Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | September 9, 2010

Austin Jackson’s Unusual March Towards History

Earlier in this season I wrote a piece about Austin Jackson and his prospects for the remainder of the season, during which I cautioned against undue optimism on account of his unsustainably high Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) of .514. I argued that he would need to make some adjustments in advance of the time when the number eventually fell into the more normal range for Major League players, otherwise his batting average — And along with it his On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentages — Would plummet into a region that would be unacceptable for a starting player in the Major Leagues.

I made the declaration based on an assumption that was more than reasonable: That Jackson would regress to a level of performance more typical of an average Major League player. The one thing that I did not count on was the possibility of Jackson maintaining what was very close to a historic pace — A pace that sets him apart from any other Major Leaguer in the last 85 years.

Entering play today Jackson’s BABIP sits at .415. The Tigers are playing right now and thus far Jackson has struck out four times and walked once, meaning that the number remains .415 because he has yet to put a ball in play. In my prior article on the matter I noted that no player in the last three years has posted a BABIP higher than .394, which David Wright did last season. Today I dug a little deeper and decided to see when a player last posted one above .410. The answer was so far in the past that I extended the research to simply looking at all players who have posted a BABIP at or above .400 since 1900. The results showed that Jackson generally has played his way into a rarified air — Assuming he maintains this pace through the end of the year. While there is still alot of time for that number to fall below .410, it seems that it would take a total collapse at this point for it to fall below .400.

Since 1900, only fourteen players (not including Jackson) have posted a BABIP at or over .400 in a season where they had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Those 14 players have done it a combined total of 21 times, with Ty Cobb (6), Rogers Hornsby (2), and George Sisler (2) being the only three players to have ever done it more than once. Of those fourteen players, twelve either are in the Hall of Fame, will be in the Hall of Fame after they retire, or would be in the Hall of Fame if they weren’t barred from being in it. None of those fourteen players achieved the feat as a rookie. Digging even deeper than that, of these twenty-one times that the .400 BABIP mark has been topped, only six of them have happened since 1930. It last happened in 2002.

That is just for .400. When you raise the threshold to .410, it becomes even rarer of a feat. .410 has only been reached eight times before by six different players. Ty Cobb (3) is the only player to have done it more than once. All six players who have done it are in the Hall of Fame. The last time a player posted a BABIP of .410 or greater was in 1924 — Eighty-six years ago.

This is what the list of players looks like, along with what each player did with the balls they didn’t put in play. In bold are the players who achieved the feat from 1930-on:

BABIP

Name

Year

BA

HR

K

BB

.423

Babe Ruth

1923

.393

41

93

170

.422

George Sisler

1922

.420

8

14

49

.422

Rogers Hornsby

1924

.424

25

32

89

.416

Ty Cobb

1922

.401

4

24

55

.415

Ty Cobb

1913

.390

4

31

58

.415

Austin Jackson

2010

.305

3

145

42

.414

Harry Heilmann

1923

.403

18

40

74

.412

Ty Cobb

1911

.420

8

 

44

.411

Nap Lajoie

1901

.426

14

 

24

.409

Rogers Hornsby

1921

.397

21

48

60

.408

Rod Carew

1977

.388

14

40

64

.404

Jose Hernandez

2002

.288

24

188

52

.403

Roberto Clemente

1967

.357

23

103

41

.403

Manny Ramirez

2000

.351

38

117

86

.401

Joe Jackson

1911

.408

7

 

56

.401

Ty Cobb

1912

.409

7

 

43

.401

Ty Cobb

1919

.384

1

22

38

.401

George Sisler

1920

.407

19

19

46

.400

Heinie Zimmerman

1912

.372

14

60

38

.400

Ty Cobb

1917

.383

6

34

61

.400

Bill Terry

1930

.401

23

33

57

.400

Luke Appling

1936

.388

6

25

85

 

 

Note that the chart was made before today’s game began. Jackson now has 149 strikeouts and 43 walks.

