The friendly neighborhood Sliderman. Skywalker. All Elite Luke Jackson. The Luke Jackson Experience.
Luke Jackson has almost as many nicknames as he does years of Major League experience, a notable feat for the Braves reliever who looked to bounce back in 2021 after a disappointing season last year.
Luke Jackson was a first round pick (45th overall) by the Texas Rangers in 2010 out of Calvary Christian High School in For Lauderdale, FL. He was acquired by the Braves in December 2016 in a trade for Brady Feigl and Tyrell Jenkins, who was also a first-rounder and came to the Braves are part of famed Jason Heyward trade in 2014. The swap of Jackson for Jenkins was a change-of-scenery trade for two former top prospects who were both still young but had struggled in their limited opportunities at the Major League level — after working primarily as a starter in the minors, Jackson was crushed in his first 15 major league appearances, all coming in relief.
While Jenkins has been out of baseball since 2017, Jackson has persevered. Although he as appeared for the Braves in each season since his acquisition, it was not without significant turbulence. Jackson was designated for assignment after the 2017 season after the Braves traded for outfielder Preston Tucker. Jackson returned to the Braves in 2018, getting called up in early April after the Braves designated catcher Chris Stewart for assignment. Jackson was designated for assignment three times during the first half of the season before finally sticking on the roster for good in mid-June.
Expectations and Projections
Jackson entered the season as part of front-half of the bullpen with Will Smith, Tyler Matzek and Chris Martin. Coming off a disappointing 2020 season that saw him struggle with his pitch mix and control – he posted a WHIP of 1.975 an equally poor 1.54 SO/W, along with just 0.1 fWAR that would’ve been negative if his FIP (99 FIP-) more resembled his xFIP (105 xFIP-) – the hope was that Jackson would be able to replicate his surprisingly effective 2019 season and not relive the pandemic-shorten year that saw him struggle mightily.
2021 Season Results
Availability was key throughout the year, as Jackson tied Smith with 71 appearances in 2021 and only trailed Smith in innings pitched among Braves as a dedicated reliever. Martin’s early-season injury issues elevated Jackson as the top right-handed set-up option for Brian Snitker’s team. Leaning heavily on his slider — a pitch he threw 51 percent of the time during the season — he posted a career-best 1.98 ERA while posting staff-best ERA+ of 224.
However, as has been the case throughout the last several years of his career, Jackson’s underlying stats show ERA is not the best indicator of his effectiveness. His FIP was good at 3.66, but that was only the third best of his career; likewise his strikeout rate was slightly above his career average at 26.8 percent while his walk rate was higher than his career average at 11.1 percent.
Notably, his Batting Average Against was a sterling .198 and his BABIP was a fantastic .255 -both substantially better than league average. Although he still excelled at limiting hard hits and inducing ground balls, both of those stats lagged his lines from 2019 and 2020.
Although his fWAR was 0.6, his RA9-fWAR was 2.3 on the season, the latter of which matches up with his bWAR. His high-leverage usage was the second-highest of his career – only outpaced by the 2019 in which he spent a sizable chunk of the season as the team’s most unexpected closer since Ken Ray.
On a whole, Jackson’s 2021 season was in-line with his career numbers. His fastball velocity and slider velocity both bested his career average, but only by 0.4 mph each. His pitch mix mirrored his 2019 season, with his slider usages down slightly against 2019. What stands out is that he has been much more effective when his slider usage is above 50 percent, thus the “Sliderman” nickname.
What went right? / What went wrong?
Little went wrong for Jackson in 2021. He rebounded from his forgettable 2020 to post his second-best season as a high- to-mid leverage reliever. It is difficult to quantify, when looking at the summary statistics of a pitcher who appeared in the sixth-most games in the NL, how induvial game experiences can elicit such extreme fan emotion.
But, for anyone who followed the Braves throughout this past season, there were two Luke Jacksons: the great, “All Elite Luke Jackson”, and the not-as-great (although often still effective) “Luke Jackson Experience”.
He was certainly an above-average reliever but with most of his advanced pitching metrics in line with his career marks – or at best similar to 2019.
