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Tigers vs. Royals Preview: Edwin Jackson is back in Detroit, it seems

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The journeyman righthander is back with the Tigers for a spot start on Friday.

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Division Series - St Louis Cardinals v Washington Nationals - Game Three Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Yes, this is really happening.

In need of a starter on Friday to replace the injured Jordan Zimmermann, the Tigers have decided to turn to veteran righthander Edwin Jackson, he of the 11.12 ERA in 28 13 innings this season, as their sacrificial lamb spot starter for a near-meaningless August tilt against the similarly awful Kansas City Royals. Jackson, who made an All-Star team (!) with the Tigers a decade ago, pitched for his 14th MLB club earlier this year when he made five ill-fated starts for the also terrible Toronto Blue Jays..

There’s a reason Jackson is only pitching for bad teams at this point. The 35-year-old was able to turn back the clock for 92 innings with the Oakland Athletics last year, but has otherwise been a replacement level pitcher since we saw him last. He has just 2.9 rWAR to his name since leaving Detroit after the 2009 season, and has been worth a whopping -4.1 rWAR in 652 innings since 2013. His 4.76 FIP during that span is slightly better than the 5.29 ERA, but not necessarily good by any means.

If this uninspiring move is to work, the Tigers will need to limit Jackson’s innings. It’s part of what made him successful in Oakland — he only eclipsed the 100-pitch mark twice in 17 starts and didn’t even throw 90 in more than half of his outings — and the way the game is trending. Unfortunately, the Tigers have missed the boat on this so far in 2019, and will likely do so again on Friday, especially if Jackson gets through the first couple innings unscathed.

But hey, at least a loss improves their chances of getting next year’s No. 1 overall pick.

Kansas City Royals (41-75) at Detroit Tigers (34-78)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: Royals Review
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, ESPN+, fuboTV, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Brad Keller (7-11, 3.94 ERA) vs. RHP Edwin Jackson (1-5, 11.12 ERA)

Game 116 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Junis 138.1 21.5 7.9 4.78 1.2
Norris 117.1 19.4 6.2 4.63 1.6

The Tigers have seen plenty of Brad Keller this year, and have not fared well. The 24-year-old righthander has limited them to a 2.79 ERA in 19 13 innings, and they have hit just .211/.291/.338 with zero home runs. Keller hasn’t fared quite as well against everyone else, but still has a respectable 4.12 ERA in 126 23 frames against non-Tigers opponents. He’s a solid mid-rotation starter that generates a lot of ground balls and weak contact, and limits home runs. He’s on pace for back-to-back 2.5 fWAR seasons, which is great, especially considering he’s under team control through the 2023 season.

The problem? He’s Kansas City’s most valuable starter — though that’s more of a Royals issue, not a Keller one.

Keller’s pitch mix has changed somewhat throughout the year. He has started to favor his two-seamer over his slider, and threw some sort of fastball over two-thirds of the time in July. Opponents have hit the two-seamer better than his off-speed pitches this year, but have pounded it into the ground at a 59.4 percent clip. His strikeout rate hasn’t suffered yet — he fanned seven in a seven-inning start against the Twins last week — but if he continues to sit on just the fastball, it might start to go downhill.

Key matchup: Jackson’s 2018 pitch mix vs. Jackson’s 2019 pitch mix

A 28-odd inning sample isn’t much to go on, but Jackson significantly changed what pitches he was using in his short stint with the Blue Jays relative to what he did with Oakland last season. In 2018, he relied heavily on his cutter, throwing it 34 percent of the time. He was even more aggressive with it early in counts, using it 36 percent of the time on the first pitch of an at-bat, and 44 percent of the time in such situations against right-handed hitters. This year, Jackson’s cutter usage is down to 25 percent overall, and just 15 percent to open an at-bat.

Now, the cause of this is unclear. Opponents are hitting .528 and slugging .972 against his cutter this year, up from .212 and .398, respectively, in 2018. Has he lost feel for the pitch? Is this small sample noise? Are opponents targeting it because it’s coming in more predictable situations? Those questions are all tough to answer without diving deep into film — something I’m not doing for a 35-year-old takings MLB innings away from prospects — but might work themselves out in this game.

Prediction

Jackson throws six scoreless innings to make me look dumb.