The Book on Austin Jackson

Starting today and carrying on indefinitely, we’ll be posting a series on the Detroit Tigers known as “The Book on…” This series will combine a lot of different types of analysis to give a comprehensive overview on a given player. 

This is essentially our way of profiling Tigers players and should give you a background on what to expect from a given member of the squad. Each piece will draw on my own observations, statistical data, and information I’ve gleaned listening to scouts and commentators whose opinions I trust on the matter.

I thought I’d start with Austin Jackson because he deserves more credit than he got in the MVP vote last night (i.e. more than none) and he’s also the Tigers leadoff hitter. Without further ado…

What People Think:

Austin Jackson was certainly a well thought of prospect in the Yankees system when he was traded to Detroit after the 2009 season, but there was always some debate about just how good he would be.

The sense in around the league is that he’ll grow into his power and the 16 homeruns he hit in 2012 were the norm and not an aberration. His defense is widely respected even if he gets poor marks for never diving and most seemed to really like the new batting stance he unveiled in 2012.

Generally speaking, I think the conventional wisdom on Jackson is that he’s a solid regular with some shot at becoming an occasional All-Star.

What the Numbers Say:

Jackson’s spent three seasons in the majors and he’s walked more and more every season and in 2012, his strikeouts fell substantially. It appears as if his plate discipline is improving, which is almost always a good indicator that a player will be successful.

He’s also hit for more power every year and has shown the ability to maintain a high BABIP. The baserunning numbers appear to be getting worse, but I think that could be a function of him becoming a better hitter, meaning he doesn’t need to add as much value with his legs. It also seems as if the Tigers are staying away from the stolen base as an organization, so Jackson’s speed is rarely on display.

On defense, the metrics like him, but they probably don’t like him as much as the naked eye does. The measures are imperfect, but they all say he’s above average to great.

On the whole, if you look at his statistical profile, Jackson appears to be heading into his peak after a 5.5 WAR season in 2012.

What My Eyes Tell Me:

I will admit that I was very skeptical of trading for Jackson at the time. It felt like a salary dump that didn’t make the team better, but it’s actually turned out to be a shrewd move.

I saw Jackson play in the minors once in 2009 while he was hitting third for the SWB Yankees and I can’t say I was tremendously impressed. Granted, it was four at bats and a couple chances in the field, but nothing about him jumped out at me. I had heard the buzz from the scouting community and Yankees fans, but I hadn’t really seen much to excite me.

The minor league numbers were there to predict this, but I didn’t really see it at the time. Perhaps I was blinded by fury at the Granderson deal (Love you, Curtis!).

At any rate, Jackson has delivered on his promise. He put up solid numbers in his rookie season, but I still was not impressed in the way that I am now. He was a high BABIP guy who struckout a lot. His range in the outfield was good, but I didn’t think his reads or arm were that good and he never dove.

I expected a decline in 2011 and made it one of my The Guy Show predictions before the season. I nailed it, but not for the right reasons. He regressed in 2011, but it wasn’t for good. I thought it was for good. I believed he’d settle in as a .260 type hitter who struckout too much and walked too little. I thought he’d be a 10 HR guy with 20 SB and respectable defense.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s a useful MLB player, but it wasn’t enough to fill the Granderson void who was having a 40 HR season at the time.

Then he went to work after the 2011 season and came to spring training in 2012 ready to break out.

He changed his swing, getting rid of the leg kick, and the strikeouts came down. He added power to his stroke and walked a lot more. He stole fewer bases, but he didn’t need to. He was one of the better offensive pieces in the game for most of the first half and certainly led the Tigers offense until Cabrera’s midseason charge.

Jackson’s injury during late May was a big drag on the club and he really got the team going when he came back. It’s very clear his success at the top of the order contributed in a big way to their strong season.

I also think his defense has gotten a lot better, even if everyone loved it before. The little things are improving a lot, as you would expect them to. The range is still excellent, but the reads are better too. His arm is still just okay in my book, but he can unleash some great throws every now and then.

He still won’t dive, except for that one time this season, but hopefully that will come now that he’s got a mentor in Torii Hunter flanking him in RF.

My favorite thing about Jackson is that I can always tell when he’s going to catch the ball from the moment it’s hit. You can tell by the way he moves. If he’s not running top speed, he’ll catch it. It’s comforting for a fan to see someone and know the ball’s going to land in his glove.

All in all, I’m now on board with Jackson as a potential All-Star. He should have easily made the team this year, but got bounced because Ron Washington is silly. Jackson had an awesome 2012 and I think he’ll repeat it and maybe get better. He could be a 4.0-5.0 win player for years to come and maybe have a 6.0 win season in him in the next couple years. I think Hunter will be a big help and we could really see Jackson mature into a top flight all-around player.

The Dotted Line:

Everyone loves contract speculation, so I will have to oblige. Jackson will be arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, so he’s due a raise for the first time. MLB Trade Rumors projects he’ll make $3.1 million in 2013, but the Tigers never actually go through the arbitration process, so it’s an inexact science.

He’s a good candidate for a contract extension and it’s something I think the Tigers would like to explore, but they have pressing concerns on different fronts. Jackson is under control through 2015, and Verlander, Scherzer, and Porcello come due after 2014 so they may take precedent this offseason.

If the Tigers explored a contract extension with Jackson, I think something like 5 years, $54 million would make sense. $4m in 2013, $6m in 2014, $10m in 2015, $12m in 2016-17. That buys out his remaining arbitration years and two free agent seasons, which accounts for his ages 26-30 seasons, also known as a player’s prime.

If Jackson is willing to sign for anything less, I’d pull the trigger today.

Fantasy-land:

For those of you who play fantasy baseball, Jackson is a good bet, but don’t go crazy. In a standard league (BA/R/HR/RBI/SB), he’ll help in average, runs, and give a decent showing in homeruns, but the RBI will be low and the steals don’t look to ever get above 20. A lot of his value is tied to his walks and defense, so he’s worth less in fantasy-land than he is in the real world.

That said, he’s a good player to have behind your stars because he gives you at least something in every category.

The Lead:

This section is buried ironically, but it’s the basic summation of all the information presented above. Austin Jackson is a talented player heading into his prime and I think he’s got a lot of good baseball ahead of him. He’s a good target for a contract extension and he’s a nice piece of a winning fantasy baseball team.

Jackson was one of the top players in baseball in 2012 and doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

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