Make no mistake about it, Austin Jackson is fast. You can see that when you watch him run after hitting the ball up the gap. As a fan, it’s like watching a work of art in action. Blink; and you might miss it, wondering how in the heck he got there so fast. There are few guys on a baseball team that possess that kind of ability, as evidenced by Jackson leading the league in triples with 11 this year, one year after finishing with 10. You can see Jackson’s tremendous speed at work in the outfield as well, where he uses it to track down fly balls out of nowhere with relative ease.
Still, I can’t help but be left with the feeling that Jackson and his best asset isn’t being put to as good of use as it could be.
Austin Jackson reached 1st base 167 times this past season via the single and the walk. He was also hit by the pitch 4 times, and I am sure reached on an error or two at some point, as well as some force-outs. Out of all those times Jackson reached base, he attempted just 27 steals. Now, I do realize that situations will call for him to hold up, as well as runners being on in front of him, causing him to have to hold, but just 27 attempts? Curtis Granderson has similar numbers, he reached 1st base 173 times, but attempted 35 stolen bases.
I make the comparison to Granderson, not because the two players were traded for each other, but rather because they are similar athletes. And I think most would say Jackson is faster. There are other similar athletes around the league, Cameron Maybin, Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino, that all usually attempt more steals than Jackson. There are similar athletes around the league like Dexter Fowler, who didn’t attempt more steals this past season, but showed more aggression on the base paths. I will explain that in a moment.
Now, I acknowledge that stolen base attempts are just as much a function of the manager and his philosophy on putting runners in motion, but it has to do with the players aggressiveness as well. How is it that a guy with Jackon’s speed is only attempting to steal 27 bases? It’s not as if he gets caught a high rate. Over his career, Jackson has stolen 49 bases and only been caught 11 times. Thats a little over 80%. Leyland and the Tigers have to figure out a way to take better advantage, but it’s not just on the manager and the teams philosophy. It’s on Jackson himself, and it’s not just about stealing a bag.
It’s a difficult thing to do, quantifying a players aggressiveness. I have long thought that Jackson tends to make up his mind before he hits the bag at 2nd before going to third, instead of hitting the bag hard and making “Mean” Gene Lamont stop him. Thanks to Baseball Reference, there is at least some way to monitor a base runners aggressiveness by looking at their extra base taken percentage (XBT%).
Now, what do they mean by extra base taken? The extra base taken is basically a measure of a player who goes from 1st to third on a single, or 2nd to home. Or they go from first to home on a double. Baseball Reference measures those opportunities, and then calculates the number of times a player takes advantage of the extra base. It does not take into account the exact location of the hit, nor does it take into account the arms of the fielder either, so there is some issues with just taking the number at face value. However, when you look at Jackson’s XBT%, it is a little bit disappointing.
Over his two year career, Jackson has only taken the extra base 43% of the time. Back to Dexter Fowler, who is a strikingly similar player to Jackson, although he strikes out a little less, and walks a little more, but athletically speaking they are similar. Fowler over his career takes the extra base 64% of the time. Cameron Maybin does it 66% of the time. Granderson is at 45% (50% with Yanks), Victorino does it 52% of the time. B.J Upton is at 52%. I could go through more, but I think you get the picture.
This shows me two things. One, the Tigers don’t preach base running aggressiveness like other franchises do, and therefore stopping before taking the extra base becomes part of their culture. Again, its not just stolen bases, which the Tigers are always near the bottom of the league in, it’s about going from first to third. Secondly, Austin Jackson himself isn’t as aggressive as he should be.
In fairness, I should present the other side of the argument here. Base running aggressiveness doesn’t always equate to runs. Just because a guy goes from 1st to 3rd, it doesn’t mean that the player is necessarily scored. Obviously it does if it is from 2nd to home or 1st to home. Lineups take all kinds of different forms, and there is more than just base running involved in scoring runs. After all, the Tigers offense this year was in the top half of the league. Also, there is great debate across baseball as to the effectiveness of the stolen bases in helping an offense score runs. Theoretically, getting caught stealing can hamper offenses more by wiping the player off base, then stealing a base can help create runs.
That being said, that is an overall look at things. Despite the Tigers philosophy of playing for the three run homer, or holding up Jackson to try and keep a runner on for Cabrera, Austin Jackson could take it upon himself to get better in this area. In fact, given the dynamic of the Tigers lineup, it is extra important, the Tigers don’t have too many guys who run at an above average level.
Jackson’s biggest asset is being under-used at this point. Whether you believe that to be on the Tigers management, or whether it is just a lack of aggressiveness by Jackson, it matters little. The bottom line is somebody, probably Jackson himself, needs to take steps towards taking advantage of his speed, helping this offense become more than baseball’s version of 3 yards and a cloud of dust.