The Continuing Struggles of Austin Jackson
By John Parent
In the second part of our three-part look at a trio of struggling Tigers, we’ll examine the sluggish start of centerfielder Austin Jackson.
Jackson made his first career start in the two-hole yesterday and responded by striking out in each of his first two at bats. he did manage a single in four trips to the plate and raised his average up to .175 on the season. But unlike Will Rhymes, who we discussed earlier today, Jackson doesn’t have a player in the minor leagues immediately pushing him for playing time. As a result of that, and his stellar rookie campaign, the leash for AJax will be considerably longer.
There was a lot of talk last year about Jackson’s unsustainable batting average on balls in play (BABiP). He lead the American league in that category in 2010, coming in at a lofty .396. This elevated average resulted in a .293/.345/.400/.745 line and a runner-up finish in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting. Even the most optimistic of pundits expected Jackson to tail off a bit this year, if for no other reason than his BABiP was bound to come down a bit. If Jackson was to maintain his success for last season, he would have to do so by cutting down of his league-leading strikeout totals and increasing his walk rate.
So far, that really hasn’t happened.
Jackson comes into tonight’s game with 19 strikeouts in 65 plate appearances. His BABiP has plummeted to only .243 so far this season. While he has improved his walk rate from 7.0% last season to 9.2% so far this year, his strikeout rate has actually increased as well, going from an alarmingly high 25.2% last season to an absurd 29.2% this year. He has hit line drives at a far lower rate this year as well, cutting his 26% rate from last season in half in 2011.
In order for the Tigers to be a good offensive club, they need Jackson batting at the top of the order, and doing so successfully. The Tigers lineup features a solid group of “RBI men” in the middle and even latter third of the order, but no one, apart from Jackson, possesses a skill set that would qualify as ideal for a lead-off man.
Jackson’s defense is another key reason why his leash will be longer than that of Rhymes. Jackson is an elite defender in centerfield and more than that, he is the only true centerfielder on the Tigers roster. As Jim Leyland does his best to give Jackson a night off to “get away” from his struggles at the plate, you’ll see Don Kelly or even Casper Wells getting starts in center, but the job has been, and will be, Jackson’s.
To make amtters even more difficult for leyland and the Tigers, the first two minor leaguers in line for a hot would be Clete Thomas and Andy Dirks, and neither of them are tearing it up at Toledo right now. Dirks, a Spring Training phenom, is carrying a sub-.600 OPS through the very early part of the Mud Hens schedule and has fanned in a quarter of his 40 at bats so far. Thomas has been even worse, checking is with an OPS of only .412 so far and nine strikeouts in 34 at bats.
In all reality, neither Dirks nor Thomas is a real threat to claim Jackson’s job, unless AJax gets hurt. Jackson will be allowed to slog through the season largely unabated as far as his playing time is concerned. Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon has his work cut out for him in getting Jackson turned around, however.
Jackson may not wind up playing everyday if his woes continue, Leyland could even opt to give Ryan Raburn or Brennan Boesch a start or two in center in an effort to improve the offensive punch on a given night, but whether or not he winds up batting first or ninth, the Tigers need Jackson’s glove in the lineup, if not his bat. But they do need his bats as well. Jackson gives the Tigers their only true speed threat and his ability to disrupt a pitcher’s concentration can lead to mistakes to the big boys in the order. None of that is effective if Jackson isn’t on base, however.
What it probably comes down to is that Jackson isn’t going to be as lucky with ball in play as he was a year ago, and right now that’s being compounded by a his being in a slump, which explains the lower line-drive rate (and probably the higher strikeout rate as well). Even when Jackson emerges from his funk, he likely won’t be a .290 hitter this year, if only because his BABiP was due for a serious regression. But the walk rate increase is encouraging, even while he struggles. If that continues to be an improvement, Jackson can still be an effective, if not spectacular, lead-off option for Detroit.
The key going forward will be his maturity as a hitter, and how quickly he can develop the discipline needed to cut down on the strikeouts.
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