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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.

Date PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
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.

Austin Jackson’s Southpaw Problem

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Austin Jackson is a pretty great baseball player. He’s not Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout great, but he does a lot of things well. He’s averaged 3.4 WAR (what’s WAR?) per 600 plate appearances and has been as high as 5.2 in a season and never lower than 2.4. He plays excellent center field, runs the bases well and is something better than league average at the plate before you consider his position.

But unless you’re Austin Jackson’s mother or his dog, you don’t think he’s perfect. He used to strikeout a lot and he improved in that department and now just strikes out a bit more than average. If you look across the stat line, he’s a pretty good all-around player. If you look inside the numbers, there’s a very strange split developing this season. Let’s take a look:

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Remember that Austin Jackson hits right-handed. In his rookie season, he displayed a dramatic reverse platoon split. In 2011, it was a small and normal split. In 2012, it didn’t exist. In 2013, it’s back to being a crazy-big reverse platoon split. What’s going on here?

Let’s forget that 2010 happened, not because it didn’t, but because four years is a long time and it’s pretty likely that Jackson has grown as a player and isn’t the same hitter he was back then. Let’s just look at 2012 and 2013 in order to look for differences. What moved Jackson to struggle so much against southpaws this year?

First some basics:

Split PA
2012 v R 432
2012 v L 185
2013 v R 375
2013 v L 167

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So first, the plate appearance distribution isn’t funky and he’s walking less against righties this year. Strikeouts are remarkably consistent. When you drop down to the second figure you can see how similar his production was across the board in 2012 and how different it is in 2013. If you notice the purple column, you’ll recognize that this issue is BABIP driven. So now the question is if this is luck or a problem?

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You’ll notice a fairly even split in batted ball data in 2012 and in 2013 we see a drop off in line drives against lefties in favor of fly balls. So, Austin Jackson is hitting the ball in the air more often in against lefties in 2013 – and hitting fly balls instead of line drives will drop your BABIP. And a lower BABIP will hurt your production. Therefore, this is a real thing. What’s behind it?

If we hop over to Brooks Baseball, we can derive an interesting lesson. I won’t present all of the numbers because there are too many, but I’ll pull out the relevant data. First, he’s hitting fastballs and sinkers in the air more often this year against lefties and he’s putting a lot fewer sliders in play. And when he puts those sliders in play, they are all on the ground. He also hasn’t hit a single homerun on a fourseam, sinker, or slider against lefties this year.

So he’s putting more fastballs in play and he’s putting them in the air without leaving the yard and he’s putting fewer sliders in play and they’re all on the ground. That’s not a good combination.

To me, it says his timing is off and he’s out in front. If you’re out in front on a fastball, you’ll hit it in the air. If you’re out in front on a slider breaking toward you’re more likely to hit it into the ground. If you run a query for LHP throwing sliders to Austin Jackson that he hit on the ground – most are down and in. I’m not a master of GIFs, so I can’t show you clips or anything, but it will be something I’m looking for as the season winds down.

Jackson famously lost his big leg kick last year so it’s not outrageous to think some little mechanical issue could be messing with his ability to turn fastballs around rather than hit them in the air and the same mechanical issue could be getting him to roll over some sliders and swing through others. Hitting is about timing and pitching is about interrupting timing.

Jackson doesn’t seem to be having much of an issue with righties and it should be easier to pick up pitchers from lefites, so it seems logical that there’s something about lefties this year that he’s miss-timing. When you’re dealing with fewer than 200 PA against southpaws, you only need a few fly balls to turn into line drive hits for this to even out. Jackson needs to be better against lefties, but there’s also no reason to think he can’t be better against them.

He hit them last year with no problem and if he had a serious problem with his health or swing it would show up against righties. I’m not worried about him long term. This looks like a short term issue that he will have the ability to correct with a little bit of work. He’s having a good season overall and has hit well over the last 30 days (.311/.393/.443) so this isn’t some terribly detrimental problem that’s ruining the Tigers. It just catches your eye because it’s surprising that a player this good would have such a funky platoon split, but he does. Now why have some understanding of why that might be the case.

Should We Worry About Jackson?

