When the Tigers acquired Edwin Jackson from the Rays last December in exchange for outfielder Matt Joyce, they knew they were getting a pitcher with untapped potential. Based on his 2009 performance, that potential is finally being tapped. The 26-year-old Jackson not only solidified Detroit’s starting rotation, he was one of the best starting pitchers in the American League, that despite slumping down the stretch. After winning just 25 games over parts of six erratic seasons-he debuted with the Dodgers as a highly-touted 19-year-old in 2003-Jackson went 13-9 with a 3.62 ERA for Jim Leyland’s club while greatly improving his strikeouts-to-walks ratio. The hard-throwing right-hander also established himself as a workhorse, finishing seventh in the American League in innings pitched with 214. Jackson talked about his maturation into a dependable starter when the Tigers visited Fenway Park in mid-August.
David Laurila: You’re only 25 years old, but in some ways it seems like you’ve been pitching for a long time. Do you agree?
Edwin Jackson: It doesn’t seem like a long, long time, but it seems like I’ve been playing for a little while now. I know that I’m still young, but I kind of got jumped in and started at a young age, so it does seem like I’m somewhat of a veteran, you know, to baseball.
DL: Were you in the big leagues before you were ready?
EJ: I don’t know. I mean, who am I to say if I started too young? Would I change it? No, I wouldn’t change anything; I wouldn’t have it any other way. I mean, if anything, it might have helped me. It might have made me a stronger person, because I had to learn how to deal with adversity at a young age.
DL: You were originally an outfielder. Was there any point during your struggles that you questioned the decision to become a pitcher?
EJ: No. I was still young when I made that transition, and it has never been something where I’ve looked back and thought that I should have stayed a position player. I was happy with the decision. But when you’re younger… pitching isn’t really an action position. Most of the action is in the field, with the position players, and as a kid everybody wants to be a part of the action. Nobody wants to feel like they aren’t getting any plays, so until you really get older, you don’t understand just how important pitching is. When you’re younger, everybody wants to play a position. Everybody wants to hit and make the diving catches. But no, I’ve always been happy with the decision to be a pitcher.
DL: You’re having a breakthrough season. Outside of being a year older and wiser, what is different?
EJ: It’s just seasoning. When you get more innings, and pitch more, you start to learn more about yourself. But I haven’t changed anything from last year to this year. Maybe I’ve cut down on walks, but other than that, nothing in particular about my mechanics or anything have changed.
DL: One thing that stands out from your 2008 season is that your strikeout rate was down from previous seasons, and this year it’s back up again. Have there been any changes in your approach?
EJ: No, I’ve just cut down on the walks; that’s probably the main difference from last year to this year. I was the same last year, I just had more walks. I’m a little bit more consistent with command now, but I don’t have a clue about strikeout rates. I don’t really pitch for strikeouts. If they come, they come; if they don’t, they don’t. I’m trying to pitch to contact. I want the ball put into play, so, strikeouts-to-walks ratio… I’ve never really had a clue. I just know if I’m walking a lot of people, or if I’m not.
DL: Your bio in Baseball Prospectus 2009 says, “He has a lot of breakout potential this year,” but also, “He struggles with his changeup, his command, and his confidence.” Was that an accurate assessment?
EJ: No, my confidence is the same. And I throw changeups in any count; I throw any pitch in any count, whether it’s a ball or a strike. I have confidence that I can throw it for strikes. But I never really know what is being said about me in the media. I’m not one to get caught up in that. I mean, the way I look at it is that no words are going to dictate what I do. You know? You can write whatever you want in the paper; you can say whatever you want to say. I feel like I’m the only one that can dictate what happens.
DL: You recently had 16 consecutive starts in which you allowed three or fewer earned runs, joining Jack Morris and Mickey Lolich as the only Tigers pitchers to do that in the last 60 years. That’s pretty remarkable.
EJ: I didn’t know about that. I have [had a good season], but I try not to get caught up in the past. I mean, you acknowledge what you’re doing, but you don’t want to get caught too much up in what’s going on. You just want to keep it simple and keep having fun, and try not to get caught up in the numbers too much.
DL: How about statistical analysis? Do you pay attention to what the numbers say about your performance?
EJ: I don’t know, because I don’t look at numbers. Like I said before, I’m not real good on numbers. In that aspect, I’ve never really been a numbers dude. I just go out and worry about what’s going on that day.
DL: Which came as more of a surprise: the trade from Los Angeles to Tampa Bay, or going from Tampa Bay to Detroit?
EJ: The trade to Detroit. That’s because I never did hear about Detroit being mentioned in any trades for me.
DL: How does Detroit differ from playing in Tampa Bay?
EJ: I mean, they’re both good organizations. With both of them, you pretty much know what you’re going to get. The team here is a little different. Of course, Tampa Bay is a little more different now-they have a few more veterans-but when I was over there, there weren’t really a lot of veterans. It was a young team. But both teams are energetic. Both clubhouses are pretty loose. I went from one good team to another, so it’s been pretty similar going from Tampa Bay and coming here, and that helped a lot too.
DL: How about any expectations that the respective organizations have communicated to you? Have there been any differences there?
EJ: I’ve never really cared about messages that I get. I have big expectations of my own, so I’ve never really had to get any expectations from the front office. I’m always my worst critic, and I always expect more from myself than anybody else, anyway, so front office messages, and anything else…I mean, I just want to go pitch. Just give me the ball. I’m going to have the ball every fifth day, so let me go.
DL: You played in the World Series last year. What was that experience like?
EJ: It was a lot of fun, definitely. It was something you’ll never forget. It was something where, once you’ve been, you strive to get there again. It’s like once you have a taste of it, you want to get there again and try to be the victor, instead of being on the losing end, like we were last year.
DL: What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
EJ: Maybe going to the World Series. That’s the center stage. That’s when the whole world is watching. It’s the only baseball game being played around the world at the time, so everybody is watching.
DL: What about when it comes to personal accomplishments?
EJ: I’m sure it’s yet to come. It’s yet to come; it’s yet to come. I mean, I have a lot of accomplishments, but I don’t know if there is quite anything personal just yet that is a super highlight of my career. Like I said, I’m still young. It’s still early in my career, and hopefully there are a lot of things yet to come.
DL: As a former outfielder, how about if, and when, you go deep for the first time? Would that rate as a major accomplishment?
EJ: In the major leagues? That’s one of those things where it is what it is. I mean, I’ve hit home runs in Triple-A, but I haven’t hit one in the major leagues yet. I do have base hits. But [hitting a home run] isn’t really a highlight, it’s just something you want to do for bragging rights. Hitting a home run, as a pitcher, isn’t something that I super strive for as a personal achievement.
DL: Any final thoughts?
EJ: Not really. I mean, you can pretty much…most people who know me… I get along with everybody. I’m pretty much a people person. I’m pretty loose. It’s very rarely that I’ll come across somebody that I don’t get along with. For the most part, I’m pretty much just laid back and low key. I stay even-keeled. Even if we lose, you never really know if I had a bad day or not- not if you don’t know me. That’s kind of how I am.