Jackson, who lost out to Travis Wood in the race for the fifth starter spot, opened the season by logging nine quality innings out of the bullpen. He has struck out nine, walked only one and limited the 36 batters he has faced to a .171 average. While Jackson has found himself working in low-leverage situations, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said in late April that Jackson could work himself into a more meaningful role.
It’s early, but it looks as if Jackson has abandoned his curveball (1.6 percent usage) and decreased his fastball usage (down to 52 percent from 59 percent) while increasing the use of his slider (up to 42.3 percent from 27 percent). Looking at the PITCHf/x plate discipline numbers, Jackson is getting more swings at pitches out of the strike zone than he has at any time with the Cubs.
No matter the leverage situation, seeing Jackson pitch well has been refreshing after watching him struggle in his first two years of his four-year deal worth $52 million. He posted a 14-33 record (.298 win pct.), 5.58 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 1.54 WHIP and 69 ERA+.
The struggle was real for the Cubs, as they went 18-40 (.310 win pct.) in Jackson’s 58 starts in 2013 and 2014.
But those are numbers for the past, as the Cubs try to find a new role for Jackson in an attempt to get the most out of the two years and $22 million left on his contract. And while being a low leverage reliever isn’t the most glorious position, it could be a place of value for a player like Jackson.
Maddon can mix-and-match out of the bullpen with the best of them — and he’ll need to if the Cubs are to compete this season. But like every bullpen, the Cubs have limitations.
Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop can’t pitch every day. Jason Motte is still working his way toward being the kind of late-inning ace he was with the Cardinals. Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm are still on the recovery trail.
Because Maddon will eventually need to find spots to rest his relief aces, this may be where Jackson can find a role.
If Jackson can continue to be successful in small doses while harnessing his stuff and building his confidence, he could earn a more meaningful role as a reliever. If not, as long as he isn’t a detriment to team success, the Cubs can go on their merry way with Jackson in his current role.