One of the major stories in the Blue Jays organization heading into the 2013 season was the transformation of shortstop Justin Jackson into a right-handed relief pitcher.
The former 1st round pick (45th overall) of the 2007 MLB draft spent six seasons as an infielder and outfielder before the organization asked him to switch positions at the completion of the 2012 season.
Agreeing to the change, Jackson spent his entire 2012 off-season focusing on pitching drills to condition his arm for spring training, an exciting new challenge for the North Carolina native.
“I enjoyed pitching. It was a welcomed change for me and I’m having a lot of fun with it. I’m hoping to go out on the mound and win some more ball games,” Jackson said. “The change is a fresh start for me. I had some struggles as a position player and the transition to pitcher has been very positive so far. I’m really enjoying it.”
After a brief stint in extended spring training, the Blue Jays sent Jackson up to Lansing to participate in the Lugnuts annual Crosstown Showdown, an exhibition game against nearby Michigan State University.
“In extended they had me doing a bunch of drills like throwing, fielding and covering bases,” he said. “I came up for the Crosstown Showdown which was great pitching in front of a sellout crowd. I had no idea I was staying until after the game when the coaches told me I was staying awhile. I was very excited for the opportunity to pitch in Lansing.”
The former position player fared well in Lansing appearing in 34 1/3 innings of work posting a 0-2 record and a 2.36 ERA. Jackson also registered 26 strikeouts for the Lugnuts which comes as little surprise as he displayed a fastball that registered 96 miles per hour on numerous occasions.
“I love the atmosphere of Lansing. The city loves baseball and really cares about the sport. The city rallies behind the team and loves sports in general,” he said, adding, “I always knew I had a good arm and it’s been fun seeing how my arm progressed over the year. I’m pleased with the results so far.”
Jackson was promoted to the Dunedin Blue Jays in late July and appeared in 15 1/3 innings for the D-Jays posting a 0-0 record, a 5.28 ERA, and eight strikeouts.
Bringing his season stats to 0-2 with a 3.26 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 49 2/3 innings of work between the two teams. An area Jackson would like to improve on is the number of walks he allows as he had 29 on the season. All-and-all, however, it was evident a good first year of pitching for the former first round pick.
As a player that has been in the system awhile, Jackson states the younger players look up to him and like to speak with him about what it takes to get through a full season.
“I have been in the system seven years. The other players like to pick my brain and I emphasize the importance of the mental game,” he explained. “Anytime a player has a question I’m always willing to answer it and it’s important for them to understand how to adjust their minds when they reach the next level.”
Jackson further admitted that playing shortstop in the past, has helped him develop his defense at his new position on the mound. “It definitely helps being a former position player. I’m very comfortable fielding my position as a pitcher and that’s a very important part of the game and my development. I ‘m hoping it’ll be one of my strengths moving forward.”
Former Major Leaguer and current Lansing Lugnuts pitching coach Vince Horsman discussed the transition Jackson took in the 2012 off-season and how he has progressed over the 2013 season.
“Justin [Jackson] is a young pitcher, learning how to pitch. He has the arm and we needed to work on his secondary pitches which improved over the season. Justin needs experience, he did well in Lansing and we’ll see how things progress in the higher levels,” Horsman said.“I think he has an advantage because he saw first-hand how hard it is to hit the ball. Justin is very athletic he’s picking it up a lot faster than I thought he would and I think it will continue at the higher levels.”
With the 2013 season in the books, Jackson went home to North Carolina to prepare for 2014 as he continues his journey as a pitcher.
“In the off-season I go home to North Carolina and take a couple weeks off. Then I plan out what I want to do to focus on next season,” he said, concluding, “My off-seasons are usually harder than my seasons because I train as hard as I can to be successful.”
Here’s hoping success finds the newly transformed pitcher in 2014.