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Royals trade target: Edwin Jackson

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Edwin Jackson had a rough season with the Cubs in 2014. Perhaps they have soured on him enough to get his contract off the books?

Jonathan Daniel

As James Shields departs the world of Kansas City and Royals, the team will be looking for a replacement and/or upgrade in the starting rotation. Triple-A is bereft of MLB-ready starting arms, and Brandon Finnegan needs more seasoning before starting in the majors. I expect to see him at some point in 2015, but Kyle Zimmer's case should provide a cautionary tale for our lauded pitching "prospects". As if the Montgomery, Lamb, Dwyer trio didn't already beat this into your skulls.

Thusly, the major league market is where the player must be found. Trades. Free agents contracts. These things will occur, so we might as well speculate about them. Edwin Jackson has been speculated amongst our community here, so let's get to know him.

Jackson has been a full time starter since the 2007 season, and he was part of that 2008 Rays team that made it to the World Series. He hasn't remained in one place, though; he's been a member of 8 different teams. Before the 2013 season, he signed a 4 year, $52M contract with the Cubs, but $8M of that is a signing bonus. Right now, he's really under a 2 year/$22M contract. Over the next 2 years, for Jackson to provide market value, he would have to be worth somewhere around 3-4 wins depending on how you view $/WAR calculations. That's attainable, right?

Well, last year, Jackson was a disaster. In 140.2 innings, he provided a 6.33 ERA. I know, ERA is bad and stuff, but here the simple statistic tells a lot. His FIP was 4.45, and his xFIP was 4.12. The Cubs aren't known for having a great defense, and Wrigley is a bit hitter-friendly. How much of Jackson's poor performance was stuff outside his control, and how much of it was him being bad? I'll attempt to disentangle the effects. Understand, though, that the public data we have makes this task basically impossible. We'll have to make "mental" adjustments for things, but the data I will present can still be illustrative.

I will present to you batted ball data broken out by batted ball type from Baseball Reference. Overall, this will be a similar format to how Tony Blengino does his thing on FanGraphs. If you are unfamiliar with Blengino, he used to work for the Brewers and Mariners, so he has data and insight and methods reflecting his experience. I think it's valuable to learn how he thinks and analyzes.

First, a note regarding his strikeout and walk rates, things mostly within his control. The graph below shows a comparison between Ejax's strikeout and walk rates against MLB average by year. 100 is average; above 100 is above average, and below 100 is below average. A Rel K% above 100 is good, and a Rel BB% below 100 is good.

ejax rel k and bb

For the most part, Jackson has hovered around MLB average. In 2014, his walk rate spiked. So that's one thing within his control that caused his poor performance. Given his previous walk rates, he's probably due for a decrease in walk rate.

The next chart shows the frequency of batted ball type relative to MLB average. I calculated these by doing this: [Batted Ball Type] / (GB + FB + LD). Bunts are excluded. Understand that these data are subject to stringers, so different sources may not agree on the exact numbers (What defines a FB? What defines a LD?). The trends and relative values are the important numbers.

ejax rel batted ball type

This frequency graph is very interesting to me. One, Jackson has tended to allow more line drives than MLB average. Normally, this is not a repeatable thing. Most pitchers sit around average, and regression is expected for pitchers who balloon in line drive rate. Unfortunately, Jackson seems to have a problem with line drives. Two, Jackson has waffled between being a ground ball pitcher and a fly ball pitcher. In 2013, he was definitely a ground ball guy. In 2014, he was definitely a fly ball guy. Though not included here, Jackson used to be good at getting popups. He's not anymore.

There is some noise here, and since Scott suggested it, here are those same relative rates for batted ball type, but by the last 3 years, last 5 years, and his career.

