Two emerging talents

Sometimes a young player struggles initially on reaching the big leagues before one day emerging without warning. Everyone develops differently, and although we can make educated guesses as to which players will become stars (and when they will do so), it’s impossible to know these things with anything approaching certainty. There are always some kids who wait until folks have given up (or nearly given up) on them before tapping their potential.

Two players who fit this description through the first third of 2009 are Tigers right-hander Edwin Jackson and Blue Jays outfielder Adam Lind. Both were highly touted as minor leaguers, scuffled a bit at the big-league level, and now appear to be breaking through at the ripe old age of 25.

We’ll need a complete season’s worth of data to be sure, but both Jackson and Lind are headed in the right direction. Let’s take a closer look at each of these players.

Action Jackson

The Dodgers selected Jackson in the sixth round of the 2001 draft out of a Georgia high school, where he primarily played center field. Soon after converting to full-time pitcher, he started appearing on top prospect lists. Baseball America ranked Jackson as the Dodgers’ No. 3 prospect in its 2003 Prospect Handbook, No. 1 the following year, and No. 3 again in 2005.

From the Baseball America 2004 Prospect Handbook:

Jackson’s picturesque delivery, clean arm action and premium athleticism aid him in making 98 mph fastballs look effortless. He sits between 91-97 and can maintain his velocity deep into games… He’s the best homegrown pitching prospect the Dodgers have developed since Pedro Martinez, and they don’t plan on letting this one get away.

Well, plans change and the Dodgers did let Jackson get away. In January 2006, they traded him and a minor leaguer to Tampa Bay for relievers Danys Baez and Lance Carter. Neither Baez nor Carter made an impact on his new team.

Jackson, who pitched sparingly for the Dodgers over parts of the previous three seasons (75.1 IP, 5.50 ERA), split time between Triple-A Durham and Tampa Bay, where he was used primarily out of the bullpen. Jackson didn’t pitch very well (36.1 IP, 5.45 ERA) for the Devil Rays, but it was enough to get him into the 2007 rotation.

Although Jackson made 31 starts in ’07, he was mostly ineffective (161 IP, 5.76 ERA). On August 11, he inexplicably tossed a four-hit shutout at Texas, but otherwise gave little evidence of being ready for the big leagues at age 23.

In 2008, Jackson showed signs of improvement. He won 14 games for the American League champs, but he sported a pedestrian 4.42 ERA and mediocre peripheral numbers. On the positive side, he worked a little deeper into games, recording about two more outs per start.

In December 2008, the Rays shipped Jackson to Detroit for outfielder Matt Joyce. While the 24-year-old Joyce is putting up nice numbers at Durham, Jackson is finally delivering on his promise at the highest level. And although it seems like he’s been around forever (Jackson made his big-league debut on his 20th birthday, beating Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks), Jackson doesn’t turn 26 until the end of the season.

Some pitchers, like Dwight Gooden, dominate the big leagues on arrival. Others, like John Smoltz or Roy Halladay, take more time to find their way. It’s too early to call Jackson a success story in the vein of Smoltz or Halladay, but on taking a closer look, it’s hard not to be encouraged.

Edwin Jackson Learns How to Pitch
Year(s) IP ERA ERA+ H/9 HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
2003-2006 111.2 5.48 78 9.75 1.05 5.16 6.04
2007 161 5.76 78 10.90 1.06 4.92 7.16
2008 183.1 4.42 101 9.77 1.13 3.78 5.30
2009 88.1 2.24 203 6.93 0.61 2.34 6.62

I’ve lumped Jackson’s cups of coffee together so we have a reasonable sample of innings, but the gist of this is that a number of things are moving in the same direction over time. Obviously the ERA and ERA+ show improvement. After nearly 300 innings of pitching like a poor-man’s Jimmy Haynes, Jackson turned into a league-average hurler last year.

Beyond his ability to limit runs, Jackson also made strides in controlling the strike zone. He has steadily and dramatically lowered his walk rate—as of mid-June 2009, it’s less than half what it was in ’07. When Jackson first started issuing fewer free passes, he sacrificed strikeouts to do so. Now the dominance is starting to return and he’s becoming a more complete pitcher.

There’s a lot of season left and he’ll have to prove that he can sustain these levels, but through 13 starts, Jackson has seen serious improvement in many areas. His hits, homers, and walks are way down, while strikeouts are up, all of which lead to an ERA and ERA+ that rank among league leaders.

It is tempting to look at his scouting reports and minor league success (well, at least until he hit the wall at Triple-A, where he owns a career 6.44 ERA in more than 200 innings), and assume that his eventual emergence was a foregone conclusion. It doesn’t always work that way, although sometimes a guy just needs to make an adjustment.

In Jackson’s case, one thing he’s doing now that he didn’t a few years ago is handling left-handed hitters.

