Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | May 2, 2010

A Month into the Austin Jackson Era

This post originally began as the first bullet point to a multi-point post about observations on the Tigers during the first month of the season, similar to my last post about the league as a whole.  However, this first bullet point grew to be so lengthy that I made the decision to make it its own standalone post, to be supplemented in the near future with a multi-point post on the Tigers opening month:

Leading up to this season I expressed mild skepticism regarding Jackson, skepticism that still exists though in a smaller quantity.  His profile was that of a toolsy player whose performance at the plate had not yet lived up to his hype.  While there were mixed reviews of his defense that seemed to center around him being “average”, his offense looked good-not-great with a few holes to his game.  While scouts claimed he would do better, the performance hadn’t matched.   This led to my general feeling that he would be a liability to the team in the short term (2010) that may become a contributor in coming years.

Through one month, it appears that either the reports on his defense dramatically underrated his abilities, his defense has improved tremendously over the off-season, or he’s simply had a good month and he isn’t this good.  I lean towards believing either option one or option two.  He has played outstanding Center Field defense and has been an upgrade over Curtis Granderson in this regard, thus far.  He has played absolutely outstanding defense to date.

With regard to his offense, it appears that he will be ready to be a contributor much more quickly than I originally believed, and may even end up becoming a true-talent asset.  He’s definitely been an asset through the first month of the season, leading the American League in hits (37) and posting a wRC+ of 151.  His .402 wOBA is third on the Tigers and tenth in the American League.    This encouraging level of play indicates that he certainly can perform at the Major League level and may be a true talent contributing-caliber player already.   However, there are tremendous alarms and red flags with his current performance that suggest that a drop in his production is on the horizon unless he changes his current approach.

The greatest and most glaring of these alarms is his .514 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).  This is a ridiculously high number that indicates that Jackson has been the beneficiary of quite a bit of good fortune.  While hitters can control their BABIP to an extent that pitchers cannot, there is no hitter that can control it to the extent that .514 is sustainable.   Jackson leads all Major League hitters with a qualifying number of at-bats in BABIP by over 100 points.   The three highest totals in the Major Leagues over the last three years are .394 by David Wright (2009), .393 by B.J. Upton (2007), and .391 by Chone Figgins (2007).   If we were to adjust Jackson’s BABIP to .394 — The highest total in the Majors for the last three years — His batting average (currently .356) would drop to .269.   If we were to adjust it to .361, which was Jackson’s career minor league BABIP in over 2,000 plate appearances, his batting average would drop to .240.

The previous paragraph is not an exercise in diminishing his performance to date.  His batting average is .356, not .240, and he’s earned it.  It is an exercise in caution about being overly optimistic or laudatory in expectations of future performance.  If he doesn’t make an adjustment to change what he’s doing, his luck will run out.  And at the way his talent is currently hitting, the *best case* scenario would be for him to hit roughly .269 the rest of the way (which would put him at .285 for the season overall taking into account what he’s already done, a very respectable outcome for a rookie).  His high BABIP is driven primarily by his line drive rate, which currently sits at 37%.  A 37% line drive rate is a very good thing (and it shows in his results), but much like the .514 BABIP, it is not sustainable.   Again, in the last three seasons, the three best totals on line drives belong to Garrett Atkins (29% in 2007), Michael Young (28% in 2007), and Ryan Ludwick (28% in 2008), all figures well below Jackson’s current 37%.   In each of the last three seasons, MLB players as a whole have ranged between a .728-.734 batting average on line drives, so it’s easy to see how a high line drive rate would drive up the BABIP, the batting average, and thusly the overall performance.

In sum, Jackson’s (slightly) below average walk rate, modest-at-best power (.125 ISO), and extreme strikeout rate in concert with a thus-far-fortune-driven batting average presents an alarming situation for the immediate future if he doesn’t make adjustments at the plate now.   If the adjustments aren’t made, we may have already seen the best he has to offer for 2010.   That said, the fact that he was able to pound the ball with such authority for an entire month in the first place indicates that he was more Major League ready than I initially gave him credit for, and that he’s likely to be capable of making the necessary adjustments to turn himself into a true talent high average hitter in 2010 or 2011, as opposed to the late 2011/early 2012 expectation that I’d personally set as a fan.   While we should hold off on making too much of Jackson’s hot start, one conclusion that can certainly be drawn is that he definitely belongs in the big leagues as a starting caliber player.  I do not think that it is too early to draw that conclusion.

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Responses

  1. Hi, It’s interesting to me that Wright posted a .394 batting average in balls in play last season, an “off” year for him. Hate to think how bad his overall performance would have been if he hadn’t been so lucky.
    As far as Jackson is concerned, I wonder how he’ll fare over the course of the season, once pitchers start paying more attention to him and making adjustments in their pitch selections to him. I agree that he belongs in MLB, but you are right that it is too early to draw any definitive conclusions regarding his overall talent.
    Nice post, Bill (The On Deck Circle)

    • Hi Bill! With regard to Wright, most of the hullabaloo behind his down year was due to his lack of power. He had a career low in home runs (10….which is less than he hit in 2004, a partial season when he only played in 69 games) and slugging percentage (.447. His previous career low was .523). His batting average of .307 was actually higher than 2008 and one point below his career mark. His OBP of .390 was equal to the .390 he posted in ’08 and his career mark is also .390. Of course, as you pointed out, it took alot more good fortune for him to reach that .307 average and .390 OBP, to the tune of the most hits on balls in play of any player in the last three years. His career BABIP is .345.


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