edwin jackson cubs press conferenceIn late December, after the Chicago Cubs had reportedly – but not yet officially – agreed to terms with free agent starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, I had only one small concern with the signing. I liked the term and I liked the rate. I liked the age of the pitcher, and the caliber of his stuff. I liked his durability, and I liked the role he filled on a team that was going to need him over the coming years. But I was a touch nervous about the slight decline in velocity Jackson saw in 2012, and I examined whether, if it was a permanent decline, Jackson was going to soon drop in effectiveness. The conclusion? Eh. Maybe. But maybe not. Who knows. It was one of those kind of things. There aren’t always firm conclusions.

But, here we are in early May, and Jackson is really struggling. His fastball velocity – an average of 94.5, 94.4, and 94.7 MPH in 2009-11, and 93.4 MPH in 2012 – has dropped further still, down to 92.7 MPH. With Jackson giving up more than 10 hits per 9 innings this year, are we seeing a confirmation of those velocity-related fears?

While that might yield a neatly-packaged narrative, I’m not so sure just yet.

To be sure, if you get past the small sample of just 38 innings – which you can’t really get past, because the’s entire point of “small sample size” (it means the sample is too small to draw any meaningful conclusions) – Jackson’s baseball card stats look pretty grim. He’s got a 6.39 ERA and a 1.632 WHIP, and just two of his six starts have been quality starts (at least 6 IP and no more than 3 ER). Win/loss as a stat is often useless and misleading, but you could argue that Jackson has earned his 0-5 record.

But when you dig a little deeper, you see a guy who is striking out more batters – 9.24 per 9 – than he ever has in his career. He’s also inducing far more ground balls than he ever has before. His 54.7% ground ball rate blows his career mark (44.1%) out of the water, and is in the top ten in all of baseball. His FIP (3.21) and xFIP (3.55) put him right around 30th in baseball, and second best among the Cubs’ starting pitchers, behind only Jeff Samardzija (Jackson’s xFIP is just a touch behind Carlos Villanueva). In other words, the advanced stats say Jackson hasn’t just been “not bad,” he’s been affirmatively good.

So, what’s up, then? Why is he giving up so many runs if he’s pitching so well?

Mostly there are two things informing Jackson’s poor performance, and each is arguably the product of mere bad luck: an unusually high BABIP against, and an unusually low LOB%. The former, BABIP (batting average on balls in play), is an indicator of how many balls a pitcher allows the batter to hit into play that are falling in for hits. For the most part, BABIP is not correlated with actual pitching ability, which means when it gets far too high – as Jackson’s .353 mark is this year (.307 career) – it’s often a fair guess that the guy is just suffering some bad luck. The latter stat, LOB%, is the rate at which a pitcher is stranding runners on base. For Jackson this year, nearly every other guy who reaches base is also scoring, as his his LOB% is a frighteningly low 52.3%. His career average being 70.9%, you would have expected Jackson to have given up a great deal fewer runs this year than he has, simply by chance, and even while giving up close to the same number of hits.

When you combine a high BABIP and a low LOB%, there’s a compounding effect: you’re allowing more base runners than the fairness overlords dictate you “should” be allowing, and you’re allowing more of them to score than you “should” be allowing.

The short, non-number version of all of this: Jackson’s been pitching all right, and he’s been pretty unlucky.

This is not to exonerate Jackson entirely, or to suggest that he hasn’t had some issues. Although the balls finding the grass is largely a fluky product of vagaries of a batted ball, the more line drives you give up, the more likely you are to give up more hits. And Jackson’s been giving up line drives at a 22% rate this year, higher than his career average of 19.9%. That’s going to drive up your BABIP against, and could be the product of some lost velocity. For another thing, Jackson’s giving up too many walks – 4.26 per 9, which is both far too high and much higher than his career average (3.6).

In the end, you could argue that Jackson has been slightly less effective this year than in years past, and you could argue that a decline in velocity and shaky control are to blame. Anecdotally, I don’t think I would blame you. But, given the small sample, and the advanced stats, I also think you could make a pretty strong argument that, on the balance, Jackson has actually pitched well. He’s giving up far more hits on the balls that are put in play than he likely will going forward, and he’s actually doing a good job of reducing those balls in play by way of the strikeout.

Going forward, you would expect regression in Jackson’s BABIP against and his LOB% (the good kind of regression), and, assuming he keeps throwing the ball well, it will suddenly appear as though he’s “figured it out.” That will especially be true if he cuts down on his walks.

  • FarmerTanColin

    So he gets the unlucky amount of extra base runners from finding holes through the infield, plus a couple extra walks here and there….then he gives up the big hit.

    It feels like watching a young pitcher honestly. Just not quite refined which actually sounds like the Edwin Jackson I’ve seen for years.

  • Patrick G

    Still April, I give that MPH average to rise as summer goes on

    • a_mazz_ing

      Today is May 6th.