Rel LD% Rel GB% Rel FB%
Last 3 102 104 94
Last 5 109 104 89
Career 109 100 95

So, we've learned so far that Jackson has roughly average strikeout rates and walk rates with some exceptions, and he allows too many line drives. Therefore, for Jackson to be successful, he needs to do one or both of two things:

1) Generate lots of grounders, which he has the ability to do

2) Limit the quality of contact allowed

The following data will explore, for all three batted ball types, the quality of contact he has allowed. I will show you relative production values. Again, 100 is average. I calculated the relative production values in this way: (BA*1.7 + SLG)/(lgBA*1.7 + lgSLG)*100. That formula is from Blengino's articles using this methodology.

ejax rel batted ball prd

Interesting, but not good. Jackson's career trend on fly ball production allowed is troubling; it's basically been a linear increase with some variation. To a lesser extent, the line drive production allowed is also troubling. Line drive production allowed usually hovers around MLB average, as most pitchers have little control one way or the other to prevent or allow quality line drives.

2011 is also curious. It acts as somewhat of a transition point. Jackson has stifled ground balls since 2011 but not air contact. It was somewhat the reverse before 2011. It's possible that a mechanical change produced better results; maybe Don Cooper casted a spell and good things happened. Jackson went to the Cardinals in a trade that year, so perhaps the spell's effect continued through his time with St Louis.

Again, in an attempt to reduce the noise, here are the same relative production numbers for the last 3 years, last 5 years, and his career.

Last 3 92 122 114
Last 5 97 114 108
Career 103 100 105

The troubling trends still show up here. He seems to be allowing harder contact in the air, but he seems to be learning to limit quality ground balls.

Now it's time to remember the "mental" adjustments. I want to figure out how I can do this mathematically, but I lack the methodology currently. First, the ballpark adjustment. Wrigley is about 2% hitter friendly overall with a FanGraphs park factor of 102 (if I'm interpreting that correctly). According to the ESPN Hit Tracker, of Jackson's 18 homers allowed, Jackson allowed 4 home runs that would have been home runs in fewer than 8 stadiums. Three of those four were home runs in either only 3 or 4 stadiums. Overall, Jackson wasn't helped by his stadium situation, but I don't think the stadium shoulders much of the blame.

The Cubs' defense bears a greater part of the blame. The Cubs' defense in 2014 ranked 22nd in DRS with -22 and 19th in UZR with -5.5. In 2013, the Cubs' defense ranked 9th in DRS with 26 and 5th in UZR with 37.3. Most of the negative value in 2014 came from the outfielders--Chris Coghlan, Justin Ruggiano, and Junior Lake didn't help. Losing Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus, who were nicely rated in the OF in 2013, also didn't help.

So, you can say that some percentage of Jackson's poor quality of contact allowed is due to the park and defense, two factors that coming to the Royals could fix. There's also the possibility that Jackson has suffered from poor luck; his BABIP allowed on fly balls has been far worse than league average and worse than his relative production allowed for the past two years. I do not possess the data to confirm this suspicion.

That was...a lot. You want a TL;DR? You probably want a TL;DR.

1) Jackson's strikeout and walk rates are nothing to be excited about

2) Jackson's ability to limit the quality of contact allowed could be diminishing since, you know, he's aging

3) His ballpark and defense didn't help his cause in 2014

4) Jackson's surest route to continued employment in MLB is to generate many, many ground balls

5) Regarding point 2, the Royals have an outfield defense to cover Jackson's weakness and a ballpark to keep his HR numbers down

Realistically, Edwin Jackson's performance floor in Kansas City is probably Jeremy Guthrie. A 1-2 win player depending on HRs and bounces. His ceiling is probably 2014 Jason Vargas, a 2-3 win player. You could say that he might be expected to produce somewhere around 2 wins per season with a better outlook for his actual runs allowed due to the defense.

That sounds decent to me. For 2 years, $22M the Royals could acquire 3-4 wins over the next two years and won't be on the hook for more. What would the Royals have to give up? Someone like Christian Binford or Miguel Almonte? Someone like Hunter Dozier? I have no idea the kind of return the Cubs would want, but you can bet that Theo Epstein and Co know way more than I do about Jackson. If they see regression in his walk rate and improve the defense, Jackson can be a useful starter for them, too. He was moved to the bullpen at the end of 2014, and it's unclear how they see his role in 2015.