Austin Jackson is the Detroit Tigers center fielder. He has played regularly there on a daily basis since his arrival in Detroit in 2010 as a key member of one of the biggest trades in recent Detroit baseball history. That deal also saw Max Scherzer and Phil Coke join him in the motor city and it hasn’t worked out too poorly for any of them.
However you look at it, Jackson is a staple on this current roster and as Jim Leyland has been quoted many times, he is the key to the very potent 2012 offense.
As the Tigers leadoff hitter you can’t argue with that statement one bit. His style of play dictates what the rest of the lineup does whether you’d like to admit it or not. He is a very important player because of where he hits in the lineup.
The bottom line is this: Jackson is a 25 year old center fielder who can field as well, or better, than any other player in the league at that position. The Tigers are very fortunate to have his talent on the roster and whatever his shortcomings are, his positive play outweighs them.
What he needs to work on
The only real concern (and by real I mean, a very serious flaw) in Jackson’s game are his strikeouts. In his two full years in Detroit he has struck out 351 times in 1343 plate appearances. That’s a 26.1% clip. By contrast, Jose Reyes, arguably the best leadoff hitter in the game strikes out at a 10.5% clip, which is nearly 75% less than Jackson. Now, I’m not comparing the two players, as Reyes is one of the few true superstars in baseball, but his strikeout percentage is ideally what you’re looking for in a leadoff hitter. And that’s where Jackson bats. “Lead off”. Simply put, his place in the batting order is why his strikeouts are constantly criticized.
As an eighth or ninth place hitter he would be excellent. Speed at the bottom of the lineup, a great glove that is not expected to pace the offense. It’s not a knock on Jackson one bit. It would simply play to his strengths.
Sure, you’d like to see him steal more bases but with the Tiger’s history and current offense it’s hard to see him swiping higher than 30 (or needing too). Jim Leyland has said, even a week ago, that Jackson has the green light when it comes to stealing bases this year. I’m not sure what that means, as it’s quite silly to see him attempting many bases with Brennan Boesch, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Delmon Young batting behind him. Again, a reason he is an ideal candidate to hit 8th or 9th. The green light would be encouraged to an even greater point at this spot in the lineup in an effort to get the defense moving around the diamond. If he gets thrown out stealing, the next inning sees the offense turn over anyway.
What he needs to do to improve
His attempt to shorten his swing in order to shorten his strikeouts has been noted. We won’t be able to judge this until after the season (unless there is a major “swing” in his performance) but so far in 29 spring at bats he has struck out 14 times. By contrast, last spring, he struck out 17 times in 67 at bats, and in his first spring in Lakeland he struck out 11 times in 73 at bats. So, there are certainly already growing pains that he needs to corral before he finds himself in a deep hole in early May.
Another unique part of his game, is that he has a curiously high Batting Average on Balls in Play. Granted, he hits a ton of line drives and generally, hard line drives are base hits.
In 2010 his (BABIP) was an abnormal .396. His line drive rate that year was 24.2% (compared to a 48.4% ground ball rate and a 27.4% fly ball rate). In 2011 his line drive rate dropped to 16.8% (compared to a 47.1% ground ball rate and a 36.1% fly ball rate) because he started to get under the ball more. This directly affected his BABIP as it dropped from .396 to .340 (which is still extremely high compared to league average).
Jackson simply needs to focus on hitting line drives. Obviously that’s a billion times easier to write than to actually do, but when you look at his career stats and his minor league stats, there’s really no way around it. The guy is going to strikeout. A lot. What he needs to do is turn his attention to squaring up on the ball. He is a line drive hitter. A fundamental approach of see the ball hit the ball would work for him. His natural swing delivers base hits. He needs to focus on that, and his strikeouts will eventually start to fall away.
In a perfect world.
What he will do:
PECOTA sees Jackson with a .352 BABIP this season. They see the over on all these stats: 75 runs, 40 extra base hits, 65 runs batted in, 50 walks, 170 strikeouts, an on base percentage of at least .320 and a true average of at least .250. They see over 20 steals and a breakout potential of 4, which is the highest on the 25 man roster, save for Delmon Young (hmmmm….hhhhhhhmmmmmmmmm).
Personally, I believe in Austin Jackson.
I’ll be bold and say that he will score 100 runs and steal 30 bases. If he does those two things, I could care less about the number of strikeouts he has. Realistically, Jackson could be a 15-15-15-15 player. That’s doubles, triples, homers, and steals for those unawares. That’s pretty rare. He was 22-11-10-22 last year after being 34-10-4-27 the year before. If his line drives even out, I can see a few more of those pop fly balls straightening out and bouncing around left and right center field in Comerica. A couple more would clear the fence.
Heck, if the guy scored 100 runs and puts up a 20-15-15-30 line I’d be singing his praises for years to come. Of course, so would many other people, but you get the point. I think he’s got the talent and the intelligence to hone his skills. At 25 he could do it. But he also could do it in 2014.
We’ll check back in October and see where he stands.
Walkoff Woodward Bubblegum Card Prediction: