This season Jay Jackson, 27, has been one of the best relief pitchers in the Padres’ organization with a 1.78 ERA in 50.2 innings and has excelled in the two statistics evaluators always want too see for guys coming out of the bullpen; 57 strikeouts against only 13 walks and he has given up less hits (40) than innings pitched.
As with many players in Triple-A, this is not the organization he started off in, but his fourth. The big problem in the six-foot-one right-hander’s career has been the inability of his previous three teams, the Cubs, Pirates or Marlins to determine if they wanted him to be a starter or relief pitcher.
When he signed with the Padres in the off-season it was with the understanding that he would just come out of the pen, and so far it is working out pretty well.
Jackson attended Furman as a two-way player and could hit, finishing with a .304/.356/.519 slash line in three years with the Paladins. He also hasn’t been bad as a pro either with a .215 batting average in seven Triple-A seasons. This year coming out of the pen he doesn’t get as many opportunities, but he’s still one for two with a double.
We caught up with Jay to talk about how coming to the Padres has changed his career.
Can you give us some information on your background?
Jay Jackson: I’m from Greenville, South Carolina where I was born and raised. I went to school at Furman University, which is also in Greenville. I went there because I wanted to stay close to my family - my little sister has Down Syndrome.
Now I live in Chattanooga, Tennessee with my wife. I played basketball and baseball growing up, and was probably a better basketball player growing up.
Did you have a chance to go pro out of high school?
Jay Jackson: I talked to a few teams but I never really went to all of the big prospect events - which is how you get drafted. I was playing basketball in the summer and thought at that time that basketball was the ticket for me.
But in the end I saved a few miles on my arm so it is all working out the way it is supposed to be.
You were a starter for most of your career.
Jay Jackson: Since my first full-season in pro ball I have always been in different roles, and it has been difficult. With the Cubs I was always trying to find where I fit in. They would tell me they needed help in one area and move me there and then reverse. In a way pitching is still pitching, but there is a big difference in how you prepare as a starter and as a reliever.
When I signed with the Padres they said they just wanted me to do one thing, come out of the bullpen. I’ve always thought and said if I could just be given one thing I could succeed at it.
Being a pitcher its about being comfortable and having a certain comfort level. Being in the bullpen this year has been a blessing.
Jamie Quirk [the El Paso manager] talked about how important it is to do one role or another. Did you have more pitches as a starter as compared to a relief pitcher?
Jay Jackson: I had a few more. I tinkered with a cutter and I still have a curve ball. As a reliever it is just fastball, slider and change-up. Work off of those three and try to perfect them. I can still the other pitches when I need too, but mainly just those three.
I’ve had experience coming out of the pen in Mexico in the off-season and I’ve experienced some success. It helps not having to bounce back and forth between multiple roles. That was the main goal for me in the off-season, was just finding an organization that wanted me to do one thing.
It sounds like you prefer being in the bullpen.
Jay Jackson: I just prefer just helping the team. I think I’m better when I am in one role or another. It’s just trying to find your niche.
If you are in the bullpen you kind of know that you have a chance to pitch any time you come to the field. Where you don’t want to be is when they need you to suddenly go four or five innings after you have been just doing one or two. Mainly it just messes with your routines in how you prepare and how you get better.
You throw a fastball, change and slider. Both fastballs?
Jay Jackson: Yes, I throw both a four and two-seam. All of them end up playing off of each other and I mix up the four and two-seamers depending on the hitter.
You have some great peripheral numbers in strikeouts to base-on-balls and hits to innings pitched. As compared to being a starter, are you more aggressive coming out of the pen?
Jay Jackson: I was pretty aggressive as a starter too. I’ve always had good strikeout numbers. Hitters kind of key off of your mound presence. If they see you are being aggressive early in the count, then they are going to have to be aggressive to or get in some really bad counts.
They might swing at pitches earlier that they normally wouldn’t, so they can sometimes expand the zone more than they would like. I enjoyed the challenge of going through a line-up two or three times but its also nice just going through it once. As a starter I always had the stigma that I threw too many strikes, which is something I don’t run into now.
At this level you have good defenses so you can just go out and let the pitches eat.
A lot of pitchers like to talk about their hitting, but you actually have some numbers that show you can hit.
Jay Jackson: I was mainly a position player in college. That was the main reason I went to Furman because they said I could play both ways. My first few years I was in the outfield and then I was at first base for my junior year.
My freshman year I only threw about 40 innings and then my sophomore year I threw around 60 and my junior year I was the Friday night guy so I threw just under 100. So I didn’t put a lot of mileage on my arm in college but I got a lot of chances to hit.
Now, as a relief pitcher I don’t get that many chances, but I still like to hit.
You got your double this year.
Jay Jackson: [laughs] Yeah, that was first at-bat. In the second one I saw a guy throwing 95 and I haven’t run into that too much, so that one wasn’t so good. But it was an extra-inning game so I got to go out and play left field, so it was a good day.
You seem to be on the path that you wanted coming into the year.
Jay Jackson: I can’t complain. I’ve just been going out there and enjoying the days that I have. Before the season I wasn’t sure that I was going to get another chance because these jobs are tough to get if you don’t have great numbers.
I went through a phase where I didn’t enjoy baseball as much as I should. When I left the Cubs and Pirates, I went to Double-A with the Marlins in 2013; and I hadn’t been in Double-A for some time. Just seeing how the younger guys approached the game made me realize how much I enjoyed it and not worrying about other stuff.
It’s just a blessing to be out here and El Paso is great. The people treat us great here and all over the city. Its just constant smiles and handshakes and I’m really enjoying baseball again.
Makes you really want to come out here and perform.