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April 16, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson (14) scores after hitting a home run in the first inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE

Austin Jackson Giving Hints of Transformation

Since Austin Jackson‘s stellar rookie year, the big story has been his high BABIP and high strikeout rate. We’ve all heard (and probably said) that a BABIP approaching .400 just isn’t sustainable, even for an all-time great with respect to that particular tool. Given the imminent regression in BABIP, there have been two possible “good” scenarios for Jackson (in which development in some other aspect of his game offsets the drop in BABIP): 1. fewer strikeouts and more steals make him more of a prototypical leadoff man 2. more walks and more power make him a productive middle-of-the-order type bat.

In 2011 we did see upticks in walks (from 7% to 8.4%) and power (from 4 HR to 10), along with a 56-point drop in BABIP, but what really made the difference was Jackson’s amazing defense. He didn’t look anything like the ideal leadoff man, but rather the kind of bottom of the order hitter (like Brett Gardner of the Yankees) that you would be thrilled to have on the roster. The problem, of course, was that his strikeout rate increased from an already high 25.2% to 27.1% – and that’s just no good from anybody. Mike Stanton may have gotten away with a 27.6% strikeout rate – and still been productive – but that came with 34 home runs.

This season Mr. Jackson is trying out a modified swing in order (or so the theory goes) to help him strike out less and transform into that prototypical leadoff man – since the Tigers don’t exactly have a replacement leadoff man waiting in the wings. We’ve gone through 1/10 of a season so far – admittedly a tiny sample – but the early dividends look promising. After 16 games, Jackson has indeed cut his strikout rate from 27.1% down to 23.6% – still not exactly low but definitely a step in the right direction. His BABIP is close to last year’s .340 at .333, so perhaps the reduced leg kick isn’t doing too much to impact the velocity of his line drives.

That’s not really the story, though, is it? Nobody (at least nobody that I had talked to) expected the changes in Jackson’s swing to shove him down path #2 – but through 16 games that is definitely what seems to be happening. Jackson’s walk rate is up about 50% – to 12.5% of his PAs. He also has 3 home runs already (Prince Fielder has 2) and those home runs are actually helping to inflate his batting average. Go figure. If you want to talk about what pace he’s on.. as things stand today he’ll roughly match Curtis Granderson‘s 2011 – one that got him into the MVP race. He’ll be 23 runs above average in the field, 9 on the basepaths, for a total of 11 WAR with 30 homers and 120 runs scored. Of course he can’t possibly keep that up, right? Well… probably. But 20 home runs and a 10% walk rate no longer seems far-fetched – while I think it would have only a month ago.

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