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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.