Tough-luck grounders impacting Jackson

Sometimes the results don’t tell the whole story. With Edwin Jackson, that seems to be the case.

On the surface, Jackson’s first 11 starts with the Chicago Cubs have been an outright disaster. With a 1-8 record and a 6.29 ERA, many have questioned the decision to hand Jackson a four-year, $52 million deal this past offseason.

However, Cubs manager Dale Sveum believes that Jackson’s struggles primarily stem from a run of bad luck.

“We’ve talked to him about it,” Sveum said. “It is an excuse, but all it takes is for half of the ground balls to be caught. Unfortunately they just seem to be finding holes when obviously we put a lot of effort into putting people into right positions. His ground balls seem to be overwhelmingly to the opposite of where they’re supposed to go.”

Jackson’s 20.1% strikeout rate is higher than his career average (17.7%) and he’s walking people at the same rate as he has in the past (9.0%). With those being two of the better stats to determine if a pitcher is performing at previous levels, it’s a bit surprising to see Jackson struggle so much.

But looking past the superficial won-loss record and ERA and digging even deeper into the numbers shows that while Jackson hasn’t been great, Sveum’s claim appears to be accurate.

“I remember when I was in Boston and Derek Lowe was pitching, he’s gonna keep the ball on the earth,” Sveum said. “His bad days were when the balls find the holes. There’s nothing you can do about it. You put people in the right situations and positions, but the law of averages will catch up to you every once in a while. One bouncing ball will change a whole game around. It’s unfortunate, but it is a game of inches sometimes and that’s what happens.”

When Sveum refers to the ball “finding holes,” a simple way of putting that into numbers is by looking at a pitcher’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Jackson’s .358 BABIP puts him on pace to set a new career high and is nearly fifty points higher than his career average of .309. For reference, Jackson’s previous career high BABIP was .341, set in 2007 when he was with Tampa Bay. It was Jackson’s first season as a full-time starter and he posted a career worst 5.76 ERA and according to Fangraphs, amassed a mere 0.1 WAR.

Jackson’s high BABIP shows that, regardless of how hard the opponent is hitting the ball, they seem to be finding the holes against Jackson at a higher rate. And when the batter is reaching base, they are scoring at a higher rate than Jackson has ever allowed. Jackson is currently sporting a left on base percentage (LOB%) of 55.9% (his career average is 70.7% and his previous career worst as a starter was 65.7%, also set in 2007). LOB% measures the percentage of base runners that a pitcher strands on base over the course of a season and far too many base runners are coming around to score when Jackson is on the mound.

It’s also interesting to note that Jackson is inducing a career-high 52.4% ground balls (GB%) this season, which leads the Cubs and is 16th in all of baseball. While ground balls are a good thing for a team with a solid defense -- which the Cubs have, despite what the errors say they convert 72.4% of balls put in play against them into outs, third best in baseball -- the more ground balls a pitcher allows, the more likely it is they’ll run into bad luck and those balls will find holes.

When you combine a high BABIP and GB% with a low LOB%, it adds up to a lot of runs being scored by the opposition and terrible results for Jackson. And right now, that’s the bottom line: results. Jackson isn’t getting them. Sveum and everyone else can look at all the statistics available, but until Jackson gets the results to match the solid peripherals, the Cubs won’t have much to show on their $52 million investment.