In Defense of Luke Jackson

During the bottom of the eighth inning in Game Three of the 2021 Braves/Dodgers NLCS, Luke Jackson released an ill-timed fastball. Cody Bellinger sent the pitch 399 feet over the right-field wall: a 102.4 MPH dagger through the heart of Braves country. The subsequent sequence of single, ground-out, and double yielded four earned runs for Jackson and a 86% win probability for the Braves reversed towards the Dodgers. Jackson, who had pitched in every game of the postseason to that point without allowing an earned run, quickly became the scapegoat that Braves fans cast their twenty-six years of pent up frustrations upon.

The output of the pitch was unquestionably horrific, and output is all that matters in postseason baseball. However, I believe that the input deserves a little more discretion prior to a solid reliever being cast as a choking pariah.

First, it is import to examine the general pitch selection given the situation. Across MLB this year, there were 7444 four-seam fastballs thrown in a 1-2 count by qualified RHPs against LHBs, resulting in a 48% strikeout rate, .159 xBA, and .182 xwOBA. In terms of pitch quality, the league average for velocity was 94.7 MPH with a 2294 RPM spin rate. Jackson's 1-2 fastball came in at 95.6 MPH with a 2227 spin rate: not an elite pitch, but an above average pitch. This is represented is this visualization of all discussed pitches.

These pitches carried an average location of -0.19 feet from the center of the plate, and 3.16 feet from the ground (3.5 feet is typically regarded as the top of the zone). We do not yet have pitch x/z location for Jackson's pitch yet, but I have estimated it at -0.89 feet from the center of the plate and 4.12 feet high based upon the Statcast visualizations available from Baseball Savant. This is well away from the center of the plate as opposed to the league average. Jackson's pitch (upper left hand corner) was truly an outlier, makings Bellinger's 0.770 xBA knock even more of one.

It's even more jarring that this pitch was hit for power when examining xwOBA compared to pitch location (with xwOBA for the Bellinger hit unavailable, admittedly).

All this goes to say, the quality of the pitch that Jackson threw results in a strikeout or weak contact much more often than not. This is especially true when you examine Cody Bellinger's numbers against fastballs > 95 MPH from righties this year: 0.156 BA, 0.218 wOBA, and exactly one home run. When the count stands at 1-2, this drops down to a wOBA of 0.088 and a 60% strikeout percentage. Examining this heatmap, it's clear where he finds success.

Bellinger is still a former MVP, and a fantastic player on his day. But Jackson threw a fine pitch, and the outcome was a massive outlier to what would be expected given the pitch quality and batter's performance. Unfortunately for the Braves, success in the playoffs is largely predicated on outliers, and nothing gold can stay.

This FanPost does not express the views or opinions of Talking Chop.