Austin Jackson and the Magical BABIP: Caravan Edition

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All offseason long I hear and read two very different things about Austin Jackson:
1. He’s a budding star and the most exciting player the Tigers have (often combined with ‘he’s my favorite player’)
2. There’s absolutely no way he can keep that up

Now I know we’ve been over this before, but with Hot Stove Season winding down and Caravan Season (when optimism reigns supreme and we all start counting the days until Spring Training) taking it’s place I feel like it’s time to bring it up again. Austin Jackson had more plate appearances than any other Tiger last year, and he probably will again this year. He leads off, and never sits, and in a way that makes him the most important man in the lineup. This time last year we had no idea what to expect from the guy, except that he was going to see play and that the Yankees saw something they didn’t like. According to FanGraphs he wound up giving us 3.8 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference 2.4. [A lot of that discrepancy is due to totally opposite views on his defensive contribution - which looked pretty solid to me.] Whichever number you prefer, the fact remains: he gave us a huge boost last year out of nowhere (and was robbed of the ROY). There is a reason so many folks are on board the Jackson bandwagon.

But that was last year. What’s he going to do for the Tigers today?

The pessimists look at his .396 batting-average on balls in play and think: that can’t be right. I don’t think I need to tell anyone that .396 is extremely high. In 1941, Ted Williams had a .378 BABIP. Think about that for a second. MVP Josh Hamilton put up a .390 BABIP last year. When he led the league in batting in ’07 Magglio hit .381 on balls in play. .396 seems so high that it’s hard to imagine him keeping that up, or really anyone keeping that up.

It’s worth mentioning that Jackson does profile as a high BABIP guy. The BABIP for the league as a whole hovers around .300, but that’s because the league contains a lot of Adam Everetts (career BABIP .275). Austin Jackson is no Adam Everett. When he makes contact he stings it, and he tends to hit it in a straight line. Jackson’s AAA BABIP in 2009 was .384 – it seems that the reason the Yankees got rid of him was that they didn’t think he could keep that up. Bill James projects him a .383 BABIP next year. He hits a lot of line drives, second in the major leagues in line-drive percentage behind breakout star Carlos Gonzalez. Of the four classifications we use for these things, line drives are the most likely to fall for hits followed by grounders, then outfield flies and then infield flies (AKA pop ups). According to Baseball Prospectus, Jackson only popped out 2.6% of the time [FanGraphs gives him a 1.7% IFFB%, they aren't wholly equivalent] which was 9th best in the majors among guys with 500 PAs. Above him: guys like Mauer, Votto and Jeter. Popping out, logically, is bad – you never pop it for a hit. If you have wondered why Brandon Inge‘s batting average is so low, his 10.1% pops has something to do with it. Brennan Boesch popped out 12.7% of the time… might be a cause for concern.

Jackson also hits a lot more groundballs than he does outfield flies – 50.2% to 20.2%. That does suggest that he might be best suited for a leadoff role (so others are less likely to be on base), but it’s also true that ground balls are more likely to be hits than (in the park) fly balls. So that high ground ball rate is a contributing factor in his high BABIP, and especially important for his total team contribution given that his fly balls aren’t too likely to make it over the fence. 20.6% of Josh Hamilton‘s fly balls left the park last year, compared to 3.3% for Austin Jackson. Keep the ball down. Guys that hit a lot of grounders and a lot of line drives aren’t all that common. Of all the other guys who hit grounders 50% of the time last year, only a handful had a line drive rate over 20% – and, of course, none came close to Jackson’s 26.7%.

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