  • BluBlud

    Edwin is and always will be a very solid pitcher. His numbers suggest he is very unlucky. I not to worried about his loss of velocity at this point. The typical loss of velocity you worry about would also typically see a reduction in strike outs, which is the complete opposite of what we are seeing.

    I still support signing Jackson, himself, though i don’t think i would have offered him that contract knowing our finacial situation. Here hoping his luck will start turning around with his next outing.

  • Rcleven

    Jackson is pitching his career numbers. Pretty much what the Cubs bought. Only disappointment I have with him at the rate he is going you will never see the 200-220 innings
    the Cubs were expecting.

    • jt

      Years gone by, Jackson concentrated many of his bad innings in 6 or 7 starts per 30. This year he is spreading them around to each start. That is a big difference.

  • Spriggs

    Not sure, but it really seems like the wind has been favorable (blowing in) along with the colder weather for most of his starts. I don’t expect a lot of improvement from what I’ve seen. As for his luck, well, he fits right in.

  • Matt

    The numbers don’t actually suggest he’s been good, they suggest he’s been unlucky, but still irrefutably bad. A hit is a hit, flukey as it may be. There’s a reason why they say “they’re all line drives in the box score,” after all.

  • Spencer

    Oh my God, I feel like I could just replace the name “Edwin Jackson” with the name “Chris Volstad” and this would read exactly like an article from last year about how the advanced stats said he was pitching really well but was giving up a million runs because he was just so gosh darn unlucky.

    Also, 38 innings is a “small sample size”, but if a guy makes 19 starts and only pitches 2 innings each time and gets pulled because he’s giving up a ton of runs and is pitching ineffectively, is it still reasonable to look at his innings pitched and not draw any conclusions because the sample size of innings pitched is so small? Perhaps games started is a more reasonable “small sample” to hang your hat on.

    • cjdubbya

      This was my exact thought when I saw the link on Twitter, and I was going to be disappointed if you hadn’t said something to this exact effect. Good job, sir.

    • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

      Volstad didn’t have ANY of the positive indicators that Brett is talking about.

      • Spencer

        Well Volstad’s FIP and xFIP were 3.20 and 3.68, respectively, at the end of April last year, so…

      • FarmerTanColin

        Volstad 2012 Cubs 4.93 k/9, .315 BABIP, 63.5% LOB and 49.2 GB% FIP of 6.31

        Ha there is absolutely no comparison to Jackson and last years Volstad.

        • Spencer

          The overall narrative Brett made regarding Chris Volstad AT THIS POINT last season and Edwin Jackson AT THIS POINT this season is strikingly similar. That is what I am trying to say.

          • FarmerTanColin

            You need to type louder I cant hear you. Lol Angry Spencer!

            So FIP is similar what about BABIP that seems to be more telling then K/9, LOB%..etc

            • FarmerTanColin

              er meant to also include the other stats to be compared. The last part came out wrong.

            • FarmerTanColin

              Found them.

              Volstad Apr 2012 BABIP .313 K/9 6.43 49.7% LOB, 49.5 GB% and 19.4 LD%

              So yeah the FIP is similar but the rest isn’t, he had a much lower BABIP, K/9, GB%. Peripherals seem to slant towards Jackson coming out of this but he could also just bust the rest of the way.

          • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

            May 5, 2012, Brett:

            Advanced stats and scouting reports are valuable, and shouldn’t be disregarded. But, at some point, a dude’s gotta get results. So far this year, Chris Volstad hasn’t.

  • Duke250

    I think he’ll get better… like all of the Cub pitchers they need to score more runs. The games are too close and I don’t think these guys or any pitcher, does particularly well when they can’t relax and just pitch. Right now every Cub pitcher pitches like they can’t afford a mistake or a multi-run inning. Not good long term! If they start hitting I think the whole staff will relax and do better.

  • @murdiddlyurdler

    while he’s been “good” and “unlucky” so far, according to the numbers, it’s also likely his numbers keep getting worse even if his luck evens out and he just has plain old bad starts. a poster mentioned his FB gaining during the summer, while that’s true, his homers will prob go up too as the weather warms. he’s edwin jackson, likely a 4 man on a contending team, analyzing him based on his salary will only drive you mad.

    • Spencer

      And regardless of if he’s just plain unlucky or just plan bad, the end result is the same: The Cubs are 1-6 in games where Edwin Jackson has been the starting pitcher.

      • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

        Yes, you are correct. But we’re trying to look forward and predict what his performance will be for the remainder of the year, and all indications point to him being his normal, pre-2013 self.

  • Evan

    Could the low LOB% be a result of mechanical issues pitching out of the stretch? Are his K rates and ground-ball rates, etc. significantly different when he’s pitching out of the stretch?

    • Kyle

      That could be a small contributing factor, but in the long run no pitcher is going to consistently have almost half of his baserunners score.

