Prospect Q&A: Rangers Right-hander, First-rounder Luke Jackson on Getting to 200 Pounds and 200 Innings, Other Stuff
Is there a harder, longer process than developing a strong-armed teenager into a Major League starting pitcher? I don’t know, but Luke Jackson (@YaBoy77) has a better idea than most of us. The 21-year-old right-hander was the 45th overall pick in the 2010 Draft, going straight from his Florida high school to Texas. He is now the Rangers’ No. 13 prospect. (That is MLB.com’s ranking, while Baseball America says Jackson is the Rangers’ sixth-best farmhand.) His high strikeout totals and ability to miss bats merits such standing.
I spoke with Jackson over the phone this afternoon, and we hit on a variety of topics. Read the interview below. (Last time MiLB.com checked in with Jackson it was to interview him on camera about his unusual mitt for batting practice fielding. Not long before that, MiLB.com colleague @AshMarshallMLB asked Jackson about his near no-no on May 21.)
Me: Are you throwing yet? What is your workout routine?
Jackson: We have a pretty sick throwing program Texas gives us, so we’re already in those bullpen flat-grounds and been long-tossing a lot, really getting ready for the offseason. I work out a place down here called Bommarito Performance facility, and we get everything done there. It’s pretty tight.
Me: How have you adjusted to the Rangers’ throw-early-and-often program?
Jackson: I actually love it. My first full offseason was last year after my first season, so I threw pretty heavily and made it out 100 percent healthy. I’m pretty happy about it. I’ve been sticking to it ever since.
Me: What’s part of your workouts?
Jackson: I set a goal to gain a lot more weight. I’m skinny, trying to put some pounds on. It’s been going alright. I’m trying to strengthen my legs and my core. Target weight is around 205, but I’m like 193, 194, so I got a ways to go.
Me: Why would you like to add so much weight?
Jackson: I feel like it gives me more stamina, more durability. Especially as a guy who throws a little bit harder, it’s good to have a little more weight behind it as opposed to torque-ing my body every time.
Me: What has been the biggest adjustment in pro ball, coming straight out of high school? (This question comes from reader Allan Dudek, @Exposfan1998.)
Jackson: Pitching-wise, it was definitely just learning how to pitch. In high school, I was just a thrower. I threw kind of hard, so I would just go up there and play shortstop, throw as hard as I could. I never really thought about off-speed or location. Ever since, I actually have to pitch, hit spots, mix speeds, change levels, really get outs instead of just go up there and throw.
Me: Scouting reports say that because you didn’t start pitching until your freshman year of high school, you are less experienced on the mound and therefore have more trouble repeating your mechanics. Do you think there are negatives — or perhaps positives — that come with not pitching until you were a prep?
Jackson: My dad held me back and said, “I really don’t want you pitching younger.” So I just played shortstop — that’s what I liked and what I thought I was pretty good at. Turns out I wasn’t very good. Pitching — people say you only have so many bullets in your arm, so I guess laying it off for four, five extra years, maybe I’m a little fresher. But I’m not going to have the “pitchability” that guys who have been pitching their whole lives have, or command or feel or other pitches. I definitely have a fresher arm; now I just have to adapt and learn a lot faster. … If I had it any other way, I would have still done it this way and held off [pitching] as long as possible.
Me: How do you evaluate your 2012 campaign?
Jackson: I had some ups and downs. I started off pretty good and then fell off the map and then had a couple rough ones in a row… And my bad ones weren’t just bad ones — they were explosions. Making it more of an even playing field, not going too high up on the rope and don’t go too low, [I’m] trying to find [where] I can pitch every day and not have those blow-up innings. I don’t have to throw seven shutout [innings] every time but give my team a chance to win. I think that’s what I’m looking for. Some days I’d let a day game in my head, and all of sudden I’d given up five [runs] in the first. … Maybe I’m not feeling so hot one day, maybe my arm isn’t 100 percent — it can be physical or mental. I just have to battle through, keep trucking along.
Me: Down the stretch in August, you went 3-1 with a 2.97 ERA in six starts. August is when a lot of guys are tiring, obviously, so what was the key for you?
Jackson: My arm started to loosen up. Toward the end of the year, we had to get some wins with the playoff race. I don’t know if that was a factor or what it was. I just felt good toward the end of the year.
Me: What, if anything, did you feel that you changed or improved from your first pro season in ’11 to ’12?
Jackson: I would say my pitching coaches. They really work with me, teaching me how to pitch. That is the biggest help with the [learning] curve. I had a pitching coach at High-A — his name is Brad Holman — and we had a pretty good pitcher-coach relationship. Every time I went out there and threw, he kept breaking it down for me so I could understand it. A lot of pitching coaches will tell you things but you can’t understand it. He would really break it down, and it was easy for me to grasp and work on in the bullpen the next day.
Me: What was an example of that?
Jackson: I would get up in overthrowing a lot. Like 0-2, 1-2, I would just try to blow it by people and end up just leaving one up or just wasting a pitch. He was helping me to not blow balls by people but place ’em. Also, my head would fly open [during my pitching motion], and he really helped me grow mechanical-wise on keeping my head aligned and my arm aligned. It was a big help.
Me: The strikeout numbers jump out at me, but which numbers on your stat line do you look at and say, ‘I did this well’?
Jackson: To be honest, the biggest thing for me was just to get my innings pitched up. If I could get through a whole season, I was going to be pretty happy about that. I think I missed only one or two starts due to travel days or just Texas wanting me to miss ’em.
Me: Between Hickory and Myrtle Beach, you completed 129 2/3 innings. How much will you throw next year to continue to build toward that magic 200-frame number?
Jackson: That’s ideal. Hoping to get 160 [innings next season]. That’s the ideal goal.
Me: Tell us about your repertoire — mid-90-mph fastball, sharp curveball and changeup, correct?
Jackson: I am a dominant-fastball pitcher, so I throw a lot of fastballs. I have a power curveball, so I will use it as a put-away pitch every now and again. I also have a get-me-over curveball that I’ll drop in there to switch it up, leading off innings, stuff like that. The changeup has been my biggest struggle — not really struggle, but a work-in-progress. I started pro ball without no changeup whatsover. Most high school guys don’t have a changeup, but I have been harping on it and pitching coaches have been drilling me about it. That’s one pitch I used a lot more [last] year, got me some ground balls I needed. By no means is it a put-away pitch, my changeup is to get guys off my fastball if they’re cheap to it.
Me: When did you learn the curveball, in high school?
Jackson: Yeah, I always thought I had a pretty good one, just screwing around with it at shortstop, and it ended up turning out. It’s getting a lot better now.
Me: What’s the key to improving the changeup?
Jackson: Just the consistency with it. A lot of guys try to make it move more, slow your arm down to get more deception. I just need to throw it for strikes and if it’s a little slower than my fastball, it’s going to get people off [balance]. That’s my thing, that and having confidence to throw it in any count.
Me: What are your goals for next season?
Jackson: I could say like, “lower my ERA,” but I just want to go out there and keep my walks down. Realistically speaking, I would to cut my walks in half. I don’t look for high strikeout numbers, but they’re nice to see. I’m [focused] on innings pitched and keeping my walks down. That will affect both my strikeouts and ERA. With the walks, sometimes I am all over the place [mechanically], sometimes I’m picking on the corners, trying to get too fine. I just need to go out there and pitch and let my stuff do it.
Me: Alright, enough time left for three quick lighting round questions. First up, who is the best hitter you have faced in the Minor Leagues and how did you fare against him?
Jackson: My buddy, Michael Taylor. He’s with the Nationals. I don’t know if it’s because we went to high school or whatever, but he gives me a hard time. He played for Potomac and went 2-for-2 off me with a walk. I didn’t very well against him this year. The year before, a little bit. My first year, I hit him on accident and that got us off on the wrong foot. I work with him everyday out here, so it’s funny, we talk about it all the time.
Me: If you could pick the brain of any pitcher, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you ask him?
Jackson: People always ask me who my favorite pitcher was, but I wasn’t a big baseball fan growing up, so I didn’t have any old-time Hall of Famers that I really liked. But as I was drafted and learned to love the game — Greg Maddux is actually with our organization, and I got to sit down with him for about two years this year, sit there and pick his brain, talk to him all about pitching. Nolan Ryan, I got to [talk with] as well. Two of my favorite pitchers. I got to talk to Clayton Kershaw, who is my favorite pitcher in the game right now. Getting to talk to him about baseball was a dream.
Me: Does a piece of advice from Maddux, Ryan or Kershaw stand out above the rest?
Jackson: Yeah, with Kershaw, he was pretty cool. I was asking him, “How do you throw 230 innings every year?” He was telling me he doesn’t do anything special, that he works real hard — he’s an animal in the gym. He says that if his legs are healthy, his arm is healthy, so he’s avid in leg workouts, avid runner, always in pretty good shape. Pretty cool [to know] it doesn’t take anything special to throw 230 innings. You just have to work your butt off, and then you got a shot.
Me: Lastly, your Twitter page says you’re a “movie connoisseur.” So what are your Oscar picks?
Jackson: My favorite two movies are “Shawshank Redemption” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” which is a pretty solid one. This year, the new Batman was good and “Avengers.” “Django” was really good, too. I just saw that one.