If you had asked me three or four weeks ago which of Luke Jackson and Nick Martinez was likely to make a big league appearance first, my answer would have been the Floridian. When you had then replied “They’re both from Florida,” I probably would have still prevaricated, because it’s difficult to feel confident about projecting an exact start date for a pair of double-A pitchers. Never would I have said “The Floridian, in the first month of the season,” but sometimes baseball goes that way.
On to the subject of Luke Jackson, though. The Rangers picked Jackson (Calvary Christian HS, Fort Lauderdale, FL) as the 45th pick in the 2010 draft, a compensation pick for not re-signing outfielder Marlon Byrd in the 2009 offseason. At that time, Jackson was committed to play baseball at the University of Miami, but he chose to sign with the Rangers and received a signing bonus of around $1.5 million. Jackson started his professional career with the low-A Hickory Crawdads in 2011, starting all 19 games he pitched in. All numbers besides his strikeout rate, 21.8 percent, suggest a struggle that first year, as he put up a 5.64 ERA in 75.0 innings, and walked 13.4 percent of the batters he faced. FIP suggests that perhaps almost an entire run of that ERA wasn’t entirely Jackson’s responsibility, however, and those numbers aren’t terrible for a 19-year-old less than a year removed from high school.
The 2012 season was only marginally better. Jackson started back in Hickory, a not-unexpected move, and pitched 13 games with the Crawdads before earning a promotion to high-A Myrtle Beach. This move appeared superficially unusual, as Jackson had nearly an ERA of 5.00 across his first 13 games (64.0 innings). However, a K% of 25.4 percent and an FIP of 3.54 suggest that despite the ERA, he didn’t have much left to learn in Hickory. Indeed, Jackson’s raw numbers improved with the Pelicans. His K% increased to an even 26 percent, his walk rate dropped from 11.6 to 11.2 percent, and his ERA fell from 4.92 (64.0 innings) to 4.39 (65.2 innings). Though one could dismiss these minor shifts in percentages to a combination of experience and noise, the fact that a mid-season jump in level didn’t come with an accompanying jump in ERA is worthy of notice.
The real numbers of note, however, came in 2013. Jackson began the season back in Myrtle Beach, and dominated the Carolina League, striking out 24.9 percent of batters faced and putting up an ERA of 2.41, just above half the average he allowed in 2012. These leaps in results could be attributed to the rest of Jackson’s pitching finally catching up to his ability to strike people out, as even his K% never dropped below 20 percent, even in his first professional season. Jackson earned a promotion to double-A Frisco in August, and pitched in six games before the end of the season, including four starts. In those 27.0 innings, he struck out 30 batters, an encouraging number after making the most difficult jump in the minors. The one weak spot in his pitching remained his command, as his walk rate was a less-than-desirable 11.3 percent in high-A, and held to a consistent 11.7 percent in AA, despite the small sample size.
Jackson uses a standard starter’s four-pitch repertoire, and has several potentially above-average pitches. His main weapon is his 92-97 mph fastball, followed in usage by his 75-82 mph curveball, and deceptive mid-80s changeup. Jackson does have a slider that usually sits in the 80s and has the potential to be a good secondary pitch, but he barely threw it in 2013. While Jackson does have the capability to be a middle-of-the-rotation major leaguer, his high-velocity fastball and long arm action have some wondering if his talents could be better used in the back of the bullpen, where fewer innings could possibly help him limit the number of walks he issues. Currently, though, he appears to be quite firmly on the starting development track.
Jackson will start 2014 in the Frisco RoughRiders’ rotation, and could spend a good portion of the season there, refining his talents. Though a AAA promotion is possible, it would most likely depend on a corresponding push from a current Myrtle Beach starter, such as Cody Buckel or Alex Gonzalez. If this year goes well, Jackson could see major league time in September, but will most likely be ready for his proper debut in 2015.
Kate Morrison is a recent Baylor graduate currently working as a freelance writer. She likes minor league ballparks, music and the nickname 'Roogie.' That last one will be explained in due time. You can follow her on Twitter at @unlikelyfanatic.