A very interesting idea was raised last week by Buster Olney. He wonders if at some point this year, Ryan Raburn can supplant Austin Jackson as the Tigers leadoff hitter since there are some talent evaluators who believe Jackson is still having trouble with pitch recognition and will eventually be dropped down in the lineup.
While I believe Jackson is going to have a good season, as you see here this post, it is completely based on the fact that he returns to his above average line drive percentage and subsequent high batting average on balls in play. His high strikeouts being a huge factor in his success, while certainly a concern, are somewhat of a misnomer. He can strikeout 26% of the time just as he has the last two seasons and find success if he avoids lifting the ball, which he has a track record of avoiding over his minor and major league career.
But given the fact that he doesn’t take a lot of pitches is why one questions his ability to hit leadoff. And his lack of ability to take pitches is a direct result of poor pitch recognition, i.e. chasing balls which fall out of the strike zone.
Jackson averaged 3.95 pitches per plate appearance last year, which was the second highest on the team next to Alex Avila (who may have been one of the most underrated hitters in baseball last year), and higher than league average, as you see in the table below.
Raburn was obviously just below Jackson in this regard so while you wouldn’t see a marked improvement in this area, you also wouldn’t see much of a drop off. Rayburn, however, struck out as much as Jackson did last year (27.3% to Jackson’s 27.1%) but Raburn also had a horrible year overall and one would assume he would improve that number, where Jackson has shown that his percentage is normal.
It brings us back to the first paragraph, where the distinction of “at some point this year” was included. Jackson has to fail, and probably fail miserably in order to be dropped in the batting order. His speed is what sets him apart, and he is not exactly horrible there, but he would have very little pressure, say batting ninth.
For Raburn to be successful there he would have to return to his 2009 form, where he got on base at a 34% clip. I doubt he would be able to do something like that. If you’re concerned about Jackson handling the pressure of leading off, what then would you suggest about Raburn when he began to struggle there? You’d attribute his struggling to batting leadoff.
I’m not sold that Jackson needs to move anywhere. He was the everyday leadoff hitter for a team that was one win away from a World Series appearance and if you want to suggest that if anyone else would have made a difference, you certainly didn’t pay attention last year at all.
It’s certainly a topic worth revisiting over the course of the season since it is based on current performances and certain players improving in their every day plate appearances, but for now, while Raburn is really the only option to replace him in house, it doesn’t seem like it would make much of a difference.