The off-season so far has brought us many things, among them being the development of a costly reliever market. Although the frenzy has died down, teams have been swarming to any available and acceptable bullpen help and throwing serious money at them. Teams work on payroll restraints, of course, so signing an average reliever for a few million more than usual in a potentially inflated market will hamper a team’s options at another position. What could a team do to combat this recent trend without committing to more affordable, subpar free agent relievers? One option could be the signing and conversion of Edwin Jackson to full time reliever.
Edwin Jackson Could be an Effective Reliever
A few teams have tried so far, most recently the Miami Marlins. They signed Jackson before the 2016 season to a one year, league-minimum salary in hopes of Jackson performing well in the pen. After just eight appearances at 10.2 innings and an ERA of 5.91, Jackson was designated for assignment and later released. This made him available for the San Diego Padres to pick him up on a minor league contract. The Padres got 13 starts and 73.1 innings out of him through the rest of the season without a single appearance from the bullpen. There were a few bright moments in those starts:
In the video, it is worth noting Jackson struck out Buster Posey on a 97 MPH fastball in the sixth inning. His season with the Padres ended with a 5.89 ERA, after which he elected free agency.
It seems Jackson is at a point in his career where teams are skeptical as to what contributions he can make for them. His 2016 season was a prime example, being exclusively a reliever for one and a starter for another. Jackson has had a hard time with consistency, yet still throws great stuff when he’s on. It seems one problem he faces is each team looking to sign him are wanting different things, making it hard to focus on one job. If a team was to sign him this off-season, committing to a full time bullpen role and dumping the starter role entirely would be beneficial for both parties. He’s willing to play for cheap, and his career numbers back up the idea that he can be an effective reliever for the right team.
With an MLB service time of 13 seasons, Jackson is valuable in his veteran status as well as what he has accomplished in that span. The 2009 season was his best, turning in 3.3 WAR of value and earning All-Star honors while with the Tigers. That year, he turned in 214 innings in 33 starts with a 3.62 ERA, striking out 161 batters and walking 70. A 33 year old pitcher with a history of command issues like Jackson will likely never put up those numbers again, but judging his career numbers, it is likely that he can reclaim some value.
Jackson holds a below average 1.46 career WHIP, having a lot to do with a 3.55 BB/9 (similar to that of Jake Arrieta’s 2016). His BB/9 and 6.93 K/9 are comparable to Edinson Volquez of the 2015 World Series winning Kansas City Royals. Jackson is a viable candidate for a low risk, high reward reclamation project. The key to that high reward may lie with his slider.
There are a number of relievers that heavily rely on their slider: Jason Grilli, Dellin Betances, Shawn Kelley, and Mark Lowe, to name a few. The slider is an effective pitch; in Jackson’s case, it has been a fairly effective pitch throughout his career. Batters hit .228 against his slider in 2016, which is one of the more successful seasons they’ve had against it in Jackson’s 13 on the mound. The lifetime average against Jackson’s slider is .205, almost identical to that of Washington Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley at .210. Kelley is a good model of what Jackson should aim to duplicate based on age, pitch velocities, and slider effectiveness.
Kelley throws his fastball 56.2% of the time at an average velocity of around 92 MPH, bringing an 83 MPH slider 43.7% of the time in 2016. That earned him a 2.64 ERA in 58 innings. If Jackson were to reinvent himself, he could decrease the use of his 92-94+ MPH fastball and throw his 86 MPH slider more often than his current average rate of 28%. If Jackson is willing to use his slider more and use his erratic changeup less, maybe he can capture at least some of Kelley’s success.
One should not expect Jackson to simply show up to spring training having made these changes and be worth the $15 million for three years that Kelley is getting just by throwing as many sliders as Kelley does. There are many variables that go into this, such as Kelley’s superior command despite similar velocities and average against. If anything, this should stand as an example to not rely solely on numbers. Strange anomalies have been cited consistently in WAR, despite many adopting it as a be-all and end-all statistic. It is far from a sure thing when looking at a few numbers averaged over 13 seasons, but these numbers, accompanied by past performance, show Jackson to be a viable reclamation candidate.
A team would be in good position if they came calling for his service. Jackson has been an ok pitcher over the span of his career. He’s also been pretty bad lately. That, along with his age, leads to a cheap price tag and little interest draw. Most teams looking for a bit of help in this manner would be able to risk a minor league contract and a spring training invite for Jackson in an attempt to sell high on him, especially in the current reliever market. His career is on the brink of perpetual minor league contracts and his slider has a shot at pulling him back.