2015 is an exciting year to be a Cubs fan. After six years of not making the playoffs and being among the worst teams in baseball for the last three (thanks for the cushion, Astros!), the moves Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer made to improve the team are about to come to fruition. There are no guarantees when sky-high expectations are placed on the shoulders of young talent such as Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, but regardless of the outcome, the Cubs will test the blueprint they laid out to see if it produces a winner.
The Cubs upgraded their pitching by acquiring Jon Lester to be the ace of the rotation. Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel can be very good if they can replicate their 2014 seasons (and if Arrieta can withstand the grind), Travis Wood will likely be slotted as the fourth starter, leaving the fifth starter to be selected from among Tsuyoshi Wada, Kyle Hendricks and ... Edwin Jackson, the proud owner of a 4-year, $52 million contract with two years left. This is how this projected rotation performed in 2014:
BIP=balls in play
One of these pitchers is not like the others — this Tableau data viz has four tabs that illustrate some of Jackson's issues over the past two years -- this screen grab shows the first of four tabs:
The first tab, Line Drive Pct, shows the relationship between line drive percent and batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and goes back to 2003, Jackson's first year in the majors. Use the filters to view data (I arbitrarily selected 100 innings pitched in a given year), with Jackson as the red data point. Jackson had a very bad year in 2014: His twenty-six percent line drive rate was a prime contributor to the second-highest BABIP among pitchers with at least 100 IP, and was a big reason why the Cubs moved him to the bullpen by the end of the year. Good news — he had one fewer line drive hit off him than Felix Hernandez in 2014. Bad news — Felix faced almost 300 more batters than Jackson.
Often, it is assumed that BABIP is just one of those "luck" factors, one which ebbs and flows year by year with little rhyme or reason, but 2014 was the second consecutive year in which Jackson was among the league leaders in BABIP. An increase in line drives is never a good thing for pitchers, since hitters bat around .700 when the ball they put in play is a line drive. If Jackson is going to have any success, that line drive percentage needs to come down fast.
The second tab, BABIP, isolates it and shows Jackson's rank among other starters and the trend toward a higher one since joining the Cubs. Some of this may be due to pitching in Wrigley Field, but two years of high BABIP in a row is not a trend anyone wants to see continued in 2015.
The third tab, FIP - ERA, shows why it might be too early too write off Jackson. Jackson's ERA was the worst in baseball for pitchers with at least 100 IP, but his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) indicates he pitched better than his ERA would suggest. A 4.45 FIP is certainly nothing worthy of $13 million, but at least it was only 22nd-worst in baseball. Looking at the components shows why this happened — hard to believe, but while Jackson increased his BB/9 by one in 2014, to a simply-unsustainable 4.03 per nine innings, his K/9 rose by almost one as well.
The last tab, FIP - xFIP (xFIP explained), shows it is entirely possible that Jackson just had some bad luck last year, since it suggests his FIP really should have been closer to 4.00. Again, this is nothing to be proud of, but it's a far cry from an ERA well over six and suggests he pitched better than the numbers suggest.
There really is no such thing as a number five starter — they're not drafted and groomed in the minors to be back-of-the-rotation starters, but end up there as other pitchers outperform them. Having written that, every team needs a pitcher to trot out every fifth game, and while the expectations may not be high, they are consistent — pitch at least six innings and don't do anything to give the game away. It hasn't worked out that way for the Cubs, since Jackson has been among the worst in innings per start in both 2013 and 2014. Teams rarely sign pitchers slotted fifth to four-year contracts, so it's safe to say Jackson has underperformed the Cubs' expectations since his signing.
Back when I was still writing my own blog, Edwin Jackson actually prompted me to begin tabulating a new category, the two-out run, or the number of runs given up after two outs. I never really understood why the Cubs signed him when they did since at the beginning of 2013 it was obvious they were nowhere near ready to contend, but they were the eighth team to view his skills and feel they would be able to get the most out of him. So far, this hasn't been the case.
As the Cubs return to respectability and beyond, their fifth starter will take on importance since more playoff slots means a greater chance that one game will be the difference between making the playoffs and watching them. The expectation for the fifth starter increases from being just an innings eater to one who is reasonably expected to put the team in the position to win. If Jackson can reduce the walks (very possible) and cut down on the line drives (something I'm not sure pitchers can really control), he should be able to last longer in games and be a reliable back-of-the-rotation starter. For the Cubs' sake, I hope this is the case, because he's 31 and still owed $26 million over the next couple of years, so there's little chance of a trade. 2015 won't rest entirely on Edwin Jackson, but if he can improve (and his FIP and xFIP numbers suggest he can), he can be a real boost to a team that will need contributions from everyone.
Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.