From an analytic perspective, Jackson had a weird season because of how it evolved. Check out his cumulative/rolling ERA, FIP, and xFIP:
In most cases, you see a player whose ERA rests below his FIP/xFIP start giving up more runs overtime. In Jackson’s 2021 case, though, it was instead the FIP/xFIP that came down, and while the gap narrowed eventually, he never experienced the point where his ERA caught up with his x/FIP. Jackson had a 1.00 ERA and 5.52 (!) xFIP through April, which changed to 1.40 and 4.41, respectively, through May; he eventually finished at 1.98 and 3.76, respectively. It was a neat outcome for a guy who was absolutely tormented with the reverse in 2018-2020, where he had the highest BABIP and 12th-highest ERA-FIP gap among all pitchers with 100 innings in that span. The big question, though, is what this means going forward: will 2022 feature him once again defying his peripherals, or will he return to being tormented by everything despite pitching well? While there’s a possible middle ground where his ERA and peripherals align, that would be too un-Luke Jackson-esque at this point.
Road to the Title
It was the tale of both Luke Jacksons in the 2021 playoffs. In the NLDS against the Brewers, he was decent – with appearances in all four games – and a 1.50 WHIP with no runs allowed.
Against the Dodgers in the NLCS, he started out with an excellent appearance in the eighth inning of Game 1’s victory. After a third of an inning in Game 2, Jackson was hurt by the right pitch, right location, worst-possible-outcome home run he gave up to Cody Bellinger in the eighth inning of Game 3.
However, the appearance by Jackson in Game 3 was one of his worst of the season, as he gave up three singles and the Bellinger homer while getting just one out. Jackson didn’t appear again in the series until the series-clinching Game 6. Much like his Game 3 debacle, Jackson struggled, giving up two doubles and a walk in the seventh inning, leaving the game without retiring a batter, with a runner at third. What followed was the legendary three-strikeout appearance by Tyler Matzek. For the NLCS, Jackson’s Championship Win Probability Added (cWPA) was a deplorable -16.48%.
Coming into the World Series, there was concern about Jackson’s effectiveness. When Charlie Morton was lost to injury in Game 1, the need for quality innings from the already heavily leaned-on bullpen become that much more imperative.
Enter Luke Jackson, the “All Elite” version.
Taking over for A.J. Minter after his 2 2⁄3 innings of work in relief of Morton, Jackson was masterful, retiring five with three strikeouts. Appearing next in Game 3, Jackson pitched a clean seventh in the Braves’ 2-0 shutout of the Astros. Jackson threw a clean eighth inning in Game 4 while setting-up for Will Smith en route to a Braves victory and a 3-1 series lead. That would be Jackson’s last appearance in the World Series, but his dominance on the mound led to a staff-best 10.34% cWPA in the World Series, narrowly besting Ian Anderson.
All told, Jackson finished 2021 with a sizable WPA and cWPA in the regular season, but some pretty negative marks in the playoffs, even when considering all of his good work, due entirely to three straight WPA-bleeding appearances in the NLCS. His final appearance of 2021, in Game 4 of the World Series, was his cWPA capper, worth 4.50% alone.
One small, amusing thing given that Jackson’s NLCS mess led to one of the coolest Braves postseason moments by Tyler Matzek: the 2021 game in which Jackson had his highest WPA was one where he actually cleaned up a Matzek mess. On September 26, Matzek came on for the seventh in a one-run game and allowed two baserunners, including a leadoff walk. That prompted Jackson to come on in relief — he struck out Ha-Seong Kim on four pitches to end the seventh, and then threw a 1-2-3 eighth despite a four-pitch leadoff walk. (That was the game the Braves won after Will Smith walked the bases loaded, but got out of it with three strikeouts.)
For 2022, Steamer has Jackson projected to have a nearly identical season to his 2021 campaign, with some regression in ERA, but otherwise with a similar FIP (3.62), K% (25.7%) innings pitched (66), and WAR (0.6). As the 2021 post-season epitomized, Jackson is often dominant, usually effective, but occasionally prone to issues. Projecting relievers is often foolhardy, but given what we’ve seen from Jackson, another good-ish season seems reasonable.
Off the field, it’s apparent that Jackson is key to the team’s culture, as shown by being a co-founder of the Burgundy Boys — the wine club with Anderson, coach Eddie Perez, outfielder Joc Pederson and others. Jackson also famously popularized Matzek’s no-holds-barred nickname.
Eligible for a third and final (unless something weird happens with the CBA negotiations) year of arbitration (estimated at $3.8 million in 2022 salary), it’s a near-lock that Jackson will be back as a top right-handed arm in the Braves bullpen in 2022, barring a trade or free agent signing. If he continues to harness his slider — and use it the majority of the time — he may find himself as the next Sergio Romo, who has continued to increase his own slider usage as he’s aged, allowing for him to be an effective reliever into his late 30s.