Cubs Edwin Jackson could thrive in bullpen


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Genius physicist Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  The Cubs intransigence in keeping RHP Edwin Jackson in the starting rotation is bordering on insanity.

Since he signed a four-year, $52 million contract prior to last season, Jackson, 30, has arguably been the worst starting pitcher in major league baseball.  Among the 68 pitchers who have thrown at least 300 innings since the start of 2013, Jackson has the worst WHIP (1.53); the worst ERA (5.47); the worst batting average allowed of balls put into play (BABIP)  (.335); the second worst batting average against (BA) (.293); the 12th highest walk rate (8.6%); and the fifth most wild pitches (23).

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No pitcher has lost more than Jackson’s 32 games (the next closest has suffered 26 defeats), and he has registered the second fewest wins, 14.

But it gets worse.  Among the 88 pitchers who have tossed at least 130 innings this season, Jackson has the worst WHIP (1.62); the worst ERA by over a full run (6.09); the worst BABIP (.352); the worst BA (.294); and the seventh highest walk rate (9.8%).

According to Fangraphs.com, Jackson’s average fastball velocity is down almost two miles per hour from just three seasons ago.  Moreover, he is throwing his fastball and slider almost 90% of the time, effectively reducing himself to a two-pitch pitcher, not the diversity of pitches employed by most starters.

The Cubs’ record in the 57 games he has started is 18-39, a 32% winning rate.  In the 231 games the club has played since he joined the team and has not started, the Cubs have won at a 45% rate (103-128).

Moreover, there is collateral damage.  Jackson’s average innings pitched per start of just over five since the beginning of last season has taxed a young bullpen that recently placed two of its members on the disabled list with fatigue-related injuries, Brian Schlitter and Neil Ramirez.

Demoralizing a team and fan base and taxing the bullpen aside, Jackson is also occupying a rotation spot that could be used for younger, more deserving alternatives.

While it is completely understandable that the Cubs would desperately try to salvage a player in whom they have invested so much money, including $22 million outstanding over the next two seasons, it is time for that salvage operation to change directions.  It is time for Edwin Jackson to move to the bullpen.

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Skeptics would be justified in pondering how Jackson would retire opposing hitters as a relief pitcher with any more success than as a starter.  True, the mound and plate would still be separated by 60 feet and six inches regardless of whether Jackson was starting or relieving.

Yet, several erstwhile and ineffective starters have achieved success in the bullpen.   The Cubs need to at least be creative  in trying to gain value from a player who, from 2009 to 2012, was 45-41 with a 3.98 ERA and 1.33 WHIP, against whom opposing batters averaged .257, and who yielded a respectable .300 BABIP.

While creating the precedent of keeping a player on the roster who is devoid of value just because he is owed a lot of money is destructive; even more destructive is setting a precedent of giving up on a player with Jackson’s talent and prior success before exhausting all reasonable options to salvage him.

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Toward that end, we profile six longtime starters who shifted their career fortunes with a move to the bullpen.  We provide the splits between their final, and unsuccessful, season as a fulltime starter and their first season as a fulltime reliever.

1) Milwaukee Brewers LHP Zach Duke: 

Last season as fulltime starter (2010):  29 starts; ERA: 5.73; WHIP: 1.65; BA: .314; BABIP: .338; K/9: 5.4

First season as fulltime relief pitcher (2014):  58 relief appearances; ERA: 2.23; WHIP: 1.08; BA: .211; BABIP: .299; K/9: 11.7

Average fastball velocity:  87.4 MPH to 89.6 

Note:  Duke split the 2011 season between the starting rotation and bullpen and spent the vast majority of the 2012 and 2013 seasons pitching in the minor leagues.