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In an all-around sense, Austin Jackson is an excellent baseball player. He’s well above average in the field no matter what statistic you look at or if you’re just a person with eyes and he’s also very good on the bases. His offense will be the difference between solid-starter and perennial all-star, so it will be the subject of this post.

The origin of the analysis comes from a Tweet sent out challenging the author:

While Cam and I are friends and he’s an occasional guest on New English D Audio, he’s hit on my role in the Tigers blogging community. Apparently, I’m the guy who finds out what’s wrong with players and tells you if you should worry or not. That’s fine, I’m on board. So first, is anything wrong with Jackson?

He’s on pace for something like a 3.5 WAR (what’s WAR?) season, which is very good, but it’s not quite like the  5.2 mark he posted a year ago. As I said before, the defense and baserunning are in line with his normal production, so it’s all about the bat (once we’ve corrected for his DL time).

Let’s start with some simple season by season comparisons of his AVG, OBP, and SLG and then we’ll use wRC+ (what’s wRC+?) to compare him to league average. Remember 100 is average and every point above or below is that percent better or worse than average.

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So the basic story is pretty clear. In the context of 2012, this year looks bad. In the context of the rest of his career it looks fine. Is he around average or is he a star? That’s our basic question. He’s been a very high BABIP guy (what’s BABIP?) in his entire career and these overall numbers trend along with BABIP.

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So the issue with Jackson is that he’s hitting below his established BABIP. Now BABIP is a pretty fluky stat in small samples, but line drive hitters are usually above average in this department and he has always been a guy who maintains a big number. He’s closer to average (about .300) this year than ever before. Is that to blame and is that his fault?

Let’s consider this season in particular because I think it’s interesting. I don’t think it’s been all bad, I think we’re looking at a slump of some kind. Let’s check out his monthly splits. Remember he has fewer May and June PAs because of the injury:

pic12He hit well in April, struggled a little in May before the DL stint, played well at the end of June and hasn’t been great at all in July and August. Since July 1st, he’s hitting .215/.257/.356 (.280 BABIP). That’s not very good. Before July 1, he was .290/.374/.401 (.348 BABIP), which is very good for a CF, especially one who plays the rest of the game so well.

So the question is this. Is the first half Jackson the real one or is the second half Jackson the real one? Or is it the combination of the two?

My take is this. Jackson is a high BABIP guy who gets a lot of his value from getting more hits on balls in play than most, so he is susceptible to slumps based on luck. And sometimes those things snowball. I think he’s a good hitter, who will occasionally have these struggles. Let’s take a look at the batted ball data:

pic13So keep in mind the varying sample sizes. Look at April and July most carefully. He’s hitting the ball in the air instead of hitting in on the ground and on a line. Remember what I said about BABIP and line drive hitters. Jackson will be more successful when he hits line drives and ground balls, so this correlates perfectly with the results. Jackson is performing worse because his BABIP is lower which is lower because he’s hitting the ball in the air more often. This is pretty straightforward, so now the question is if this is something Jackson is doing differently or if it’s just random noise that will correct itself.

I will point out that some of this is strikeouts, but not all of it. He was a 17.8% K guy in April-June and has been a 27.4% K guy since. But BABIP is only about balls in play. I’ve looked at the swing charts between the two periods and I don’t see a huge difference. If you look a spray charts, you see something of a difference:

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He’s hitting fewer balls to the middle of the field and is using left and right more often since July 1. Remember the sample size is different, but the void up the middle is clear. Jackson is striking out more, but he was well below his career average entering July so you had so expect some change. As for the balls in play, it looks like he’s hitting the ball in the air too much and not back up the middle as much. To me, this is just an approach thing that needs a little work.

Jackson has the contact and pitch recognition skills to square up a ball, he’s just not doing it right now. With a little work with the hitting coaches, he should be able to get himself back on track. His swing can get long at times, and I think that’s all this is. Baseball players will go in and out of this kind of thing.

To me, it doesn’t look like this is basic random variation. I think there is something a little off with his approach, but it doesn’t look like something he can’t fix. We’ve seen him come out of stretches like this without a problem. Despite the streak, he’s still a league average hitter and an above average everything else.

Jackson is slumping a little, but nothing that can’t be fixed.

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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