I had my first intense baseball conversation of the year yesterday. It was three guys tossing ideas around about prospects, the starting rotation, the bullpen situation, and everything else under the Tigers’ sun. It was awesome.
One of the things that came to the front of my mind during the conversation was about Austin Jackson, his obscene 2010 BABIP and strikeout rate, and what our expectations should be for the center fielder in 2011.
You see, Jackson isn’t going to hit 0.300 next year, I think most Tigers fans understand that, but the reality of the situation is that he’s not going to hit .290, .280, or perhaps even .270 unless he makes some drastic changes to his strikeout rate.
In 2010, A-Jax lead all of baseball in batting average on balls in play (BABIP) with a .396 average. That’s a good thing, but it’s most likely not a sustainable number. You see, players only have so much control on how often a ball that’s put into play gets turned into an out by the defense. Jackson’s career minor league numbers tell us that he’s rather good at it, but more like .362 good, not .396.
But couldn’t he match his 2010 BABIP in 2011? Yes, it’s possible, but it isn’t very likely at all. Here’s the BABIP leaders from the past five seasons and how they fared in that category the following year.
In this group, only once did the MLB BABIP leader improve on his total in the following year. That was Cabrera, but as you can see in the table, he didn’t post insane numbers in the year he lead the league. None of these guys were able to post BABIP’s north of .370 in both seasons. On average, the players in this chart saw their numbers decrease in year two by 0.038, and that’s including Cabrera, who’s numbers got better.
So, after considering BABIP regression, what can we expect from Austin Jackson in 2011? If we take his stats from last year and simply adjust his BABIP down to his minor league average (.362), he would hit .269. I think that should be our baseline expectation for his batting average.
From there, it depends on whether or not he is able to limit his strikeout rate. Last season, he struck out in 27.5% of his at-bats (14th highest in baseball). If he could somehow limit this rate to his minor league average of 21.1% (while maintaining his minor-league BABIP of .362), his batting average (using 2010 stats) would probably come out in the neighborhood of .291. This is probably the most optimistic we could reasonably be, but .291 is quite good.
I think, in the end, he’ll hit closer to .270 or .275. Major league pitchers are obviously much better than minor pitchers, so it’s natural to expect the strikeout rate to be higher in the majors. BABIP? Not so much.
Batting average is such a fickle stat in the first place, but announcers and news paper columnists love to quote it anyway. When they’re talking about sophomore slumps in response to Jackson’s lowered average, we’ll be smart enough to know that he’s simply meeting expectations.