Center Field Battle Royale: How Austin Jackson Stacks Up
By Garret Craig
Curtis Granderson entered his prime this year. In doing so, he became a legitimate candidate for the American League Most Valuable Player Award, eventually finishing fourth, just ahead of Miguel Cabrera, in the voting. Cameron Maybin, this year, had the best offensive campaign of his career as well. As he made strides towards finally reaching his vast potential, he established himself as a productive, full-time player. Those athletic outfielders, both former draft picks of the Detroit Tigers, produced their recent success as members of the New York Yankees and the San Diego Padres respectively. This begs the question; would the Tigers prefer either of these two players to their center field incumbent?
This isn’t another addition to the long list of trade evaluation columns, attempting to assess the talent that changed hands in either of the deals that sent Granderson and Maybin out of town. I don’t intend to prove which team won each trade. Rather, I want to focus on how the much-maligned Austin Jackson compares to the players who, had it not been for the Winter Meetings, could conceivably have his job right now.
We’ll start with defense and jump right in. Jackson ranks second on the three-year leaderboard for center fielders in Runs Saved, an inclusive metric developed by Bill James and Baseball Info Solutions to estimate the number of total runs a given player saves in the field, with his defensive contribution pegged at 43 runs. He was also the 2011 leader in this stat, shaving 22 runs that would have scored under the watch of an average center fielder. Maybin, meanwhile, ranked fifth this year by saving a dozen runs. On the other hand, this metric is not a fan of Granderson, who ranked last among center fielders this year with a negative 15.
The fans who participated in Tango Tiger’s 2011 Fans’ Scouting Report agreed with the ranking of Jackson over Maybin over Granderson, giving the trio ratings of 69, 66, and 59 respectively.
Granderson’s defense was put on display during the American League Division Series. Those who were watching closely saw not only fantastic diving plays documented by dramatic pictures to be featured on the front pages of various newspapers the morning after, but also the abhorrent routes he took to turn otherwise routine plays into spectacles. Jackson made his mistakes in that series as well, but to me, outside of the hype surrounding the lovable Granderson in New York, it’s clear that the Tigers have the better fielder.
The advantage Jackson holds over Maybin, both fantastic defensive players, is admittedly small, stemming mainly from the instincts, reaction time, and acceleration speed of the former when chasing fly balls in the gap. That’s a big deal, though, when you’re talking about finding a center fielder fit to play in a huge outfield while being flanked by Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch.
Offensively, these players are a bit more difficult to compare. Based on their 2011 numbers alone, Granderson has a decisive advantage, posting a FanGraphs WAR of seven on the strength of a career-high 41 home runs. Maybin has the clear edge over Jackson, too. Then again, it’s not exactly fair to call it at this point; players should be evaluated based on what they’re going to do, not solely by their past numbers. Besides, as mentioned, Granderson and Maybin both had their best seasons to date this year, while Jackson experienced a huge sophomore slump. So let’s proceed, matching Jackson up against Granderson first, then against Maybin.
Granderson is miles ahead of Jackson offensively for both his career and in the most recent single season. As far as plate discipline, Granderson walks more and strikes out less, posting a 0.46 walk to strikeout ratio to Jackson’s 0.29 over their respective careers. Jackson has a slightly higher career batting average, but Granderson is far more efficient on the basepaths and hit more than four times the home runs Jackson did this year.
Taking their career numbers to date, Jackson and Maybin are almost identical. They’ve walked at the exact same rate, or in 7.7% of their plate appearances. They both strike out quite a bit too; Jackson has a 26.1% strikeout percentage and Maybin a 25.2%. Their slugging percentage is virtually the same as well, Jackson with a .387 and a slight edge over Maybin’s .386; the latter has hit a few more home runs, but the former makes up for that with more doubles and triples. Jackson has put up the higher batting average, .271 compared to .255, thanks to a monstrous .369 batting average on balls in play. Based on that, the minuscule edge at the dish goes to Jackson. Maybin, though, has utilized his speed on the basepaths much more effectively, especially this year, as he stole 40 bases to Jackson’s 22.
So it’s a draw? Maybe not. Bill James projects Maybin to walk more than ever in the coming year, at a 9.1% rate, and he also sees his BABIP increasing to .343 from his career mark of .332. Based mainly on those two factors, James projects a .345 on-base percentage from Maybin in 2012. That’s the OBP Jackson posted in his rookie year, but James believes we’ll see just a .335 from him next year. That, combined with an increased base-running ability, may make Maybin the more attractive player offensively given the Tigers’ current need for an efficient lead-off hitter.
Beyond my opinion that Maybin and Jackson are both decidedly better in center field, the problem with Granderson, the best of the trio at the plate, is his price tag. In 2012, he’ll make $10 million. In 2013 the Yankees have a $15 million team option on his contract with a $2 million buyout. Meanwhile, neither Jackson nor Maybin is even eligible for arbitration until after next season. Barring extensions, they will both become free agents after the 2015 season. You also have to count age against Granderson. At 30 years old, he has six years on both Jackson and Maybin, who were born months apart in 1987. While Granderson still may have a few of his better years ahead of him, the other two have more years ahead of them and some potential to improve.
Given the Tigers’ financial situation (two $20 million players on the payroll), their status as heavy favorites for another division title next year, and the fact that their system is bone dry when it comes to position prospects, I think Jackson is actually a better fit than Granderson would be for the Tigers.
Maybin is a different story. Of course it won’t, but if an opportunity arose for Detroit to acquire him for Jackson in a one-for-one swap, I think they would be wise to take it. For their current configuration, Maybin, who by my count isn’t the best or worst of the three offensively or defensively, may actually be the best fit for the Tigers going forward. But I would not, in a million years, take back the trade that sent him away.
In conclusion, I’d like to note that while Maybin and Granderson have their merits, I do believe in Jackson’s capacity to be a very good player for a very long time. I am by no means advocating that the Tigers should be shopping him to exchange for another center fielder. He’s fun to watch in the field (he could be even more so if he got over his irrational fear of diving) and is, I think, a minor swing adjustment away from being a consistently above average hitter. Still, it’s always fun to play the ‘what if’ game.