  • a_mazz_ing

    I think a lot of his walks is him trying to get to cute. He knows his fastball is declining and he keeps trying to nibble and not trusting his stuff. He’s a very mentally strong pitcher (from what Len and JD keeps saying) so it seems like he just needs to get his confidence back. I think one good start could string a few in a row.

    • Rcleven

      Len and DJ won’t say a thing bad about the Cubs. It’s their jobs to build this team up to the public.

  • Jono

    The small sample size is VERY important. Look at Cain’s stats this year, or Price’s stats. Lots of really good pitchers aren’t doing so hot (not that Jackson is of that caliber). But if Jackson’s May looks like his April, then ill start worring. It will be a shame if their most expensive starting pitcher is also their worst SP, though. You probably don’t need to pay a guy over $10 million a year to get you a top draft pick. They could’ve paid a young pitcher league minimum for that

  • rbreeze

    I think Jackson will get better as the year goes on. Remember a couple years ago coming out of spring training, Dempster and Randy Wells had outstanding ST stats. Dempster pitched like Jackson is now before it took a couple of months to turn it around and Wells got hurt in his first start and was never the same. That’s baseball.
    Monday marks the 15th anniversary of perhaps the greatest single-game pitching performance in Major League Baseball history. On May 6, 1998, a Cubs rookie by the name of Kerry Wood struck out 20 Astros in a complete game, one-hit shutout.

  • terencemann

    I think all early season stats can be deceiving. The main thing to me is that Jackson is handling the things he’s supposed to handle at this point. I think the only reason you should panic about Jackson is if his velocity starts trending downward or he suddenly can’t throw strikes. The ERA will come around.

    • terencemann

      The Volstand comparison doesn’t really work because Volstad was never as good as Jackson has been for the past several seasons.

  • jt

    Not sure who is K’ing vs Jackson. He is going through the line-ups at a faster pace so is seeing lesser hitters more per IP.
    If the negative (facing more hitters per IP) is the reason for the positive (higher K rate) then there really is no positive.

    • Kyle

      If it were that easy to explain, lots of bad pitchers would average 9+ K/9. They don’t.

      • jt

        But this is a particular pitcher with an established track record. He is at 9.2 K/9 2013 vs 6.9 K/9 life. A diff of 2.3 K/9
        7 GS with 38 IP -> about 5.5 IP/GS. So that 2.3 K/9 is closer to 1.5/start.
        39 total K’s
        form of Name # K’s
        Pitchers 8
        Hector Sanchez 3
        Weeks 4
        Ruggiano 3
        Bruce 2
        Alex Gonzalez 1
        pitchers and guys having brutal springs = 21 K’s
        he as also gotten free swinging high K guys like
        Headley 2
        Pence 1
        Todd Frazier 1
        to get his 2 K’s vs Braun he has given up 4 hits and a BB in 8 PA’s.
        that is over 2/3 of his K’s…. not real impressive.

    • http://www.viewfromthebleachers.com Norm

      This is my qualm on using K/9 instead of K%.

      2012: 7.97 K/9, 21.3%
      2013: 9.24 K/9, 21.7%

      The K/9 bump looks fantastic, but it’s because he’s facing more batters.

      • FarmerTanColin

        This brings up a good point and brings up how he is facing more batters.

        The increased BB/9 with 10% BB rate where the past two season he’s had 7 BB%. Says that its not all the BABIP bad luck for increasing base runners he is also walking too many people.

        So some bad luck, untimely walks and timely walks for the other team. Hope this turns around.

        • FarmerTanColin

          meant timely hits for the other team

      • jt

        that is the correct way to state the results.
        nice catch

  • Bob Johnson

    I would have been happier if they had given the big contract to Paul Maholm. They’re around the same age & crafty lefties tend to have long careers.

  • dying cubs fan’s last request

    He sucks, period. He’s a 4th starter at best. His career so far shows that, his season so far shows that. Theres no point in digging stats to try and prove the contrary. By the end of the year we all will see that.

  • Kansas Cubs Fan

    That’s a well thought out argument on both sides.

    You should be a lawyer or somethin’.

  • http://Isa Voice of reason

    Oh my goodness!

    The author says he can make the argument that Edwin Jackson is pitching well? Really?

    I’m sure that the tobacco company can make an argument that cigarettes are good for you.
    I’m certain that someone out there thinks blagojevich was a good governor.
    And, I’ll bet if you looked hard enough you could find information that allowing your dog to eat his own poop provides nourishment.

    Well, smoking ain’t good for you, blagojevich was horrible and eating your own poop is not healthy! And, there is no way that anyone who has watched Jackson throw this year could argue that he has pitched “well”!!!!!!!! That is ridiculous!

    • Jono

      The seeing-eye-test is still best

  • Will

    Anybody want to know the problems with Jackson should start with his career stats at Wrigley compared to vs. the Cubs anywhere else. Then look at his numbers with runners on base. Something is off with his slide step.

    if he throws 1st pitch strike and stays ahead of the batters, he is fine. If he get behind the count or lets runners on base, he is awful.

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