Twice upon a time, Chicago Cubs starting pitcher (and definite journeyman) Edwin Jackson was one of Major League Baseball’s top pitching prospects. Then a Los Angeles Dodger, Jackson was widely regarded as a minor league arm to look out for, even though he hadn’t yet turned 20 years old. Jackson tore through the minors and made his ML debut on his 20th birthday, out-pitching Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson to earn his first ML victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. After his first “cup of coffee,” his numbers looked very promising: 4 G, 3 S, 22 IP, 2-1, 2.45 ERA, 17 H, 2 HR, 19/11 K/BB. Sure, his FIP (what a pitcher’s ERA should have looked like over a given period of time) was 4.12 and he struggled with control, not even posting a 2/1 K/BB ratio, but there was much reason to believe he would be at the least a good starting pitcher for years to come.
Unfortunately, Jackson spent the next two years going from the big leagues to the minor leagues and back, trying to regain the control that made him one of the minors’ best arms just a few years prior. In 2004 and 2005, he posted this line: 15 G, 11 S, 52.1 IP, 4-3, 6.88 ERA, 62 H, 9 HR, 29/28 K/BB. No longer a guy the Dodgers felt was a “can’t-miss” prospect, he and southpaw Chuck Tiffany were traded in January of 2006 to the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays for pitchers Danys Baez and Lance Carter. Jackson pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen in ’06 before becoming a full-time starter in ’07. He rebounded from a poor ’07 campaign to win 14 games in ’08, tying a then-Rays (Tampa Bay dropped the “Devil” after the ’07 season) record for most wins by a pitcher. The Rays made the postseason and reached the World Series before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies, but Jackson didn’t make a start, instead pitching 3 games out of the bullpen. Despite the demotion, it appeared that the 24 year-old Jackson would be a part of a scary Rays rotation and even scarier Rays team for a long time. And then, he was traded not even three months after the season, to the Detroit Tigers for outfielder Matt Joyce.
Since, Jackson has been traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays (for who he never pitched; traded later that day) and St. Louis Cardinals. He threw arguably the most bizarre no-hitter ever against the Rays in 2010. He made 30 starts over 2 seasons for the Sox, putting up a 11-9, 196.2 IP, 3.66 ERA, 174/57 K/BB line. He “unfortunately” won a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 2011. Jackson, after not getting much serious attention on the free agent market after that season, signed a one-year deal with the Washington Nationals, putting up respectable numbers in a great starting rotation before finally finding a little security and stability, thanks to your Chicago Cubs.
On January 2, 2013, Jackson signed a 4-year, $52 million contract with the Cubs, with $8 million of it allocated as a signing bonus. Promising, durable starter? Yes. Frustrating-as-all-hell starter? Yes.
2013 was…not so great for Jackson. He didn’t reach the 7th inning until his ninth start and lost 8 of his first 9 decisions, posting a ghastly 6.29 ERA along the way. Over roughly the next seven weeks, however, Jackson was one of the better pitchers in baseball, going 6-3 and seeing his ERA drop more than a point and a half while showing better control and working deeper into ballgames. Although “EJax” went on to lose seven of his next eight decisions, he didn’t pitch all that poorly, allowing 3 earned runs or less in six of his final eight starts. Final 2013 line: 31 S, 8-18, 175.1 IP, 4.98 ERA, 197 H, 16 HR, 135/59 K/BB. Jackson was immediately placed into the “free agent bust” category after the season, and for fairly good reason.
Was there really good reason to label him a bust? Jackson’s FIP was 3.79, a pretty good sign. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .322, GB% (Ground Ball percentage) a career-high 51.3% (I don’t count 2006 because of the small sample size) and FB%, (Fly ball percentage) a career-low 28.4%. While Jackson had his outings in which he was absolutely shelled, the numbers above (and having actually seen most of his starts) will tell you that wasn’t always the case. Nearly. His HR/9 (home runs given up per 9 innings) was a respectable .82, so it’s not like he was allowing dingers left and right. And while it’s hard to blame the defense behind him when they posted a cumulative 26 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), good for ninth in the majors, a lot of that was due to three regulars: 1B Anthony Rizzo, 2B Darwin Barney, and C Wellington Castillo, who posted a combined 46 DRS. In summation, Jackson was somewhere in between a below-average and bad luck starter, basically.
Enter 2014. I didn’t believe for a nanosecond that Jackson was as bad as his 2013 line, but I didn’t have the utmost confidence that he would rebound fully. Through 11 starts: 3-5, 63.2 IP, 4.81 ERA (3.22 FIP), 66 H, 4 HR, 61/24 K/BB. Now, say hello to both Dr. Edwin and Mr. Jackson:
Believe me when I write that that’s essentially what Cubs fans have dealt with since EJax became a member of the Cubs. 2013 is in the past, but 2014 is certainly salvageable…provided Jackson never has to pitch in the first two innings ever again. In the first two innings, Mr. Jackson has been absolutely unpleasant: 22 IP, 9.41 ERA, 38 H, 3 HR, 20/12 K/BB. An opponent OPS of over 1.000 only makes it worse, as well as the fact that in a few starts, he’s given up an early lead his teammates provided him with. Over the next 3 innings, we have Dr. Edwin: 31.2 IP, 2.01 ERA, 19 H, 1 HR, 30/8 K/BB. Dividing starts by thirds, Jackson is a different pitcher in innings 1-3 than he is in innings 4-6, and I’m not exactly sure what can be done to rectify this issue.
There’s no disputing that when EJax is on, we all enjoy seeing Dr. Edwin go to work. But, when he’s off, which is seemingly every other start or inning, Cubs fans (myself included) turn into angry villagers with pitchforks looking to run the monster (Mr. Jackson) out of town. It wouldn’t even be entirely accurate to say that he has one good start, then one bad one, and so on and so forth, because again, he goes from crud to champ sometimes from inning 2 to 3.
I feel all any of us can really hope for is that EJax falls somewhere in between good and bad, providing durability and reliable pitching. At $11 million a year, he’s not exactly expensive, but when an athlete is making 8 digits a damn year, you’d expect a bit more than inconsistency and maddening displays of prowess, failure, prowess, failure, etc. It doesn’t help matters that he’s pitching on a Cubs team that is probably a little worse (no Sori or Garza) than last year’s club, leaving the error-prone Jackson little room for, well, error. He may right the ship. He may not. He probably will. He probably won’t. Whatever the case, Dr. Edwin and Mr. Jackson are here to say. Let’s just hope that Dr. Edwin learns how to better suppress Mr. Jackson so long as he is a Chicago Cub.