Leaving Las Vegas
["You Just Hope He Never Changes'] said Vin Scully about Edwin Jackson last night, and I couldn't agree more. Especially because Vin was talking not only about Jackson's pitching, but his smile.
Phenoms. Among the many reasons we watch baseball, there is no question that they are high up there on the list. We live to see Felix Hernandez step on the rubber as a teenager, or Jeff Francouer almost winning the Rookie of the Year. These players bring hope to organizations, and even more so, to the game.
This is what the Dodgers thought they had in Edwin Jackson. However, management simply got too excited, too quickly. The Dodgers saw a former sixth-round pick pitching well at the AA level -- at the age of 20 -- and jumped at the chance to bring him up. Jackson pitched well in September of 2003, under the pressure, but since has fallen apart. He has since become a "change of scenery needed" player, unfortunately falling in the same category as a player like Sean Burroughs.
Jackson's pro career started in 2002 when the team began him in the South Atlantic League less than a year removed from high school. It was there when Edwin first began to show signs that he had been a steal in the draft. During that season, Jackson had a 1.98 ERA for the Catfish, allowing just 79 hits in 104.2 innings. However, by striking out just 85 batters, Jackson was able to stay under the radar (respectively), for the most part.
That changed quickly in 2003. The Dodgers decided to allow the mature Jackson to skip a level, bypassing an offensive park at Vero Beach and moving up to the Southern League. This is where Edwin took off. When the AA season had ended, Jackson was among the league leaders in strikeouts, whiffing 157 batters in 148.1 innings. He continued to post a good H/9 rate, allowing just 121 hits, and showing moderate control with 53 walks.
Edwin was on top of the world. Any apprehension about his 3.70 ERA -- despite those great peripherals -- were erased by his fantastic stuff. The Dodgers, clinging to the hope of staying in the playoff race, called up Edwin at the end of the 2003 season. In his first start, Jackson drew the task of going up Randy Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks. The results were fantastic, as Jackson allowed just one earned run on four hits in six innings, allowing zero walks.
His fastball was in the upper 90s. His breaking pitch was biting. That month, Jackson would have a 2.45 ERA in 22 innings, allowing 17 hits while striking out 19. We thought he was guaranteed a rotation spot the next season. And this is when we enter the gray area.
Some say the Dodgers changed Jackson's mechanics over the winter between 2003 and 2004. Some think Edwin might have been injured. Some worry he didn't work hard enough. Or, he simply could have been pitching over his head in '03. Whatever the cause, Jackson was not prepared to meet expectations in 2004. After a poor Spring Training, the Dodgers decided to start Jackson in Las Vegas to start the 2004 season.
For those unaware, Las Vegas is one of the PCL's most extreme hitter parks, a stadium not built for the psyche of 21-year-old starters. In nineteen starts at AAA that season, Edwin had a 5.86 ERA. The cause is not what you might guess (home runs), but instead a large increase in walks. Simply put, over the winter, Jackson's control of his fastball fell apart. And lacking the same bite on his breaking pitch, thanks to the desert air, Edwin managed to log just 70 strikeouts in 90.1 AAA innings.
His AAA season was interrupted, however, by another trial in the Majors. Needing a starter for a June 2 game against the Brewers, the Dodgers decided to give Edwin a couple day's rest from the 51s. Again, he impressed pitching in the Majors, allowing one run over five innings in which he uncharacteristically let his infield do his work for him. The team then sent Jackson down, and tried again a month later. This time, the results weren't so good, though the team would win in each of his starts, and his season ERA was still just 3.86 when the team allowed him to finish the AAA season.
Given a September call-up, this is officially when the wheels came off for Edwin Jackson. In his last 13 innings, he would give up fifteen earned runs, 22 hits and four home runs. Even his poor performance couldn't complete deter excitement for his right arm, as I saw a few ups and downs in an appearance I watched via MLB TV:
In the 12 pitch inning, Jackson threw nine fastballs, showing a drastic preference for the pitch. He was between 91-95 mph on what I've described as a 'slow gun', so probably even 93-97. Despite walking one batter, Jackson showed solid control of the pitch, never missing by too much. He also showed a decent curve, with solid downward bite at 82-84 mph. It looks like he has the tendency to leave his pitches up in the zone, which is probably the reason for the three home runs allowed this season. But overall, I like him, while admitting the ranking may have been a little high.
While Jackson's poor September couldn't tarnish his reputation, it did all but guarantee a return trip to Las Vegas. The Dodgers did not realize that it was not the right environment for him to pitch in. And since September, 2004, things have only gotten worse. This past season, Jackson would pitch in 55.1 AAA innings. During that time, and I urge you to brace yourself, he allowed 76 hits, 37 walks, 13 home runs and 53 earned runs. An ERA of 8.62 and a WHIP over 2.00. A nightmare.
Finally making a move to help Jackson's future, it was then the Dodgers decided to demote Jackson back down to AA. He hadn't seen Jacksonville since leaving there in 2003 as a phenom. Now he was all-but-forgotten. In his first start at the lower level, Jackson allowed seven runs in five innings, serving up two home runs. After that point, Jackson settled down and things started to improve.
In his next 57 innings, Jackson would have a 2.68 ERA. He allowed just 46 hits, struck out 41 (not great) and allowed 17 walks. Edwin was called up to the Majors towards the end of August after a hot streak in which he allowed just three earned runs in 22 innings. We were hoping the old Jackson, the first version, was back.
I recently re-watched one of Jackson's better starts in the MLB of 2005, which of course isn't saying much. Against the Astros, he allowed six hits and three earned runs in 5.1 innings. But he struck out 6 hitters, at least.
It seems now that what I saw in that August 27 start was not the same pitcher I had seen in the past. His fastball was really between 91 and 93, and Edwin could occassionally add a bit onto that. The control of the pitch seemed to vary, though I understand it's difficult given the good amount of movement it possesses. However, Jackson also has pretty noticeable mechanical problems, falling heavily to the first base side after pitching. His key pitch was his breaking ball that was quite successul. In fact, he didn't rely on this pitch enough, again showing an overdependency for the fastball. Jackson flashed a change up that wasn't very good, as each time the ball was left too high in the zone.
So what's next for Jackson? The change of scenery should be good, mostly because he can start the season in AAA, in a more neutral environment. The key for the Devil Rays will be to try and get Jackson to gain more confidence in his breaking ball, and also learn to control his fastball better. He can pitch from just 91-93, that's fine, but to do so there must be some semblance of control. And most of all, Jackson needs to regain the confidence of his youth, to again show the smile on the mound that Jon Weisman referenced.
We were wrong about Edwin Jackson, he wasn't a phenom. Let's just hope the Dodgers didn't prevent him from becoming anything at all.
Going to Tampa along with Edwin Jackson in the trade, as Rich has written about, is Chuck Tiffany. In addition to making my top 75 prospects list, I did a little extra research on Tiffany, and thought I'd put it here. Enjoy...
Chuck Tiffany has grown famous in the Dodger organization for 3 starts during his 43 start minor league career. Why? In each, he did not allow a hit, which is certainly good for news. Conversely, in 2005, he also had just a few starts that put a big spin on his numbers.