Jun 8, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers relief pitcher Luke Jackson (77) throws during the game against the Houston Astros at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
The Atlanta Braves traded for Jackson in December to open space on their 40-man roster occupied by both Jenkins. Jackson was originally drafted in the first round of the 2010 draft, the 45th overall selection by the Rangers.
Jackson started in 2011 with the Rangers’ low-A team in Hickory, a very aggressive move for a high school pitcher. He predictably struggled on the season, though he did have flashes of the big stuff he had. He made 19 starts, throwing 75 innings with a 5.64 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, and a 48/78 BB/K ratio.
In 2012, the Rangers started Jackson back at Hickory, but he struggled again. In spite of his struggles, the Rangers sent him to their Myrtle Beach high-A team, where he surprisingly put up even better numbers. Overall, he made 26 starts, throwing 129 2/3 innings with a 4.65 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, and a 65/146 BB/K ratio.
In 2013, the Rangers sent him back to the Carolina League and high-A, where he had a dominant season before making a late appearance in AA that was even more impressive, in spite of throwing in the hitter-friendly Texas League. His overall numbers on the year were 25 games (23 starts), 128 innings, 2.04 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and a 59/134 BB/K ratio.
After that positive season, the Rangers sent him to AA Frisco again, and he had success, earning a midseason promotion to AAA in the Pacific Coast League, and it went extremely rough, with a 10.38 ERA in AAA. Overall, his line was 26 games (24 starts), throwing 123 innings with a 5.41 ERA and 1.35 WHIP, and 52/126 BB/K ratio.
The Rangers made the move to put Jackson into the bullpen in 2015. He struggled in the role, but he showed excellent promise. He threw 66 1/3 innings with a 4.34 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, and a 35/79 BB/K ratio in AAA. He also got a late season promotion to Texas and had roughly a similar performance, throwing 6 1/3 innings with a 4.26 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and a 2/6 BB/K.
2016 saw Jackson continue his adaption to the bullpen, and he split minor league time between AA and AAA, throwing 46 1/3 innings, with a 3.69 combined ERA, 1.55 WHIP, and a 32/59 BB/K ratio before throwing 11 2/3 innings with Texas in the majors with a 10.80 ERA, 2.57 WHIP, and 8/3 BB/K.
Jackson has a very stout build at 6’2 and 210-215 pounds.
Jackson has moved to pitching exclusively from the stretch as a reliever, with or without men on base. His leg lift is inconsistent, and I found that he was telegraphing his pitches. He would lift his leg higher when he was about to throw his breaking pitch and lower for his fastball.
During his AAA time in 2016, he was much more steady this year with the leg lift, and that was the best time to evaluate what he could do at his best delivery. He comes over the top with a very high 3/4 arm slot, nearly direct overhand.
He tucks his hip just a touch to allow that high arm slot to have just a hair of deception.
Jackson’s calling card pitch coming into his draft season was his big fastball. He’s really not gained much to it, but moving into the bullpen has allowed the pitch to add a tick or two of velocity.
The fastball gets good plane from his high arm slot, but he doesn’t get a lot of movement on the pitch low in the zone. However, if he moves that fastball up in the zone, he does get some excellent arm side movement on the fastball, especially when the ball is roughly waist-high on a hitter.
He can run the fastball into triple digits out of the bullpen, operating most often around 96-97 as a reliever with the pitch.
His second pitch out of the bullpen is a curve, and that curve has been the big issue with his delivery issues. He gets very good spin on the pitch with a 1-7 action. When his delivery is on, he throws a tight spinning curve that sits 78-80 MPH and has a hard bite from the upper thigh to the upper shin in movement.
The issue with the curve is that it gets very loopy when he starts getting his leg lift off. The velocity also varies tremendously in that.
Jackson also mixes in a change up, but it is definitely a “show me” pitch that is best used low in the zone. He has thrown a total of 20 changes with over 350 total pitches in the major leagues.
What I find that is very interesting is when I went looking for a guy currently pitching in the majors with a similar build, similar pitches, and similar style to Jackson, I found the best match was actually a guy from his own draft class.
Tyler Thornburg, much like Jackson, had his ups and downs as a starter, though he did have a bit more success, but he also had multiple seasons in rookie leagues to hone his craft rather than being thrown directly into full-season ball.
With a very similar pitch mix, size, and even similar curve break, Thornburg and Jackson make a very good comp. Thornburg was moved to relief earlier in his career than Jackson, and therefore has made his jump to the majors quicker, but I do believe that you could see similar success in 2017 as what you saw for Thornburg in 2016 for the Brewers.
I would be surprised if Jackson isn’t in the Atlanta bullpen when the season opens, though the team has been taking guys like Jackson and working with their mechanics to clean them up (Toussaint and Newcomb were great examples of this last year), so it could be a thing where Jackson opens in AAA working on his mechanics and makes a quick jump to the majors once he’s comfortable in his new delivery.
Jackson did spend enough time in the major leagues in 2015 and 2016 to have burned through his rookie eligibility, so he won’t be on any prospect lists for the Braves, but if you are interested, keep your eyes open for an upcoming list in January with an update on the top 100!