A case can be made, this season, for Austin Jackson to be dubbed the best centerfielder in the league. I won’t be making that case, though. Instead, I wanted to reflect on Austin Jackson being the best centerfielder the Detroit Tigers have had in about 30 years.
Granted, there have been quite a few, including a stack of stink high enough to scrape the ceiling. Centerfielders I would rather not dwell on are as follows:
Nook Logan (Can’t steal first base.)
Alex Sanchez (First official PED user punished)
Hiram Bocachica (A knight in Aruba)
Wendell Magee (Not to be confused with Wendell McGee)
Roger Cedeño (Always reminds me of Ernie Harwell trying so hard to say “Andujar Cendeño)
Gabe Kapler (Looked great in his K Swiss ads)
Kim Bartee (Nearly as many CS (10) as BB (17) in rookie year)
Eric Davis (Well past his prime)
Milt Cuyler (a poor man’s Gary Pettis)
Gary Pettis (a rich man’s Lloyd Moseby)
First on my recap list of Detroit Tigers’ centerfielders is Chad Curtis. Legal issues aside, I fondly remember Curtis for his all-out style of play. The way he’d throw so hard from the outfield that he’d leave his feet, or how he’d hustle as best he could from base to base, finishing with a 20-20 season (21 HR, 27 SB) in 1995. His walk rate was 10.4%, he scored 96 runs, and he had an OPS+ of 103. His WAR was a 1.9, but that had to be all offense, because his defense was atrocious. In centerfield in ’95 his Total Zone (TZ) rating was -10, and that’s keeping in mind that league average is “0.” Advantage: Jackson and his developing power (Jackson ISO ’12: .183, Curtis ISO ’95: .167).
The next centerfielder to keep in mind is the swift Brian Hunter. Acquired from the Astros, he manned centerfield in Tiger Stadium for two full seasons, leading the league in stolen bases in 1997 with 74. He also led the league in caught stealing with 18. He also had no power to speak of, with an ISO of .084 and .079 in ’97 and ’98. His OBP in ’98 was .298, which is Delmon Young territory. In ’97, he featured an ungodly TZ of -13, which was followed by a confusingly amazing 17 in ’98. Advantage: Jackson fielding, OBP, and power.
Juan Encarnacion manned the outfield in Detroit from 1997 to 2001, playing center primarily in 2000. Encarnacion had a solid mix of power and speed, routinely hitting double-digit HRs with double-digit steals. In 2000 he had an ISO of .144 (his lowest as a Tiger), and a walk rate of 4.9%. His WAR was 1.2, which isn’t terrible, but that’s not much of a compliment, is it? Unfortunately, his TZ was -8 in centerfield that year. Advantage: Jackson, all-around.
Lastly, and probably the biggest comparison, is that of Curtis Granderson. When the three-team blockbuster occurred in winter of ’09, the majority of the fan base was shocked. Granderson was coming off of his first 30-homer season, and was two seasons removed from that remarkable 38 double, 23 triple, 23 homers, and 26 stolen bases state line. He was a product of the Detroit farm system, he played an exciting centerfield, and it was a pleasure to watch him evolve as a hitter. But incoming was a slew of promising pitchers and the Yankees top position prospect. I bet everyone reading can recall the day of the trade like a Baby Boomer recalls the shooting of JFK.
Granderson was an offensive catalyst, with his lowest full-season ISO in a Tigers’ uniform being .178. He was rarely caught stealing, he led the league in triples twice, never scored under 90 runs in a full Detroit season, and only hit below 20 homers once (when he hit 19 in his first full season). His fielding was a treat to watch: it seemed like he had an acrobatic catch every few games. His TZ peaked at 6, and was as low as 3, which means he was above average for his time in D-town. The catches and the TZ are a little misleading, however, because most of those fantastic catches were made to cover up his poor reads on balls – his athleticism could rectify any mistake. In fact, his UZR varied wildly (which I prefer to TZ), going as high as 15.1 and as low as -11.1. His walk rate wavered, getting as high as 11.3% and going as low as 7.7% in various seasons. There isn’t really a fixed trend for his batting eye in Detroit, and he always had that problem with hitting lefties.
So, where does Jackson rank against Granderson? It’s a coin flip, especially with a three-season sample size for Jackson and Granderson’s tenure with the Tigers over. Jackson is developing into something special, improving his power and batting eye every season, and playing center field in Comerica Park as gracefully as anyone I’ve seen in my 24 years as a fan. At this point, with the knowledge that Granderson’s offensive numbers are inflated due to both the Yankees lineup and Yankee Stadium’s diminutive right field fence, I think I’ll take Austin Jackson, who could probably steal 40 bases easily if Jim Leyland would use him correctly. His potential is fantastic and his current performance leaves little to be desired.
Although it’s always hard to forget about Chet Lemon.