Austin Jackson No Longer Cares For Ks

Austin Jackson has a fairly well-documented history of frequent strikeouts. But every day, Jackson seems to be creating a new history. That’s because he’s decided to stop striking out.

After signing out of high school, Jackson spent five seasons in the minors. He worked his way into 40 games with Gulf Coast League Yankees as an 18-year-old, and struck out in a relatively unnoticeable 15.2% of his plate appearances. Since then, he has struck out in at least 19.3% of his plate appearances in each season. His aggregate K% in his 4,276 PA from 2006 to 2012 was 23%. At the major-league level, from 2010 to2012, it was 24.7% — a number that only 17 qualified players could “beat.” After striking out in 21.5% of his PAs from ’06 to ’09, Jackson reached the majors. His adjustment period was rough. His two worst years at the dish from a strikeout perspective were his first two in the majors, as he struck out 25.2% of the time in his rookie season, and 27.1% of the time in 2011.

Nobody seemed to mind in 2010, though, because Jackson’s .396 batting average on balls in play — which is still the seventh-highest BABIP for a qualified player since 1947 — papered over a lot of problems. But when his K rate escalated even further in 2011, that’s when Jackson took action. Last season, in addition to other improvements, Jackson cut his strikeout rate more than 5% — not an insignificant mark. This season, Jackson has lopped off another 14%, down to 7.5% as of this morning.

If Jackson is able to maintain this drop in his K rate, it would be a pretty rare accomplishment. Last season, Jackson became one of just 177 qualified players who have lopped 5% or more off their K rate from one season to the next (since 1955). It’s not an easy thing to do. Those 177 players turned the trick 195 times. Fifteen of them did it at least twice, but most of those repeat performances don’t represent true progress. For instance, from 1987 to 1988, Paul Molitor lowered his K% from 14.4% to 8.9%. And from 1997 to 1998, he lowered his K% from 13.6% to 8.2%. That’s not what we’re potentially talking about with Jackson this season: We’re talking about a player lowering his K% by 5% or more in consecutive seasons. Since 1955, here’s the list of players who have done that (min. 500 PA per season):

Player Age Years Yr 1 Yr 2 Yr 3 Total Drop
Delino DeShields 22-24 1991-1993 26.8% 20.4% 13.3% 13.5%
Dick Allen 27-29 1969-1971 32.9% 25.7% 20.6% 12.3%
Frank Howard 30-32 1967-1969 29.9% 23.6% 16.2% 13.7%

That’s a pretty short list, and it doesn’t feature players who played recently. In addition, at this moment, Jackson would be crushing them. With his K% down to 7.5%, he’s nearly 20% down from where he was in 2011. If he maintains this pace, he’ll be basically be in uncharted territory.

And while it is still early, plate-discipline stats are among the quickest to stabilize. Swing percentage stabilizes around 50 PA, and contact rate between 70 and 100 PA. Jackson is one game shy of 70 PA right now, so the contact that Jackson is making may hold for the rest of the season. K-rate takes a little longer (150 PA), so it will still be some time before we can be super confident in Jackson’s newfound ability to avoid the strikeout. But if Jackson can maintain his contact rate, he’ll be setting himself up for success, at the least.

Still, this seems too good to be true. Right now, Jackson is only swinging and missing 2.7% of the time, a number that would put him in the top 20 since 2002 (which is as far back as we have that data). Ditto with his 92.3% contact rate. Certainly though, the markers are moving in his favor: Jackson is swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone, and at more pitches inside the strike zone, while keeping his swing percentage right in line with his career averages. That’s a recipe for success, and success is absolutely what he’s having right now.

Even if he does regress from where he is now, he is still in rarefied air. He has a great chance to be the fourth name on the above-mentioned list, and he also stands a good chance to join Mark Belanger (1968 to 1969), David Ortiz ( 2010 to 2011), Jimmy Wynn (1969 to 1970), Jason Thompson (1983 to 1984), Jeff Burroughs (1975 to 1976) and Willie McCovey (1967 to 1968) as the only qualified players since 1955 to drop their K% by 10% or more from one season to the next.

Last season, Dave Cameron wrote about his surprise that Jackson wasn’t listed on even one MVP ballot. If he maintains — or comes close to maintaining — his current ability to cut strikeouts out of his game, it’s going to be awfully hard to deny him MVP votes this season. What Jackson is doing is fairly unprecedented. That he has been able to change his game so drastically and find success at the same time — which as Dave pointed out the other day, is not easy — is nothing short of incredible.

