It was a lost season for the Braves’ friendly neighborhood sliderman, as UCL surgery ended right-handed reliever Luke Jackson’s season before it began.
Atlanta’s 2022 season ended in disappointment with the team’s early exit from the post-season. For Luke Jackson, his season ended almost six months earlier, when the Braves placed the right-handed reliever on the 60-day Injured List due to a torn right ulnar collateral ligament.
Coming into the season, Jackson was expected to be an integral part of the team’s high-leverage relief corps. Unfortunately for the Braves and for Jackson, Tommy John Surgery prevented him from taking the field for the team in his last season prior to free agency.
Luke Jackson was a first-round pick by the Texas Rangers in 2010 out of Calvary Christion High School in Fort Lauderdale, FL. The Braves acquired him from the Rangers after the 2016 season in a trade that sent pitchers Brady Feigl and Tyrell Jenkins to Texas.
The trade ended up a slow-burning masterstroke for Atlanta as Jenkins has been out of baseball since 2017 and Feigl has yet to make it to the Majors, although he continues to pitch, spending 2022 playing independent ball for Long Island in the Atlantic League.
After several seasons of barely hanging on to a roster spot with Atlanta – including being designated for assignment three times in the first half of the 2018 season – Jackson had become a reliable member of the Braves’ bullpen prior to his injury.
What were the expectations?
Jackson enjoyed the best run prevention of his career, at least so far, in 2021, when he posted a 1.98 ERA across 63 2⁄3 innings while striking out 9.9 batters per nine innings. With a 1.162 WHIP and 366 ERA+, Jackson provided the team 0.6 fWAR / 2.3 bWAR with an xFIP of 3.76 and a remarkable (and likely non-repeatable) strand rate of 90.2 percent.
Even with his slight decline in strikeout rate in 2021 compared to prior seasons, Jackson was expected be the high-leverage right-hander in front of Kenley Jansen in 2022. Production-wise, he was expected to do something like replicate his 2021 — not the ERA, but the peripherals. Coming into Spring Training, the Braves appeared to be set to have a deep and high-quality bullpen. But you know that saying about a team never having enough pitching…
2022 Season Results
Surgery on Jackson’s pitching elbow ended his season before it started, wiping out what could have been Jackson’s last season with the Braves. The Braves thought highly of his influence on the team — and the bullpen, in particular — as they brought him on the road trip after Jesse Chavez was traded to help with morale.
What went right? What went wrong?
The bright spot of Jackson’s on-field season may have been collecting his World Series ring with the team at Truist Park. If you aren’t able to pitch due to injury, one would imagine that is at least one heckuva consolation prize.
Pitchers having UCL surgery is common nowadays, but the timing was surely disappointing for Jackson as he is now set to embark on free agency.
Barring a setback in recovery, Jackson should pitch at some point in 2023. Would that mean a return mid-season in 2023? Possibly. Kirby Yates underwent UCL surgery at the end of March 2021 and returned to the big-league mound in early August 2022 for Atlanta. (Yates only pitched in nine games before returning to the Injured List, however, and was a shambles on the mound.)
Relative to the money the Braves have been spending to keep their core players around – and the cost they incurred to bring Raisel Iglesias over from the Angels – Jackson’s return would not be cost prohibitive.
Will Jackson return to Atlanta for his age-31 season, and perhaps beyond? It seems like there is at least a 50-50 chance of that happening, since the team obviously values what he brings off the field and given that he’d likely miss at least the first few months of the season, the team could get creative with his signing – as they did with Yates – and sign him to a option-laden multiyear deal that could provide Jackson with stability in 2023 and the Braves with an out if Jackson isn’t able to return to his pre-injury form.