despite Jackson’s “stuff” advantage, he missed about the same number of bats as Sonny while walking over two times as many hitters (which, I guess, gives you an idea of why Andy is sticking around and Jackson is not).
While Jackson is still relatively young and it’s conceivable that he could improve, he’s no more than an adequate fifth starter at this point in time. Don’t be fooled by the superficial gains in his 2008 numbers: the only thing that changed about Jackson this past year was the quality of the defenders around him.