Edwin Jackson Masters Left-Handed Hitters
vs RH vs LH
Year BA OBP SLG BA OBP SLG
2007 .285 .354 .424 .313 .409 .482
2008 .268 .326 .471 .295 .379 .415
2009 .231 .285 .374 .194 .246 .291

Again, this is a fluid situation and for all I know, he could revert to old tendencies tomorrow, but in two seasons, Jackson has gone from sacrificing more than 100 points of OPS with lefties at the plate to gaining that same amount. This sounds to me like a young pitcher learning to trust and locate his secondary pitches.

There is additional evidence to support this. Rays Index found that Jackson has become less dependent on his fastball so far in ’09, while Fangraphs noted an improved slider.

At the same time, Jackson has gotten nastier against right-handed hitters. I guess if hitters can’t sit on his fastball…

Adam’s Apple

Lind was snagged by Toronto in the third round of the 2004 draft out of the University of South Alabama (alma mater of another sweet-swinging lefty, Luis Gonzalez). Although Lind posted some nice numbers in the minors (notably a .330/.394/.556 line split between Double- and Triple-A in 2006), he didn’t see immediate success in Toronto.

Well, actually, he did but it was fleeting. Lind hit .367/.415/.600 in 18 games at the end of ’06. Hey, anything can happen when you’re up in September; ask Butch Davis.

Lind split the next two seasons between Triple-A Syracuse and the big club. He disappointed (.238/.278/.400) in 2007, put up respectable numbers (.282/.316/.439) last year, and now is finally seeing his production match his potential (.309/.365/.543 in 62 games through June 14).

As with Jackson, this improvement may not last. At the same time, Lind is at an age where a sudden jump forward shouldn’t come as a complete surprise (even if it might be a tad unexpected given his previous false starts).

Lind wasn’t identified as a top prospect quite as quickly as Jackson was, but his ascent through the ranks was steady. He showed up in the Baseball America 2005 Prospect Handbook as Toronto’s No. 17 prospect. The next year he was up to No. 3, and in 2007, Lind took the top spot.

From the Baseball America 2006 Prospect Handbook:

Lind has the quickest bat in the system, making him Toronto’s only position prospect with star potential… The Blue Jays see him as their left fielder of the future and a middle-of-the-order presence capable of hitting .300 with 40 doubles and 20 homers.

It took a while (and an extended opportunity), but Lind is on pace to do exactly what the experts predicted. The fact that the Jays have stuck him in the lineup and committed to leaving him there for a while helps, although that in itself is no guarantee of success (see Sean Burroughs).

If you look closely at Lind’s big-league numbers, you’ll notice a steady improvement in three key offensive areas: hitting ability, strike-zone judgment, and power.

Adam Lind Improves… at Everything
Year PA BA BB/SO ISO
2007 311 .238 .246 .162
2008 349 .282 .271 .157
2009 268 .305 .489 .238

We can’t tell the root causes of this progress from examining the numbers. There could be any number of factors (or combination of factors) at work here, but the bottom line is that at an age when we would expect growth out of Lind, he is exhibiting it in ways that matter.

When a kid in his mid-20s learns how to hit the ball, drive it with authority, and lay off bad pitches at the same time, that often portends a brighter future. Not always, but often.

So what?

We’re looking at two individuals here—two snowflakes, unique in their makeup and development. It would be a mistake to extrapolate from these particular cases and draw firm conclusions about similar (but not identical) young players.

For example, we could just as easily look at guys like Jeff Francoeur, Howie Kendrick, Dioner Navarro, and Chris Young, and wonder why they haven’t been able to put (or keep) their games together at the big-league level. We might find some commonalities among those players and be tempted to make pronouncements based on those commonalities.

Actually, looking at how similar players have developed can be a useful exercise. I engage in it myself because it’s fun and occasionally instructive. But the tendencies of a group are different from the specifics of an individual, which is why sometimes a Lind emerges and a Kendrick stagnates.

Other young players with similar pedigree and experience have not yet established themselves, and it’s uncertain when (or whether) they will. No amount of examining the outputs for retroactive clues will solve the mystery for us. We can cite Lind’s 42 doubles at Dunedin in 2005 as evidence of a bright future, but only after the fact.

John Sickels sums this problem up nicely in his own discussion on Lind from back in March:

But this is another example of how the more I study players, the less confident I get in making firm predictions about what they will do. Ironic, since my job is to make predictions. But at a deeper level, my job is to tell the truth about what I see, and with Lind I see a guy who could still turn out to be a really good hitter, but who isn’t quite there yet and may never get there.

It can be a frustrating process, but such is the nature of the beast. The best we can do is look at signs that may or may not be important, then marvel when kids like Jackson and Lind take that next step. Only then can we lie to our friends that we saw it coming all along.

References & Resources
Thanks to Baseball-Reference and to Daniel at Friar Forecast for tipping me off to the Fangraphs article.

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