What does it mean from the standpoint of being a laudable achievement? Well, it certainly has some form of meaning. Most of the guys on that list are bonafide Hall-of-Famers. As a statistic BABIP is most frequently used almost as a form of litmus test to see if a player’s numbers are “for real”. While it is something of a misnomer to say that it “measures” luck, it often is a form presentation of the role luck plays in getting hits. This is more often the case with pitchers, who in all but the rarest of cases have no control over their BABIP’s. Hitters have been shown to have far more control over it, but there is still a large degree of luck involved in hitting the ball to where the fielders can’t field, and so it retains some of the same function of “measuring luck” even when applied to hitters. Generally you’ll find line drive hitters and speedy players near the top of the BABIP lists because those are skills (not luck) that heavily influence a hitter’s BABIP (the league batting average on line drives is consistently over .700) and Jackson has alot of both. It also can be influenced by hitting alot of home runs (which are not balls in play), getting alot of walks (ditto), and/or getting alot of strikeouts (ditto again). All things considered, when you can play an entire season and keep it over .400, it certainly runs well past the point where it is TOTALLY the dominion of luck and it should be lauded as a truly rare achievement.

What does it mean from the standpoint of evaluating Jackson the player? That part is considerably more tricky. Due to the fact that he is a rookie and has no previous Major League track record upon which to potentially glean conclusions, there is still a great deal of guesswork to be done with him. Is Jackson the type of player that will consistently run high BABIPs? It would seem so. He has the skill set (speed, line drive hitting, and a propensity for strikeouts, as mentioned earlier) and his career BABIP as a minor leaguer was .361. However, even a number as high as .361 — And that is really high — Is still 54 points below what he’s doing right now. If his current BABIP were .361 then his batting average would be .266, which is 39 points lower than where it currently sits. Given his below league average walk rate of 7.2% and below league average ISO of .109, if he were hitting .266 for the Tigers this year he would be a considerably less valuable player than he is at the moment. So the question really isn’t whether or not Jackson will continue to run high BABIPs, because the answer almost certainly will be yes. The question is if he can continue to run absurdly high (.390+) BABIPs. Even if we acknowledge that much of what has him on this historic pace is indeed skill, it seems to be a large leap of faith to believe that he will become the fourth player in the history of the Major Leagues to repeat a .400+ BABIP and the first to do so since the 20s. Then again, it seemed in early May to be a large leap of faith to believe that he would maintain an astronomical BABIP all season long and thus far he has done so, so anything is theoretically possible.

More likely the case is that he is simply having a special year. In the off-season he will have to improve both on his power numbers and his walk rate in order to become a player similarly as valuable to the Tigers as he has been this year. This may not be as difficult of a task as it sounds. Jackson was a prospect with a high pedigree and there is always reason to choose the more optimistic route with such players. He also has shown that he has skills that can already play in the Major Leagues — That he belongs — And therefore it is easy to believe that he can make the necessary adjustments in his game. Finally, he is only 23 years old, fairly young for a Major League player. Usually for a player to make it into a starting role so young — Especially for a .485+ team as the Tigers appear destined to become — He’ll have the ability to improve, perhaps dramatically, in the coming years. If he comes back next year doing the same things he is this year, it is likely to produce different and most likely worse results. Many fans would perceive this as him taking a step backward when more likely it would simply be that he DIDN’T take a step forward.

One of the alarming things in the above chart is looking at the K/BB rates of the players on the list. Only four of them had a K/BB rate over 1, including both of the players who are NOT Hall of Famers — Heinie Zimmerman and Jose Hernandez. Hernandez’s 3.62 K/BB is the highest of any of the list, though Jackson currently sits at 3.47. It is also striking that everyone else on the list aside from Jackson and Hernandez had their batting averages over .350, while Jackson will struggle to stay over .300 and Hernandez ended at .288. It seems that the Hall of Fame caliber players — With the caveat that many of them played in a dramatically different era of baseball — Kept their K/BB rates low while posting their high BABIPs, while Jackson is more comparable to Jose Hernandez in this regard. For this reason, it may be necessary to hold the phone before getting too excited about the fact that Jackson is sharing the stage with some of the greats of the game.

Having said that, regardless of the reasons why, whether it is luck or skill, and whether his K/BB rate represents something of a reality or a mirage, the fact of the matter remains that with three weeks left in the baseball season Austin Jackson is on pace to achieve one feat that hasn’t been done in eight years (BABIP of .400+) and another that has been done in eighty-six years (BABIP of .410+) and seems almost certain to become just the fifteenth player and seventh in the last eighty years to post a BABIP of over .400. That is something to watch for over the final three weeks and an interesting below-the-surface story of this 2010 season.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. Great write up and analysis!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: