Austin Jackson lost his leadoff spot in the order in the playoffs in 2013 because of his mighty struggles just to put the ball in play. He looked lost at the plate against the Oakland A’s and found his swing once the spotlight was dimmed as he moved the 8th spot in the order late in the series against the Boston Red Sox. It is a debate right now whether Jackson or offseason acquisition Ian Kinsler will be the leadoff batter in 2014, and a drop in the order may be exactly what Jackson needs for a breakout season.
Jackson is entering the prime of his career. He is 27 years old and is entering his 5th full season as the starting center fielder for the Detroit Tigers. Jackson’s season splits have been very up-down over his first four seasons. When you compare Jackson’s 2013 split of .272/.337/.417 with 230 total bases, an OPS+ of 103 and a WAR of 3.4 with his 2012 split of .300/.377/.479 with 260 total bases, an OPS+ of 129, and a WAR of 5.5, 2013 was a down year. Jackson also walked 15 fewer times in 2013 than in 2012. Jackson did play in 8 fewer games in 2013 than 2012, but only had 3 fewer plate appearances. The one thing that Jackson has improved steadily through this career is his strikeout numbers. Since racking up 181 K’s in 2011, he dropped that to 134 in 2011 and 129 in 2012.
Now, I know I have just pointed out everything that Jackson did not do well in 2013, but that does not mean he will do the same thing in 2014. Jackson was bothered with a hamstring injury which made him miss time in May when he was hitting his stride. Jackson’s strikeout numbers have done nothing but decrease and the same trend should stay steady in 2014. His walk numbers have fluctuated a bit in his career, but his walk rate should the discipline and experience that should come with a player who is entering his 5th full season. Jackson has shown that he can hit .300 in his career and he could do that again in 2014. If Jackson could learn how to run the bases and learn the art of stealing bases, he could also steal 20+ bases this season. Jackson stole 27 in his rookie campaign and 22 in 2011 so he definitely has the speed to do so.
Jackson’s numbers will depend a little bit on where he hits in the order. If he leads off, Jackson’s RBI numbers will be low which means nothing. In this case, Jackson will see a lot of strikes because teams do not want to put him on base with Miguel Cabrera coming up in the same inning. If Kinsler leads off and Jackson is moved down to 5th in the order, he will hit with runners in scoring position on a regular basis. Both of these cases allow Jackson to feast on a lot of fastballs in the zone because pitchers will not want to deal with Cabrera with runners on or Jackson will be the one hitting with those runners on.
Jackson is already a plus defender to say the least. If he can put together an offensive season on which he improves on the 2012 season, he will be a Gold Glove candidate. (Let’s not pretend that the Gold Glove Award is based solely on defense.) Jackson is set for a big 2014 regardless of his spot in the batting order, he just needs to execute when he is provided his chances of which he will have plenty.