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Player Review: Luke Jackson

It took awhile to get Jackson back on the mound, but once he did, it was like he hadn’t missed a beat.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

2023 stats: 33 G, 33.1 IP, 2.97 ERA, 143 ERA+, 3.29 FIP, 1.230 WHIP, 11.6 K/9, 4.1 BB/9

It had been nearly 19 months since Luke Jackson had thrown a pitch in an MLB game when he debuted for the San Francisco Giants on May 31st of the 2023 season.

A torn ligament in his throwing arm diagnosed in April 2022 meant he’d undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the entirety of his final season before free agency. He resumed throwing in October of that year and signed a 2 year/ $11.5 million deal with the Giants in January. Bullpen sessions in the Spring but the righty still wasn’t ready and started the 2023 season on the 15-day IL, a designation quickly updated to the 60-day. After rehab assignments in San Jose and Sacramento, the long path of recovery finally arrived back at big leagues’ doorstep at the end of May.

Jackson made 8 appearances over the next four weeks, posting a 2.16 ERA (1.58 FIP) over 8.1 innings. His bread-and-butter slider that he throws two-thirds of the time snapped hard and down, showing he could place it anywhere down in the zone. The velocity on his complimentary fastball hadn’t dipped. The reliever was pitching again, but he still needed to find his footing. The work handed to him was shallow-end stuff. Down 4 in the 9th against the Orioles, ahead of the Cubs by 7 in the 7th—a far cry from his late-inning, high-stakes role on the championship-winning Braves in which he turned a sub-2.00 ERA over 63.2 innings and provided enough reels for a 12 minute highlight video.

By the third week of June, the Giants were surging and Jackson’s workload was ramping up. On the 24th, he took the mound in the 6th inning in a 5-5 tie against the Diamondbacks. On the 5th pitch of the inning, he dropped a slider down-and-in to Brandon McCarthy for a called strike and then immediately walked off the mound, gesturing to the bench. He’d miss the next four weeks with lower back tightness.

Jackson was used sparingly for the rest of July, and it wasn’t until August that he finally found a rhythm. He made 12 appearances in August and 9 in September. Jackson’s last of the season came on the 24th against LA, throwing 1.2 scoreless innings in the 7th and 8th—the Giants still dropped the game 3-2. With the team officially face-planted, Jackson went on paternity leave.

It wasn’t quite the return Luke Jackson imagined for himself during those long stints in bleached fluorescent P.T. rooms, or over the countless innings spent looking from the dugout railing or through the chain-link fence of the bullpen with a sweatshirt on, hoodie up, a baseball anxiously juggling around in his palm. By the time he was getting consistent playing time, San Francisco was slip-sliding away into the chasm of irrelevancy. Somehow his effective relief outings every 2 or 3 days in August weren’t enough to deadlift the Giants’ into a Wild Card spot...

For the all the frustrations he experienced during his drawn out recovery, Jackson did successfully get back to form, which is never a guarantee after such a major surgery and recovery. Even with a either/or, two pitch mix, Jackson was incredibly effective at missing opponents bats. His 30.1 SO% was second only to Camilo Doval on the Giants pitching staff and higher than his 2021 rate while boasting a comparable Whiff percentage (30.4). Opponents xBA was a hair over .200. If hitters made contact, they had fair success at hitting the ball hard (40.5) but that blemish was rouged over with a 51.2% groundball rate and 19% line drive rate. Ultimately, batters mustered only a .206 BA (which led the club) with a .284 BABIP and a .635 OPS against Jackson.

Over all of his 33 appearances, Jackson allowed more than 1 earned run only once—a not inconsequential 4 runs against the Cubs on September 5th in which he entered the 7th with 1 out, tasked to preserve a tie. Even knocked around, Jackson finished the inning, which he had an impressive knack for over his games. Apart from his injury exit on June 24th, he was pulled from the mound mid-inning only twice, and both of those times occurred after he had already pitched a full inning. He bequeathed only two runners to a fellow pitcher all season.

The Giants were wooed by the right-hander’s 2021 numbers and were so taken, they were willing to gamble on a post-op elbow with an indeterminate reboot time. It appears, the gamble will pay off; it just took a little longer than most wanted it to. Even with a long absence from the field, Jackson has maintained his tendencies and form. His walk rate is a tad high and might want to reacquaint himself with his curve ball to figuratively and literally throw hitters a curve ball every now and then, but those are minor edits. The performance when he’s on the mound speaks for itself. He’s an asset if he can stay healthy. Count on him and his biting vertical slider being a big part of the 2024 San Francisco bullpen as a more high-leverage reliever in the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings. If the 32 year old keeps it up, the club will run it back again with their $7 million option for ‘25.