The Tigers’ Austin Jackson had an impressive rookie season in 2010. He hit .293, stole 27 bases, and scored 103 runs while playing strong defense. For a follow up his effort receded to .249, 22 and 90 in 2011. Jackson not only reclaimed his ’10 glory in 2012, but he blew past that effort (save for a drastic dip in steals). Where are we now that we have three years of data to look at with the fleet of foot center fielder?
In 2012 Jackson hit a career best .300. He hit 16 homers after hitting 14 the first two years. He knocked in a career best 65 runs, 21 more than in either of his first two seasons. He scored 103 runs to tie his rookie mark. He also hit double-digit triples for the third straight year and substantially boosted his OBP (.377 compared to .331 his first two years) and SLG (.479 compared to .387 his first two years). How did all this good come about?
Any time I see a guy’s batting average spike I look at his plate discipline, his BABIP and his line drive rate. I see some interesting things with Jackson. Here are his three year numbers in each category.
2010: 0.28 BB/K, .396 BABIP, 24.2 line drive rate
2011: 0.31 BB/K, .340 BABIP, 16.8 line drive rate
2012: 0.50 BB/K, .371 BABIP, 23.8 line drive rate
First off, the significant growth he flashed in the BB/K ratio in his third year is huge. Year three saw Jackson walk more than ever before while at the same time striking out fewer than in either of his first two seasons. It’s acceptable for a 20 homer hitter to strikeout out in more than quarter of his at-bats (his 2012 mark was 21.7 percent), but it’s pretty tough to justify that when a batter is averaging 10 homers through three seasons. At least he’s slightly better than the big league average now. Let’s hope he can sustain that and his encore effort doesn’t see that number spike.
Second, look that BABIP. Wow is right. Jackson led baseball in 2010 and I predicted his batting average would fall in 2011 (see how eerily accurate my predictions were in Second Year Players). In 2011 his BABIP regressed substantially but it was still a dominating number (one that ranked him 19th in baseball). That’s still pretty damn good is it not? In 2012 Jackson split the difference of his first two seasons, in fact his .371 BABIP was one point above his career average through three seasons. Where did that .371 BABIP place him in 2012? How about fifth in baseball. So here is the pertinent question. Is his .370 career mark a sustainable pace? History says no. One of the five greatest hitters of all-time, Ty Cobb‘s career number is .378. Jackson is obviously no Cobb. A more modern comparison might be Ichiro Suzuki whose career BABIP is .347. I’m not saying it’s impossible for Jackson to do what he has done in two of his three seasons. I’m merely pointing out that no one does this. No one. Odds are strong that Jackson’s “down” 2011 is more likely to be the norm moving forward. Can his growth at the plate, more walks and less strikeouts, help him to maintain a near .300 batting average if his BABIP is merely historic and not otherworldly? Something to think about.
Jackson hit 16 homers last season after going deep 14 times his first two seasons. Why the growth an is it sustainable? Watching Jackson play it’s hard not to be impressed by his talent. There are also plenty of baseball people that thought Jackson could be a 20 homer guy at some point in his career. Therefore, I’m inclined to say last years growth was legit. Against that belief though is that the numbers don’t support it. Jackson hit 34 percent of his batted balls into the air. That’s just slightly above his career 32.3 percent mark and still below the league average fly ball rate (36 percent or so). So if he didn’t jack the ball into the air he must have jumped that HR/F ratio then. That it did. Jackson’s first two seasons saw him post marks of 3.3 and 6.9 percent. Add those together and you get 10.2 percent. In 2012 his HR/F ratio was 11.4 percent. The raw number isn’t huge, the league average is usually in the 9-10 percent range, but the guy doubled his career rate, and that’s not something I can categorically say he will do yet again in 2013 (by that I mean hold on tot the 11.4 percent rate). I’m leaning more toward saying the power is legit than arguing against it, but I’m not 100 percent sold yet.
All of the good we’ve been discussing helps to alleviate some of the concern with Jackson’s steal total. After 49 thefts his first two seasons, seasons of 27 and 22, Jackson’s steal total was cut in half down to 12. Not just that, after being caught only 11 times his first two seasons he was caught nine times in 2012. So not only was his steal total was cut in half while his caught stealing rate doubled. That’s not something that anyone wants to see. There’s no reason at all to think that Jackson can’t return to the 20 steal level in 2013, but just like his homer total, I’m not ready to call it a lock given his struggles last season.
Jackson doesn’t have the power or speed to be an elite fantasy performer. That said, his overall game is extremely impressive. Fueled by growth in his plate discipline, Jackson is coming off his best season in year three. Could year four see him rise to even further heights of glory? Certainly, but as I’ve noted a couple of times, I don’t consider his ascension to an even higher plane in 2013 to be a lock.
By Ray Flowers