If I told you the Cubs had just signed a lefthanded starting pitcher entering his age-29 season who had helped win the World Series twice and had strung together 4.9, 3.2, 4.7, and 4.9 WAR seasons, you'd surely be "Dancing in the streets of (insert your town)" as Harry was fond of saying.
Well, with a little more context, that's exactly what the Cubs did entering the 1991 season. They signed Danny Jackson to a (then) monstrous four-year, $10.5 million contract. So what's the context and how did a guy with that stat line end up here instead of in Sunday's Fan Favorites column?
You could call it a "Cubbie Occurrence." I prefer to think of it as the Cubs ignoring giant flashing warning signs.
First off, all the details in that first paragraph are completely true, according to FanGraphs. Jackson broke into the big leagues slowly in 1983 and finally joined the Kansas City Royals starting rotation full time in 1985 as a 23-year-old. His record was just 14-12, but he sported a 3.42 ERA (FIP an even better 3.21) and that first 4.9 WAR season. More importantly, he dominated in the playoffs, while bringing the Royals back from 3-1 series deficits twice on their way to a (disputed) World Series title.
He was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds, along with Angel Salazar, in exchange for Ted Power and Kurt Stillwell. He promptly put up that last 4.9 WAR season for the Reds while throwing 260 innings (let's call this "red flag number 1") in 1988. He was limited to 20 and 22 starts the next two seasons, but did pitch well once in the 1990 playoffs while the Reds were on their way to the title.
And that's where the Cubs come in.
On the surface (paragraph 1), there was a lot to like about Jackson. Without more context, we'd ALL take that paragraph for the Cubs right now. But Jackson had thrown 877 innings in that excellent 4 year run, followed by two injury-interrupted seasons, including the dreaded "shoulder injury."
So the Cubs signed him to that big deal, handed him the ball on day one of the 1991 season and promptly watched him, suck, get hurt, and sit, in no particular order.
* NOTE FROM AL: It wasn't easy to find a suitable photo for this post; there don't seem to be many around from Jackson's Cubs days. Given his poor performance and brief tenure, maybe that isn't surprising.
He started opening day and pitched pretty well (looks like he ran out of gas in the eighth). He made a second start with a "meh" result. Then in start three, he went "ouch", lasting just two innings and headed to the DL until early June. He got no better upon his return and ended up starting 14 games (plus three relief appearances), going 1-5, pitching 70 innings with a 6.75 ERA. But that was just bad luck, because his FIP was 5.53. His ERA+ was 58 with a 1.94 WHIP. He walked more batters (48) than he struck out (31). All told, he was worth -0.4 WAR (those numbers are that "high"?!?!) that season.
He was healthy in 1992, but was still not very effective. He went 4-9 over 19 starts, throwing 113 usable-ish innings. His ERA was 4.22, WHIP of 1.46, and ERA+ of 86. The Cubs offloaded Jackson and his contract to the Pirates in the middle of the year for third baseman Steve Buechele. Naturally, Jackson pitched better for the Pirates and ended up posting a 2.8 WAR season, all told.
Also naturally, Jackson would put up two more strong seasons after signing with the Phillies, producing 3.4 and 3.8 WAR. He would play three more seasons with the Cardinals (where he stunk... take THAT, St. Louis) and Padres.
For his career, Jackson was average. No, really. His career ERA+ was exactly 100. He lasted 15 big league seasons with a 112-131 W-L mark, an ERA of 4.01, and he was worth 31 WAR.
I mentioned that I could see (granted, in hindsight), multiple red flags in Jackson. First and foremost was the health. But the other was all "metric" related. Jackson was never a strikeout pitcher. In his best pre-Cub season, 6.11 K/9 was his best. But he also managed to not really be a control pitcher, often sporting BB/9 rates in the upper 3s and into the 4s. If you don't strike people out and also don't have pinpoint control, it can be tough to make it in the big leagues. Jackson made it work, at least kind of, but certainly not with the Cubs.