I went to Marlins Park trying to figure out the enigma that is Edwin Jackson.
In the latest chapter of his up-and-down career, Jackson has been the best starting pitcher in the majors at getting hitters to swing and miss at pitches outside the strike zone. He has parlayed this success into a 3.17 ERA and 1.03 WHIP, and his Tuesday night loss to the Marlins was his fifth quality start over his last seven attempts.
The righty revealed the secret behind his surprising season to me in just four words: "luck of the draw."
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That was how Jackson made sense of his penchant for getting hitters to chase bad pitches this year. He has always been fairly good at getting swinging strikes outside of the zone, but so far this year, he's been getting that variety of whiff on an incredible 54 percent of swings, according to Fangraphs.com. I was certain that he must be doing something to make this radical change occur. Is it because he isn't using his slider as often? Jackson insisted that "every game is different (with my pitch selection). It depends on how I feel that day." Ok, then, maybe he's learned something while making an adjustment to yet another new division. No big deal, Jackson says. "I've been doing that since 2003."
Every theory I had for Jackson's success, he punctured. Could it really be as simple as a lucky run, or was Jackson just being overly modest? The evidence suggests that he really has been fortunate. The Padres, Reds, Astros, Orioles, Diamondbacks and Pirates all rank in the bottom third of teams in contact rate on outside pitches, and Jackson has faced them all over the season's first two months. In the seven starts he has made against these clubs, Jackson has induced swinging strikes on 13.7 percent of his pitches. In his three starts against choosier opponents, his swinging strikes rate is just 7.7 percent.
This explains how Jackson has been able to lower his walk rate, even though he is pitching outside of the zone at the highest rate of his career. By turning pitches that would normally be balls into strikes, Jackson has issued just 15 walks in 65 1/3 innings, which has contributed to his diminished WHIP and ERA. Going forward, though, he will see less of the likes of the Reds and Padres and more of selective teams like the Phillies and Mets.
Jackson is not the only starter who has benefited from a favorable early schedule, but there are also some pitchers who may not be as fortunate as you think. Below are seven more hurlers who have had unexpected levels of success -- both good and bad -- with getting hitters to miss on their offerings. For those whose results have been shaped by the whims of fortune, you can expect a change in value for the months ahead. For others, you may be surprised at their ability to build on their impressive early returns.
Impacted by favorable matchups
Shaun Marcum, Brewers: Early starts against the Braves, Astros and Padres put Marcum on a pace for a huge increase in his swinging strike rate, but he has cooled off since. Marcum still boasts a career-high 8.4 K/9 rate, but owners should expect him to settle in at a rate closer to his career average of 7.3. Worse yet, Marcum has not been as good at getting batters to hit into easy popouts, and if he doesn't reverse the trend, he will be a less effective pitcher than we have come to know over his past three seasons.
R.A. Dickey, Mets: Owners have warmed up to Dickey over the last couple of weeks, as he has rung up 29 strikeouts over his last three starts. Those turns in the rotation came against the Reds, Pirates and Padres, whose offenses rank eighth, fourth and second in whiff rate. Dickey's swinging strike rate had hovered around nine percent the previous two seasons, and that's right where it was before his recent streak. Though Dickey has been underrated for a long time, you have a rare window to sell high on him right now.
Matchups not a factor
James McDonald, Pirates: McDonald has seen a sharp increase in his whiff rate outside of the strike zone, but that's largely due to last season's rate being curiously low. More important, McDonald is hitting the zone more often, and he's getting more disciplined lineups, like the Mets and Rockies, to swing and miss, along with those featuring itchier hitters. He may not be able to sustain a 77 percent strand rate all year, but with much-improved command and stronger ground ball tendencies, the bulk of McDonald's improvement looks legitimate.
Jeff Samardzija, Cubs: Samardzija is getting hitters to whiff at plenty of pitches that should be balls, but like McDonald, he has done this consistently, regardless of the matchup. He has failed to get a dozen or more swinging strikes only twice this year. Better yet, he will have many opportunitites to face the Reds and Astros, who are two of the majors' worst teams at making contact outside the strike zone. If Samardzija's string of six quality starts in seven tries hasn't convinced you that he's for real, his consistent ability to fan batters should.
Anthony Bass, Padres: Because of his history of middling strikeout rates, owners may be suspicious of Bass' current 8.5 K/9 rate. However, three of his most prolific swinging strike totals have come against the Rockies, Phillies and Angels -- all teams that are among the leaders in contact rate. Bass is getting far more horizontal movement on his slider this season, and he has increased his whiff rate on sliders against righties by 31 percent, according to PitchFX data. His peripherals and Fantasy value are not much different from Drew Smyly's, but the Tigers' lefty is owned in far more leagues. With Bass available in roughly half of the leagues on CBSSports.com, more owners should be looking to him to bolster their rotations, given that he is backing up his high K-rate and solid ERA and WHIP.
Impacted by unfavorable matchups
Jon Lester, Red Sox: Mediocre walk rates are nothing new for Lester, but this year, the free passes have not been offset by a steady string of strikeouts. Lester has been allowing contact at a slightly higher rate, but part of the problem is that batters haven't been swinging at his offerings as much. Two of his least impressive performances have come against the Twins and Orioles, both of which are teams that swing at rates well below the major league average. There are still reasons to be concerned about Lester, but given that his velocity and ground ball rate have remained intact, Lester could be due for better times ahead.
Ricky Nolasco, Marlins: Even though Nolasco is hitting the strike zone far more often than he did last year, he is facing a third straight season of a sharp decline in strikeout rate. While Nolasco doesn't throw with the same velocity he did a couple of years ago, it may be too early to assume that he is destined to be a contact pitcher going forward. Hitters are swinging at his pitches out of the zone far less often, but a pair of starts against the Mets and a start against the Astros -- the two NL teams that swing at pitches outside the zone the least -- haven't helped. Subtract those three starts from Nolasco's 2012 resume, and his swinging strike rises to 9.8 percent, which was his rate one year ago. That won't make him a reliable starter in standard mixed leagues, but it could mean that he won't be a liability for strikeouts in deeper formats.
| xFIP: Also known as Expected Fielding Independent Pitching. It is an estimate of what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based on factors that a pitcher can control, such as strikeouts, walks and flyballs. xFIP is a derivative of FIP, which was developed by Tom Tango. |
Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
GO/AO -- Ground out-air out ratio
GB/FB -- Ground ball-fly ball ratio
Batting Average per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats
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