January 13, 2012
Painting the Black
Consistently Less Consistent
"I don't see how they could move him. I don't see why they'd ever put him out there. The stuff is too good. Yeah, he's still inconsistent. But at least he's consistently less inconsistent than he used to be." – An anonymous executive on Edwin Jackson in May 2008.
Scott Boras is the most consistent agent in sports. He deals out binders, lingo, and last-minute market-breaking contracts on a whim, all the while dodging the spit hawked his way by owners, executives, and fans. It is fitting then, that the steady Boras is representing Edwin Jackson, perceived as a capricious asset, even in the world of starting pitchers. If Boras is Boras, expect Jackson to sign a contract between today and spring training that ensures his solvency for lifetimes—a contract that could leave a front office with buyer’s remorse.
Although this is Jackson’s first foray into the market, he is no stranger to changing addresses. Having pitched for six teams, Jackson also spent a few minutes as a Blue Jay last summer, running his count to seven teams in nine major-league seasons. Jackson’s ambulant nature exists despite former top-prospect status and possession of a birth certificate marking him younger than 30 years old. Some players can go their entire careers without changing teams this often, so who can blame Jackson if he wants security in his contract?
When a fifth of the league has employed a particular player, the natural inclination is to chalk it up to information asymmetry, but Jackson’s talent is quantifiable and hard to hide. In more than 1,000 innings, his adjusted-earned run average is 97, making him an above-average starting pitcher. Even the implicit signs of talent are there. No team has subjected Jackson to waivers, removed him from the 40-man roster, or released him.
If Jackson’s repellent is not talent, then perhaps it is attitude. Teams that caught Jackson nibbling on the batboy’s leg or asking teammates to address him as Count Fosco would likely elect to keep the incident quiet while looking to trade him. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Jackson is no pariah. Take this story from Sports Illustrated’s Joe Lemire:
And then after his breakout year, he got traded. During the Dec. '08 phone call in which Rays general manager Andrew Friedman told Jackson he had been traded, Friedman thanked him for his contributions to the Rays but forgot one critical detail—where Jackson had been dealt. Not wanting to pester a team executive, however, the ever-polite Jackson didn't call Friedman back.
Josh Byrnes, back when he acquired Jackson for the Diamondbacks, shared a similar sentiment:
"We researched it, but we certainly didn't uncover anything that was alarming. The two basic questions: Is he healthy? Yes. Are there any character issues? Quite the opposite, rave reviews all along the way."
Byrnes’s comment sounds like what Friedman had to say years prior, when he acquired Jackson himself:
If not talent or attitude, then could it be that Jackson teases teams with his performances? He entered the majors as a hard-throwing, well-built righty and outdueled Randy Johnson on the day he turned 20. The strike zone may elude Jackson at times, and his strikeout tallies can be underwhelming, but he threw a no-hitter, retains velocity, and went on the disabled list most recently in 2004. That package can annoy the owner and attract teams that dream on the potential.
In that sense, Jackson is a victim of circumstance. With a perceived value that exceeds his actual value and escalating costs, Jackson is the ideal trade piece. The Dodgers traded Jackson to the Rays to upgrade their bullpen, and the Rays upgraded their lineup when they acquired Matt Joyce for Jackson years later. Detroit and Arizona received cheaper and perhaps just as talented pitchers in return for Jackson. Chicago was in sell-mode, Toronto was in swap-mode, and St. Louis was in buy-mode.
Being perfect trade currency may not translate to the free-agent market. If Boras’s public comments are transparent, then Jackson is looking to marry, not date, his next team. And who can blame Jackson for wanting some assurance in his next deal after all the moving? The problem is the warning signs that come with changing hands so often. Dating back to the 1970s, only five other pitchers tallied more than 800 innings in the majors and pitched on five or more teams by their age-30 seasons:
The Brewers popped LaPoint in round 10 of the 1977 draft but gave him three major-league starts before shipping him to St. Louis. He would be dealt twice in 1985 (from the Cardinals to the Giants, then from the Giants to the Tigers), and was dealt to the Padres before being released and signing on again with the Cardinals. Months later, St. Louis traded him to the White Sox, who tossed him to the Pirates. After all of that, LaPoint signed with the Yankees, although he would throw in just 30 games after his age-29 season.
A little southpaw drafted by the Red Sox in 1966, Brett would be dealt to the Brewers by the end of 1971. Over the next two years, Brett moved to the Phillies and Pirates, had a two-year-long reprieve, then found himself changing teams in each of the next three years. First Brett went to the Yankees (in a deal that involved Doc Medich), then to the White Sox, and finally to the Angels. He would appear in 69 games after his age-29 season, all in relief.
This University of Pittsburgh alum went from a 30th-round pick to major-league start in two years. Dealt to the Pirates in 1975, the Athletics in 1977, and claimed off waivers twice in September 1977, Medich would settle with the Rangers thereafter and make it his longest-tenured team. He would not throw another big league pitch after his age-33 season.
A first-round pick by the Cardinals in 1991 out of New York Institute of Technology, the 6-foot-3 lefty made his debut in 1993 and bombed for the Cardinals before being traded to the Giants in 1995. Within 12 months, Watson was on the move again, this time to the Angels. He would reach free agency and sign with the Mets, only to be traded to the Mariners within six months and released within another two weeks. Finally, Watson signed with the Yankees, with whom he threw his final major league pitch in 2000. All told, Watson tossed almost 900 major league innings, finished with a career 87 adjusted-earned run average, and never threw a pitch in the majors after turning 30.
Morgan was selected fourth-overall in the 1978 draft and made 16 appearances for the A’s before being dealt to the Yankees for Fred Stanley. The Yankees would send Morgan (along with Fred McGriff) to the Blue Jays in 1982, who would lose him to the Mariners in the Rule 5 draft in 1984. In 1987, the Orioles acquired Morgan but traded him to the Dodgers in 1989. Although 1990 marked Morgan’s year-30 season, he would pitch for more than another decade and rack up even more teams. Youngsters may recall Morgan as a reliever with the Diamondbacks, but he made more relief appearance than starts in 1983, 1988, 1989, and 2000, when he would become almost exclusively a reliever.
The table below shows a comparison of these pitchers across innings pitched, adjusted-earned run average, and Wins Above Replacement Player split into two timeframes: up to and including the pitcher’s age-29 season and the seasons thereafter. This designation is important, as a team giving Jackson a lengthy contract (in this case, more than two years) will run into his post-30 seasons—a situation that, if you believe him to be on par with these other pitchers, may be undesirable.
Each of the pitchers had more success before turning 30. This isn’t too surprising, and meshes with what you would expect. Think about it this way: if you were betting on which split most pitchers would fall into, you would almost always bet on the pre-30 side. What makes the data worth pondering is if the teams were able to identify these pitchers as players unlikely to sustain success, thus moving the player when they could.
That could be a so-called implicit factor—like when a batter strikes out a lot but continues to play, then you know he likely has above-average power and/or speed; otherwise, he would be benched. The implicit factor seems to hold up over a larger sample, with the 20 non-Jackson pitchers to wear five or more team’s uniforms having a combined two All-Star appearances (one by Morgan, the other by Doyle Alexander). Teams are fallible, and Jackson could be an exception to the rule. Prospective employers would be smart to figure out why Jackson changed hands so often and whether those same factors are still apparent in his game.
Still, expect Jackson to get a Boras-worthy contract, because all it takes is one team to consider him consistently less inconsistent than before to pull the trigger.