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Paul Swydan is the co-managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for ESPN MLB Insider and the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

38 Responses to “Austin Jackson No Longer Cares For Ks”

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  1. Sleight of Hand Pro says:

    the last column is “cum drop” …. really? you couldnt think of a different abbreviation? youre killing me swydan.

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  2. McWisdom says:

    Cum Drop

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  3. Ryan says:

    You people have sick minds :)

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  4. Josh says:

    Jackson is a G. (No offense Miguel, Prince, or Verlander)

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  5. John says:

    Thank God I got a screengrab of that.

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  6. Jakerrr says:

    I’ve never understood this about Pizza Cutter’s “stabilization” methodology.

    The author compared even-numbered PAs to odd-numbered PAs. He didn’t compare first 50 PAs to next 50 PAs for example. He gives legitimate reasons for taking this approach but my problem is this:

    When applying this data to the real world, you simply cannot say that a metric stabilizes at X PAs — because in reality we are always looking at a player’s FIRST X PAs, meaning consecutive PAs within a single season, which Pizza Cutter’s methodology didn’t evaluate. Not only that, but the author took 2-year data to ensure he had enough PAs.

    That methodology is fine but then why does the sabre community always make statements like those made in this article: “Swing percentage stabilizes around 50 PA, and contact rate between 70 and 100 PA”.

    No they don’t… at least not in the way that this article describes. Swing percentage stabilizes at 50 PAs consisting of every other PA (therefore 100 total PAs) compared to 50 PAs inbetween. And of course, comparing PAs in this way introduces far more stability than comparing 2 groups of consecutive PAs, since certain factors are being held constant (often the same pitcher on the mound, weather, ballpark, defense and so on).

    It’s interesting data but it cannot be practically applied in the way that it’s routinely touted.

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    • Jason B says:

      That was a really well-said, well-thought-out comment; genuinely appreciate it, Jake. Would be interested to see if it merits a response or discussion from any of the authors who cite K-rate stabilization rates.

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  7. Johnny Come Lately says:

    “Jackson is only swinging and missing 2.7% of the time, a number that would put him in the top 20 since 2002 (which is as far back as we have that data). Ditto with his 92.3% contact rate.”

    Can anyone explain to me how you can have swing and miss 2.7% of the time but only have a 92.3% contact rate? Shouldn’t these two numbers add up to 100%? What am I missing? Thanks in advance.

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  8. Dirck says:

    I traded Miley and Maybin for Jackson just before the season started . I’m feeling pretty good about that trade now .

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  9. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Jackson gave all his K’s to Rick Ankiel

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  10. Rick Ankiel says:

    All your K’s are belong to us!

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  11. The Party Bird says:

    Jackson’s elite BABIP skills and 20 homer power coupled with this potential improvement in K rate? Yikes. If this contact improvement isn’t noise, he’s got to be the most likely to have a .400 season of anyone playing now.

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  12. deafdumbandblindkid says:

    …basically, he’s got a realistic shot at having what tigers fans long ago hoped would be ron leflore’s career. only better.

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  13. Dave Dombrowski says:

    Will the Curtis Granderson for Austin Jackson AND Max Scherzer, Phil Coke, (and) Daniel Schlereth trade come up as best trade of the decade in 2020?

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  14. James says:

    Well of course, he would strike out four times the day this article would be written.

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    • Jon says:

      Lifting his 2013 strikeout rate from 7.5% to 12.2%! Maybe Austin and the Tigers just hadn’t faced many pitchers like Felix, Felix, Capps and Furbush.

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  15. hp says:

    what’s confusing to me is that Jackson seemed to be striking out 3 times a game in the spring (swag) especially in the last 2 weeks before the season. Further evidence that spring stats doesnt matter?

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  16. ron paul says:

    No mention of the change in his approach at the plate starting in the spring of 2012…? What about the fact he stopped using a major legkick last year? I really like the use of statistics, but numbers without context or reasoning results in a lacking article.

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  17. Tedd says:

    AJ is now batting .272 and striking out more than once a game..He’s back to being a strikeout king…It was only a matter of time before he showed his true colours…That trade for Coke and AJ isn’t looking very good right now is it?..I’d rather have Granderson who will have a superior career.

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  18. Dick Allen says:

    I heard you boys talkin bout me. Austin Jackson ain`t got shit

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