For my first piece at Friar Forecast, I took a look at a position player (Connor Powers)  in the Padres minor league system that you won’t see on any prospect lists but has a chance to open some eyes. For this time around, I’ll focus on a pitcher: Matt Jackson.

Jackson was drafted at the age of 21 by the Padres in the 31st round of the 2009 draft out of the University of South Alabama. He was a letterman in both football and baseball at Haughton High School in Louisiana. Jackson initially attended LSU, and, as a freshman during the 2007 season, he pitched 32.0 innings, walked eight, and struck out 20. His final record at LSU was 0-0 with a 4.50 ERA.

Jackson subsequently transferred to Chipola JC (Florida) and was dominant, going 10-0 with a 2.61 ERA. Over 72.1 innings, he walked 14 and struck out 55. Following that season, he transferred to USA where he finished 5-4 with a 5.33 ERA. At South Alabama, he pitched 74.1 innings, allowing 81 hits while walking 27. Jackson struck out 64 batters for a K/9 of 7.75.  Overall, his WHIP that season was 1.45.

Those college numbers don’t necessarily jump off the page, but the Padres saw some things they liked in the 6’4″ 190 pounder’s arsenal.

In his first season of professional baseball in 2009, Jackson finished at short season Eugene with a record of 3-7 and a 4.97 ERA. He pitched 58.0 innings, resulting in a WHIP of 1.31 to go along with a 6.8 K/9. In 2010, Jackson split time between Eugene and Low-A Fort Wayne. All totaled that season, he went 4-3 with a 4.98 ERA, a 1.375 WHIP, and a 5.8 K/9.

Thus far, the numbers Jackson put up were very solid but not eye-popping, especially for a 22-year old pitching in a pitcher-friendly league. However, 2011 saw a different Jackson altogether.

In his second stint at Ft. Wayne, Jackson found his niche. Despite being 23 and repeating the level, his numbers bear notice. He finished with a 5-1 record that included a 1.95 ERA in 64.2 IP. You read that correctly: a 1.95 ERA. It gets better. Over those 64 some innings, he allowed 49 hits, walked 12, and struck out 68. Yep…68. That resulted in an impressive K/9 of 9.5. Equally impressive was his WHIP of 0.943. Minuscule is a word that comes to mind.

Let’s look at a tale of two seasons here (data courtesy of Fangraphs.com):

2010 50.0 14.9 5.94 5.4 2.16 0.54 0.331 1.42
2011 64.2 26.5 9.46 4.7 1.67 0.14 0.279 0.94

Granted, Jackson spent several weeks of the 2011 season on the DL, so it’s likely his numbers would have been slightly less stellar. Regardless of age, injury, and experience, though, that’s a pretty dramatic improvement. Those 2011 numbers show absolute dominance.

The real question, of course, is will he be able to maintain this dominance? He’ll likely be moving up to Hi-A Lake Elsinore, and it is notorious for being a hitter-friendly league. Laws of probability would say that he won’t maintain the level he attained this past season, yet to see such a significant change in his performance, it is obvious Jackson has made some adjustments that will work for him in 2012, and I expect to see him performing in the same neighborhood as he did this past season.

If he can maintain at or near an 8.0 K/9 and a WHIP around 1.10, you’ll see him move quickly on up through the system. He’s got the frame, so if he can fill out some more without sacrificing any of his stuff, Jackson could at best be a mid-to-back of the rotation starter, and at worst, he could be a long reliever. He relies on a fastball, sinker, curve, slider, and circle change–a wide array of options, which can create havoc for opposing hitters.

2012 will be a pivotal season for Jackson. Another strong run of stats like he put up in 2011 will quickly earn him a place on the prospect lists which, given the status of San Diego’s system, is really saying something.