Don’t Sleep On Austin Jackson

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Entering the year, I made the case that this was going to be a critical season for Austin Jackson. We know he can hack it in an MLB lineup but he’s been floating around between solid regular and star and how he performed in 2014 was going to tell us a lot about who he’s going to be. Jackson’s a good defender in center field, he’s a good baserunner, and he’s bounced around between good enough hitter and excellent hitter. We know what he is on the bases and in the field. His bat is the difference maker. We know this.

Jackson started hot, but cooled off to the point where he’s no longer setting the world on fire – yet there’s something really encouraging about an underlying factor you might not have noticed despite the cool down. First, let’s talk about his performance.

3/31 to 4/30 92 0.307 0.391 0.507 0.389 147
5/2 to present 55 0.216 0.255 0.255 0.230 37
Full 147 0.270 0.340 0.413 0.329 106

I don’t want to make too much of a 55 PA sample. Overall, Jackson is having a solid season and we’re measuring his offense at it’s lowest point. He’s walking as much as ever and he’s striking out way less than ever – more than 5 percentage points – before.

What’s also interesting is that Jackson is running the lowest BABIP of his career at .302. Jackson has been notorious for running high BABIPs in his time in the majors with a career mark in the .350s. Even if you are skeptical of that number, he’s definitely a guy who is capable of producing a higher than average BABIP. This year, he’s right about average. This is encouraging because some of those balls are going to start to fall. Not all of them, mind you, because Jackson is hitting more fly balls, but he should start grabbing a few extra hits.

It seems as if Jackson is adjusting his approach now that he’s been moved into the middle of the order. He’s trying to hit for more power and it was working big time for the first month. Of course he’s slumping now, but he won’t slump forever. Why? Jackson is developing a better eye.

Let’s dig a little deeper and consider his plate discipline numbers:

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
2010 28.6 % 61.9 % 46.1 % 67.9 % 84.3 % 79.5 %
2011 26.8 % 60.8 % 44.0 % 60.2 % 84.7 % 77.4 %
2012 25.3 % 57.1 % 41.9 % 63.8 % 87.2 % 80.4 %
2013 25.4 % 60.1 % 43.9 % 59.4 % 88.6 % 80.7 %
2014 20.5 % 60.1 % 40.9 % 63.3 % 93.1 % 85.8 %

I’ll call your attention specifically to O-Swing%. Jackson is swinging at far fewer pitches outside of the zone than he used to, and if you slide over to Z-Swing% you see that he’s not laying off pitches inside the zone to the same degree. He’s getting more selective, but he’s getting more selective against only those pitches which are outside the zone.

Extend this even further and you’ll notice he’s making more contact in and out of the zone to the point at which he’s running, by far, the highest Contact% of his career. The drop in strikeout rate is real. This isn’t random fluctuation, it’s a meaningful difference in his game. All else equal, a ball in play is going to be better than a strikeout for a player’s performance assuming that the contact isn’t negatively affecting the overall swing.

The question is if it will lead to a substantially better player. What we don’t know is if the change in LD/FB rates are connected to the new selectivity. If the two are connected, maybe it all comes out in the wash. If they are separate and Jackson is simply improving his eye independent of the various other changes in his swing and approach, it’s extremely good news.

Jackson’s real flaw was that he chased a lot of pitches, but if he’s not doing that anymore he’s going to age quite well. Plate discipline and power are old player skills and as Jackson starts to lose a step in center, he’s going to need his bat to step up. This new found ability to lay off bad pitches will help.

He’s going through two simultaneous adjustments. We have to watch both. Is the shift to more fly balls good or bad? Too soon to tell. Is it the result of new swing tendencies? Too soon to tell. Jackson is showing some real signs of maturity, at least I think he is. It’s possible that Jackson has changed his swing in a way that encourages more contact, but weaker contact. You’d rather have a guy smoke the ball 80% of the time than hit it softly 85% of the time and we haven’t had enough time to sort that out.

As the Tigers move forward, they’re going to have to make a decision about Jackson’s future. He’s a free agent after 2015 and they don’t have an obvious replacement going forward. Even at his worst, he’s an MLB starter. The question is if Jackson might yet be a star. The tools are there and the eye is getting better. It’s not clear if that’s an overall positive, but the evolution is worth watching.


One response

  1. Stephen Pershing | Reply

    Very interesting analysis. What I find curious though are the results (so far). Jackson’s walk rate is up from last year and his strike out rate is down (substantially) from last year, but his OBP and SLG are still really close to what they were. It will be interesting to see where he is at the All Star Break.

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