After acquiring Austin Jackson from the Yankees last winter, the Tigers wasted no time in testing their new center fielder. Even with Johnny Damon, a career leadoff hitter, on the roster, Jim Leyland still wrote Jackson’s name in the lineup’s top spot. So far he has flourished in the role, posting a .372 wOBA, which is identical to his OBP. That is largely based on his .316 batting average, though his 8.1 percent walk rate is far from horrible. Even with his hot start, though, Jackson clearly has to make adjustments if he’s to sustain his success.
Steve Goldman and Rob Neyer discussed Jackson recently, noting the obvious: no one can sustain a .520 BABIP and a 31.9 percent line drive rate. As the latter falls back into a normal range so will the former. This hurts a player like Jackson even more, because he strikes out at a tremendous rate. In his 86 plate appearances to date he has struck out 32 times, or in 38.6 percent of his PA. We can expect that number to decline, too. But will it be to an extent that it can keep up with his declining BABIP?
At his current strikeout rate, Jackson would break Mark Reynolds‘s single-season strikeout record, 223, in just 600 PA. Yet, because he bats leadoff, Jackson would have far more plate appearances during a full season. If he played 150 games at his current rate of 4.77 PA/game, he’d come to the plate 717 times. That would amount to 272 strikeouts, 49 more than the record Reynolds set last year. Of course, if Jackson continues to strike out at his current clip, chances are he won’t be long for the leadoff spot. Even at 650 PA, though, Jackson would still walk back to the dugout 247 times.
In AAA last year Jackson struck out in 24.4 percent of his plate appearances. Even if Jackson reduces his strikeout rate to that level he’d still swing and miss at strike three 175 times in 717 PA. That would represent the 29th most strikeouts in a season ever, a tie with Jay Buhner, Jose Canseco, Rob Deer, Dave Nicholson, and Gorman Thomas. As you might recognize, at least from the first three names, those guys hit for power. Jackson does not.
Jackson’s power peaked at advanced-A ball in 2007 where he posted a .221 ISO during his breakout second half. The next season, when he moved to AAA, his ISO declined to .135. During his 2009 season in AAA it barely cracked .100, sitting at .105. This year he has started the year hitting for a bit more power, a .145 ISO fueled by five doubles, two triples, and a home run. Even at that rate, though, Jackson still doesn’t hit for considerable power. Historically, this does not bode well for his future performance.
Only one player in baseball history has struck out 175 times in a season while producing an ISO of .150 or less. Jose Hernandez accomplished the feat in 2003 with just 571 PA. Jackson should not look at Hernandez as a role model of any type. In addition to his puny ISO, Hernandez posted a minuscule .287 OBP that season. For Jackson, a guy who hits leadoff, that’s unthinkable. Even if we make an adjustment and look for players who have struck out in 24 percent or more of their PA (minimum 500) with an ISO of under .150, we get only 16 names. Of those, only three — Ben Grieve in 2001, Rick Monday in 1968, and Rich Becker in 1997 — posted an OBP of .350 or better.
If the voting took place today, Jackson would be the obvious choice for AL Rookie of the Year. If he continues adapting to the majors, he could end the year in the same spot. The way he’s currently going, though, will not suffice. He has hit far more line drives than any player can sustain during a full season, and currently boasts the best BABIP in baseball by nearly .070. Even at his ridiculous .384 BABIP from last year, Jackson would show greatly different numbers. His batting average, for instance, would fall to .241. Who knows what type of effect it would have on his power numbers?
The Tigers have to be happy with the production they’ve received so far from Jackson’s hot bat, but the way he’s currently going it would be foolish to expect his run to continue. This isn’t to say he can’t adjust. He certainly can, as he showed during his minor league career. Part of that is striking out less often as fewer of the balls he puts in play drop for hits. It’s not an easy adjustment, but it’s one Jackson will need to make as we get deeper into 2010.
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