Austin Jackson turns 27 about two weeks before Spring Training begins in February and that’s significant because more players have their best season at 27 than at any other age. Austin Jackson has already turned in four solid to great big league seasons and macro level aging curves tell us that Jackson should be heading into his peak year. We might not see the best Jackson has to offer in 2014, but it’s worth considering exactly what kind of player he is two years ahead of free agency.
|162 Game Avg.||162||732||112||12||20||7||.278||.344||.416||.759||105|
Jackson had a strong rookie campaign before crashing back to Earth in 2011, but bounced back extremely well in 2012 as he was one of the top centerfielders in baseball. 2013 was a solid year, even if it did look disappointing next to the season that came before. Let’s go beyond the basic numbers.
Jackson was always criticized as a guy who had a high BABIP that couldn’t be sustained, but we’ve seen enough to know that he’s always going to be a high BABIP guy. You won’t see .390 on any sort of consistent basis, but .330-.350 seems entirely reasonable going forward based on his batted ball profile. He’s a terrific baserunner even if he didn’t steal a ton of bases in 2013 and he’s somewhere just better than average in centerfield defensively overall. All told, he’s contributed 14.6 WAR in four big league seasons.
Jackson is, at worst, a solid MLB regular or, at best, a potential superstar. You’re happy with either of those outcomes, but which do we think is more likely? Let’s consider his game in three dimensions.
The league average centerfielder hit .253/.324/.395 in 2013 with a 99 wRC+. Jackson hit .272/.337/.417 with a 107 wRC+. In his worst season, he hit 13% worse than league average and has been as good or better than league average in each of his other three seasons. Jackson probably isn’t the hitter he was in 2012, but even if we pull him toward his career averages, he grades out better than the average centerfielder at the plate.
Jackson has cut down on his strikeouts since his first two seasons and the power has picked up over the last two seasons as well. At his best, Jackson can be a dynamic force in the lineup, but also has a tendency to go through funks when his timing starts to drift at the plate. When he keeps his swing short, you start to dream about All-Star Games, when he doesn’t, you think he might need to head to the bottom third of the order.
Jackson clearly has the physical tools to succeed at the plate, but the key for him is to fine tune his approach and maintain consistent swing mechanics, which are two skills that shouldn’t decline as he ages. That means he should get better at the plate over the next couple of seasons, or at least not get worse too quickly.
Jackson probably figures as a player who will hit 10-15% better than league average in 2014, which makes him a valuable bat in center.
Jackson grades out as a tremendous baserunner. In two of his four big league seasons he’s been worth more than five runs on the bases with the other two seasons being close to average. He’s stolen fewer bases every year of his career, but even with only 8 steals in 2013 he added 5.8 runs with his legs.
He takes the extra base at an above average rate and seems to pick up steam as he rounds second on singles and doubles hit by his teammates. He doesn’t have the best basestealing instincts, but it’s also hard to judge simply because the Tigers have limited incentives to send runners given their impressive offense. Baserunning value peaks early, so we shouldn’t expect Jackson to get dramatically better, but it’s entirely reasonable to assume he’ll be worth 3-5 runs on the bases in 2014.
You got a chance to see Jackson’s DRS and UZR in the table above, but I also like to look at RZR, which simply measures the percentage of balls in his zone he turns into outs. Jackson’s career mark in CF is .939 which is solidly above average for that position.
People rave about Jackson in center, but his skills are somewhat divergent. His range is excellent and he’s a pretty good route runner, but his arm is definitely below average. Additionally, Jackson never dives and occasionally gets caught in between as a result and turns easy outs into hits. That is both frustrating and promising. If you can get Jackson to learn to dive or at least make better late route decisions, you might be able to improve his already stellar range.
It’s probably safe to count on Jackson for 5 runs above average in centerfield over each of the next two years..
Back of the envelope calculations put a player like we’ve just described somewhere in the 3-4 WAR range depending on how much he stays on the field. I think 600 PA is safe even if you expect him to miss two to four weeks with an injury and he’s likely to bring in something like five runs above average in each of the three dimensions of the game. Factor in position and replacement level and you’re looking at a 3-4 win player.
Jackson has shown the ability to play better in each of those dimensions, but if we’re being conservative, he’s probably more like an above average player than a great player. If you filter centerfielders by ages 23-26, Jackson ranks 51st all time in WAR, two wins behind Matt Kemp and 3.4 wins behind Carlos Beltran. I wouldn’t compare Jackson to those players for several reasons, but I don’t think it’s out of the question to suggest Jackson’s going to pick up $15 million per season in free agency if he keeps his performance on par with his career averages.
I suggested the Tigers could probably pick up five years of Jackson for $55 million last offseason and that number has likely stayed reasonably consistent because he’s added another year of service but also come down from his 2012 peak. The Tigers have more pressing contract needs, but now would be a good time to lock up their centerfield.
Jackson looks like he has a few more 3+ WAR seasons in him and a five year deal right now would buy out two arbitration years and three on the free agent market. Something like 5/$60M would be a good place to start before he has a chance to have another great year or salaries start to inflate.
In general, we’ve seen enough of Jackson to recognize that he’s one of those players who is above average everywhere and probably not a superstar anywhere. Those are vital pieces of a championship core and if fans have the right expectations, he’s should be a joy to watch roam center.