Austin Jackson is off to a brilliant start in his major league career. But any discussion of his hot start invariably leads to discussion of his strikeout total. His 63 have him just one behind the American League “leader”, Carlos Pena. Several National Leaguers (six) are ahead of him including perennial air conditioner, Mark Reynolds. We are conditioned to believe that strikeouts are at least as bad as WMDs and possibly worse than British Petroleum. But what should we really make of all of Jackson’s strikeouts? Are all strikeouts created equally? Is he just flailing wildly and piling up lucky hits when he does make contact but otherwise striking out? Or is there more to the story than just the negative connotation of strikeouts?
Let’s dig deeper into Jackson’s 63 punchouts and see exactly what we are dealing with in the youngster. He is averaging 4.8 pitches seen per strikeout which I guess is essentially 1.8 when you consider that every strikeout will be at least three pitches long. Kevin Youkilis, who is renowned for his plate discipline, sees an average of 5.0 pitches per strikeout, just 0.2 pitches more than Jackson. In fact, the MLB average on the 12209 strikeouts this season is 5.0 pitches per strikeout. Jackson is just 4% below the average, hardly cause for concern.
Just eight of Jackson’s 63 strikeouts (13%) have been the worst kind: good morning, good afternoon and goodnight. Jackson’s 13% 3-pitch strikeout percentage is much better than the league average of 17% (2021-of-12209) and a good bit better than the average of all leadoff hitters who check in at 16% (211-of-1339). Also, 19% of his strikeouts have gone to a full count which is 3% better than the major league average. Hopefully he can learn to turn more of those full count plate appearances into walks as the season wears on; that will be instrumental in his development as hitter, but especially as a leadoff hitter.
One of the biggest arguments against strikeouts is that it eliminates the chance for a “productive out” which is just an out that advances someone. By striking out, a player doesn’t put the ball in play and leaves the runner where they were when the plate appearance started. Of his 63 strikeouts, 38 have come with the bases empty (60%). This eliminates the “productive out” argument from more than half of his strikeouts. By comparison, 57% of the entire league’s strikeouts have come with the bases empty.
Finally, let’s look at Jackson during the first inning when he is leading off the game. The job of a leadoff hitter is to draw the pitcher’s arsenal out and give the team an early look at what he’s got for that game. While 14 of his 52 leadoff PAs have been strikeouts, only two (14%) were 3-pitch strikeouts as Jackson averages 4.7 pitches per leadoff plate appearance that results in a strikeout. His 3-pitch strikeout rate is below the major league mark of 16%.
We deep dove into Jackson’s strikeouts so now let’s deep dive into his overall performance thus far. Jackson is seeing 4.1 pitches per plate appearance which tied for 2nd-best among American League leadoff hitters. Elvis Andrus is leading the way at 4.2 and Jason Bartlett is tied with Jackson. He is averaging slightly higher on leadoff plate appearances with a 4.3 mark.
In the first inning, Jackson has a .292/.346/.500 line with 14 hits, 14 strikeouts and four walks. His 27% leadoff strikeout rate is significantly higher than the 19% for all of baseball, but he obliterates the league line of .246/.313/.355. He has just one 1-pitch leadoff plate appearance (2%) and he ripped a double off of Dallas Braden, meanwhile the league’s rate is 7% on 1-pitch leadoff plate appearances.
For the season Jackson has just 19 1-pitch at-bats of his 249 (8%) and he is hitting .474 in those 19 ABs. For the league, 11% of all ABs have been 1-pitch encounters and the collective batting average is .343 in those 7298 ABs.
Jackson is off to great a start in his rookie campaign yet a lot of the focus lands on the strikeouts. I am not here to say that he isn’t striking out a ton or that it’s awesome to strikeout that much. In fact, he is on pace for 183 which would be 2nd-most for a rookie in MLB history (Pete Incaviglia, 185), but he is also on pace for 49 doubles, 23 stolen bases and a .316 batting average. Let’s not crucify Jackson for two months of data. He struck out in 24% of his minor league at-bats and he’s at 27% so far as a major leaguer.
He has a 28.1% O-Swing percentage according to FanGraphs.com which is a measure of how many pitches outside of the zone he has swung at thus far. That is about average in the American League. Of the 83 qualified hitters in Junior Circuit, Jackon’s rate is the 39th-highest. As you can see, he isn’t just hacking away at the plate and some of his longer at-bats that are currently ending in strikeouts should soon turn to walks (or better) as he gets more and more comfortable as a big league player.
As we have seen, not all strikeouts are created equally. With the proliferation of hackers in the big leagues in this era and their lack of shame associated with striking out, there is this desire to demonize the event for all players. I definitely want to see Jackson strike out less if for no other reason than the fact that his BABIP of .432 will likely drop a bit more and thus he needs to put more balls in play otherwise his average will drop well below .300, but I also see that his strikeouts haven’t been a serious liability for the Tigers. He has a pretty good idea of what he is doing at the plate, especially as a leadoff hitter in his first two months in the show.
He has acquitted himself very well at the plate while hitting leadoff and playing one of the most important defensive positions. How often do we see guys much more hyped than Jackson perform significantly worse yet get pass after pass for their pedigree and excuses because the team has thrust them into a key lineup spot and/or primary defensive position? It happens quite a bit. (Matt Wieters anyone?) So how about when someone actually performs well in a key lineup spot while playing elite defense, we actually applaud the performance instead of looking for the flaws to cut it down? I am suggesting we ignore Jackson’s egregious strikeout total, rather make it a secondary headline or footnote to the overall picture with the central focus placed on his quality work in many other facets of the game.