2)  Kansas City Royals RHP Luke Hochevar: 

Last season as fulltime starter (2012):  32 starts; ERA: 5.73; WHIP: 1.42; BA: .278; BABIP: .315; K/9: 7.0

First season as fulltime reliever (2013):  58 relief appearances; ERA 1.92; WHIP: 0.82; BA: 168; BABIP: .214; K/9: 10.5  

Average fastball velocity:  92.6 mph to 95.6

*Hochevar is sidelined this season with an elbow injury.

3) LHP Daren Oliver (retired):

Last season as fulltime starter (2003):  33 appearances (32 starts);  ERA: 5.04; WHIP: 1.45; BA: .280; BABIP: 296; K/9 4.4

First season as fulltime reliever (2006):  45 relief appearances; ERA: 3.44; WHIP: 1.26; BA: .227; BABIP: .242; K/9 6.7

Average fastball velocity:  Not available.

Note:  Oliver split time between the bullpen and starting rotation in 2004 and did not pitch in the major leagues in 2005.

4) Kansas City Royal RHP Wade Davis

Last season as fulltime starter (2011):  29 starts; ERA: 4.45; WHIP: 1.38; BA: .262; BABIP: .280; K/9: 5.1

First season as fulltime reliever (2012):  54 relief appearances; ERA: 2.43; WHIP: 1.09; BA: .188; BABIP: .264; K/9: 11.1

Average fastball velocity:  90.2 to 92.3

5) Dustin Hermanson (retired):

Last season as fulltime starter (2001):  33 starts; ERA: 4.45; WHIP: 1.40; BA: .260; BABIP: .272; K/9: 5.8

First season as fulltime reliever (2005):  57 relief appearances; ERA: 2.24; WHIP: 1.10; BA: .219; BABIP: 243; K/9: 5.2

Average fastball velocity:  Not available.

Note:  Hermanson was limited to 12 appearances in 2012 due to injury and shuttled between the bullpen and starting rotation in 2003 and 2004.

6) Dennis Eckersley (HOF/retired):

Last season as fulltime starter (1986):  33 appearances (32 starts); ERA: 4.57; WHIP: 1.34; BA: .277; BABIP: .312; K/9: 4.6

First season as fulltime reliever (1988):  60 relief appearances; ERA: 2.35; WHIP: 0.87; BA: .195; BABIP: .245; K/9: 8.8

Average fastball velocity:  Not available

Note: Eckersley appeared in 54 games, but two as a starter, in 1987.

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With the exception of Hermanson’s K/9, the pitchers profiled above improved their metrics across the board in their first full season in the bullpen.  Moreover, increased fastball velocity appears to be highly correlative of a move to the bullpen.

If Jackson experienced the same velocity spike, he would likely be throwing a 95-96 MPH fastball.

Clearly it is highly unlikely Jackson would duplicate Eckersley’s mid- and late-career dominance as a relief pitcher.  We cite him and others simply to demonstrate that there is redemption for longtime starters who are consistently scuffling.

In fact, the Cubs need to look no further than their own roster for an example of a pitcher who bottomed out as a starter but who is enjoying tremendous success in the bullpen.  RHP Carlos Villanueva made 56 starts over seven years before joining the Cubs last season.

In 2013, his ERA and WHIP as a starter were 4.50 and 1.26, respectively, but 3.03 and 1.14 as a reliever.  This season, the splits are even more marked.  Villanueva has posted a 10.53 ERA and 2.19 WHIP in five starts, yet he has produced a 2.92 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 31 relief appearances.

In fact Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein was the general manager of the Boston Red Sox when they converted a minor league starter named Jonathon Papelbon into one of the most dominant closers of his generation.

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Any move by Jackson to the bullpen will have to be delayed, as he was placed on the disabled list yesterday with a side strain.  However, history suggests that the Cubs would be shortsighted to abandon Jackson without at least experimenting with him as a reliever.

Keeping him in the rotation when he is activated from the disabled list is……well….insane.

Comments

  1. Agreed!!! Maybe in a short stint middle relief role.

  2. Agreed !!! Maybe a short stint middle relief role.

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