On Tuesday I was just casually watching a Yankees and Tigers game, as one does, and I was stunned that the starting pitcher for the Tigers was Edwin Jackson, who has been in the league for 17 years. Now, I understand that the Tigers are an abominable, rebuilding squad, but this is still, ostensibly, a team that tries to fill their team with at least replacement level players. Heck, it’s very possible they are the model for what a replacement level team looks like.
Yet Jackson is nothing close to replacement level. In that game alone he allowed six runs in just two innings, including a pair of home runs. After perusing his stats page and game log I realized this wasn’t even his worst start of the year, and he’s only tossed 59 innings; he allowed eight runs to Minnesota a couple of weeks ago, and ten runs to Colorado when he was back with the Blue Jays in May.
Nor was it even his first six-runs-allowed start—he allowed at least that eight (!) times this season, again in a very limited sample. You keep digging and the numbers just don’t keep getting more encouraging. Jackson’s ERA is 9.76, good for an ERA- of 211. That is worst in the league minimum 50 innings, and it is one of the worst performances of this century thus far; since 2000, only Roy Halladay (lol) in 2000 and Alfredo Simon in 2016 have been worse.
Defense can surely play a part in that, so we can also look at his Statcast batted ball numbers, maybe it looks a little better? Lol. Here is the percentile rank for his major categories:
- Barrel%: 3rd percentile
- Exit velocity: 3rd percentile
- xBA: 1st percentile
- xSLG: 1st percentile
- xwOBA: 0th percentile
- xwOBACON: 0th percentile
You read that right. In terms of xwOBA and expected wOBA after contact, Jackson is in the zeroth percentile, basically breaking the Baseball Savant scale.
All leading us back to the same, circular, puzzling, thought: how is it possible that this player, who is 36 years-old and is nearly a win below replacement level and four wins below replacement level scaled to a full season, even throwing a pitch? Well, two reasons specifically.
Reason number one, surprisingly, is the aging curve. Sure, Jackson is improbably in the league at a time when home runs are at an all-time high, but with the rise in young position players, this has, ironically, become an era where journeyman pitchers have stuck around longer. While none of the top ten in fWAR are over 30, that is the case for six in the top ten of pitcher fWAR. In particular, the likes of Justin Verlander and Hyun-Jin Ryu have had their best career seasons, something unthinkable for a hitter that’s over the age of 32.
This has a cascading effect where if the very best players are older, then the very worst players could also be supplanted by older pitchers; in a world where even the old guys are being replaced, then young guns would have to the fill the void, moving the roster chain and bumping off Jackson from a roster. Instead, journeyman have a valid use, especially for point number two...
...tanking. Yes, teams are absolutely tanking. Jackson plays for a team with 43 wins, and he previously played for the Blue Jays, another team in the basement. Sure, I doubt they intended for him to allow more than one run per inning, but past performance was not enough to deter a future transaction. These teams gambled that he was replacement level, and they were wildly wrong.
Is Jackson finished? After being drafted in 2001 and coming of age as a young 19 year-old at the height of the steroid era, he has seemingly stood the test of time despite his various shortcomings and disappointments over the years, being a testament to, again, being a journeyman and playing for 17 big league seasons despite a career 115 ERA-. How is he still in the league in 2019? Because as it has always been, the game needs innings no matter their shape, and Jackson has delivered just that for a decade and a half.