When Austin Jackson, the Tigers’ centerpiece in the Curtis Granderson trade, came out of the gates flying in early 2010, baseball was abuzz about the young gun patrolling the outfield grasses at Comerica Park. However, many savvy fantasy owners who had scooped him up spun him quickly, seeing a near 0.500 BABIP (with little other substance otherwise) was driving his gaudy rookie-year numbers, and Jackson subsequently sunk back down into the realm of average, but not spectacular outfielders. He sat there in 2011, watching some of his 2010 rates sag even further; here was the traditional case of a guy with a lot of buzz, but not a lot of early career numbers to back it up. Fantasy owners were (rightfully) wary headed in 2012. ESPN’s average draft position tracker had Jackson 18th among centerfielder, 50th among all outfielders, and 216th overall; in other words, a guy who was either selected at the tail end in most drafts or even saw some time on the waiver wire early in the season. However, most know the next line in the story — Jackson blew away his preseason valuation while seeing nearly across-the-board improvements in 2012 and climbing all the way to 19th overall (among OF) in Zach Sanders’ end of season FVAR rankings.
One of the biggest improvements in A-Jax’s game in 2012 was his ability to take a walk. His BB%, which hadn’t seen double digits since A-ball in 2006 and bottomed out at 7.0% his rookie year two years ago, jumped to 10.9%, aiding his on-base percentage to a healthy 0.377 figure. Looking at his plate discipline data, it’s obvious that one thing Jackson did a better job of this year was laying off pitches out of the zone; both BIS and PitchF/X have his O-Swing% decreasing by more than a full percentage point (2.5% in BIS’s case) from 2011 to 2012. However, one concern for the sustainability of this trend exists; Jackson wasn’t able to keep up the walk rate all season. His BB% sat in double digits the first four months (even broaching 12.5% in both April and July) before sinking back down to near career average levels for the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs. While the plate discipline numbers show that there was obviously some improvement in this department in the aggregate, he’ll need to show the ability to get back to 11-12% BB% in 2013 before anyone wants to make a definitive claim on Jackson’s improved selectivity.
Another thing that proved to be a boon to his fantasy owners was the spike in batting average. Not only was his 0.300 figure a welcome bounce from last year’s 0.249, but the jump in average/OBP means more opportunities for steals and runs, two categories Jackson owners were likely looking for when scooping him up at the back end of drafts this spring. Jackson has speed and hits lots of line drives (23% in 2012); both good news in the world of sustaining high BABIPs. In fact, my spreadsheet has his xBABIP at 0.358 in 2012 (admittedly using weighting constants from last year), which, when compared with his 0.371 BABIP, indicates that a lot of Jackson’s boost in his average is not fluky at all. Great news for traditional 5×5 players who haven’t swapped out average for OBP or OPS in the last half decade.
I mentioned in the last paragraph that one reason Jackson owners salivate at improvements in his ability to get on base was the increased possibility of stolen bases. Historically, he (while not considered a total burner) has put up steal numbers which average about 25 per year; not Michael Bourn-esque, but certainly a welcome contribution from any up-the-middle player. However, even though the number of times he was on the basepaths increased, his total steals disappointingly dropped to 12. Being caught was a problem (he was nabbed 9 times for a 39% caught stealing rate (61% success)), but the 23 attempts were still lower than his first two seasons in the bigs (33 in 2010, 27 last year). Jackson was the leadoff hitter all but two games, as well — owners can’t even blame the lack of running on his hitting improvements forcing him into a lower slot in the lineup with less “green light” opportunities. This is definitely something to watch in 2013; owners should probably plan on stolen base counts in the teens and take anything extra as a bonus.
The rest of Jackson’s counting stat improvements also deserve a quick mention. The homers ticked up from 10 to 16, in large part due to an increase in Jackson’s HR/FB% (up to 11.4% from 6.9% in 2011). Whether that jump in easily repeatable remains to be seen — on one hand, HR/FB% that deviate significantly from a player’s career norms tend to regress a bit in following seasons, but Jackson is still young and has seen a marked year-over-year rise during his three year career. There certainly is still room to grow in the power department, it’s just a question of how much he actually sees. Jackson’s runs were up to 103 (from 90) and are probably his most bankable category going forward since he appears to be locked into the top of Detroit’s lineup with the Miguel Cabrera/Prince Fielder tandem following him for the foreseeable future. Another welcome improvement for his owners was the 66 runs batted in from the top of the lineup — likely aided by both his batting average and power rates. Whether or not you expect to keep seeing 65+ RBI probably depends on how you feel about everything else above hanging on going forward, but, barring injury or relapse, he should be a good bet for 50+ year-in and year-out.
Jackson’s 2012 should be considered largely a success from a fantasy perspective. While his stolen base numbers dropped, everything else climbed across the board, and many of the gains should prove to be sustainable going forward. He may not have been able to keep up his early-season pace all year long, but unless some Tiger-fan owner in your league grabbed him in the fourth round, he provided positive value over his near-ADP counterparts in 2012 drafts. He may not be an elite centerfielder (yet), but you can bet that you’ll have to take him much earlier (or pay much more) next year if you want him on your 2013 squad.