Austin Jackson and the Magical BABIP: Caravan Edition

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Jackson’s no slap hitter, he’s not just trying to put the ball in play. He’s taking big cuts, which is why he strikes out so much, but he isn’t elevating the ball when he does it. He’s no Juan Pierre, but he’s also no Josh Hamilton. The player I’d like to compare him to is Carlos Gonzalez, who rose to fame (and a fat contract extension) on that back of a 26.8% line drive rate and accompanying .384 BABIP. They both sting the ball, and hit the vast majority of them up the middle. That means ground balls are more likely to go for hits, and flies are less likely to be caught in foul territory. CarGo certainly hit a lot more home runs than Jackson did last year, but a lot of credit there has to go to the thin air of Denver, since 26 of his 34 came at Coors. Maybe in Colorado Austin Jackson would be a power hitter? Maybe he’ll grow into power too, like Lou Whitaker, but we can’t ignore the fact that he doesn’t have it now. He was better than CarGo in BABIP, due to fewer pop ups, more ground balls (and fewer fly balls) and a better BABIP on the balls he did hit on the ground. Still: Jackson was an above average player in 2010 with 3.8 FG WAR – CarGo was MVP-caliber with 6. They both project as guys who will maintain BABIPs well above the league average long-term, but CarGo is projected to drop to .350 next year. Of course, at a .350 BABIP he’s still very good. With a .333 BABIP in 2009 he still had an .878 OPS. The same won’t be true for Austin Jackson. He needs a bit more power and he needs to cut down on those strikeouts or a .350 BABIP (which is still pretty good) would make him an offensive liability.

I don’t think a .350 BABIP is likely, aside from some infield hits Jackson’s BABIP doesn’t look like luck. It looks like an odd and fortuitous combination of traits you don’t often see. Still, his BABIP will probably fall a bit – the question is how much. Bill James says 13 points. FanGraphs’ Jack Moore says that he’s a “mortal lock” to drop below .380. FanGraphs fans project him at .360. For someone as dependent on that high BABIP as Jackson is, the difference is extremely important – and never forget that BABIP does still have a pretty significant luck component. What if his BABIP drops to .345?  We saw that in June, alWhat Jackson needs is to get a bit less dependent on it. And on that count, I think we’ll see him make noticeable progress in 2011. He’s only 23 and still developing. We know he can be great on defense, he’ll get more consistent. I think we’ll see him walk just a bit more than he did in 2011. I think we’ll see him strike out just a bit less. He’s not going to become Ryan Howard overnight, but I think we’ll see a few more home runs too. Not a huge change anywhere… but steps in the right direction.

With that amazing BABIP in 2010, he only had an OBP of .345 and a SLG of .400. As a 21-year-old in AA in 2008 his BABIP was a more pedestrian .346, but with an OBP of .354 and an SLG of .419. Why? He struck out less – 21.7% of the time instead of 27.4%. He walked more: 9.7% of the time instead of 7% and he hit 9 home runs instead of four. Ultimately, I think that’s what we can expect from Jackson even in a down year – and that will give us production every bit as good as his rookie campaign. At his best? He might look a bit more like CarGo.