**WARNING: SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT**
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but I think that this is the year that Austin Jackson finally puts it together.
That was the refrain before the 2013 season, in which Jackson was coming off a season that saw him smack 16 home runs, steal 12 bases, and score 103 runs. His ISO was .173, his walk rate was 10.9%, and his +wRC was a terrific 134. Things looked great for him, but something didn’t translate correctly and he ended up with a season that disappointed many. His WAR dropped from 5.2 to 3.1, he battled injuries all season, and he was rarely given the green light on the basepaths and managed only 8 steals.
Oct 17, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson (14) singles against the Boston Red Sox during the second inning in game five of the American League Championship Series baseball game at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
To top that all off Jackson posted his worst defensive season, according to metrics. He only made 82 plays out of zone and his UZR was -3.8. His Defensive Runs Saved was 2 and his Rngr was -4.4. For a player known for his stellar defense in center field, those numbers are savagely unflattering.
Last season was a parade of turds for Jackson.
His playoff performance seemed like more of the same as he racked up 18 strikeouts in 8 games, and he had a grand total of 2 hits in 20 at bats against Oakland. He was putrid, and he again looked lost. However, a light shone on Jim Leyland, through the black cloud of cigarette smoke, and he had an epiphany: Bat Jackson lower in the order.
In three games against Boston Jackson hit in the 8th spot. He was 6 for 9 with 2 runs, 2 RBI, 3 walks, and no strikeouts.
Watching Jackson play he looked loose, unlike the rest of the Tigers lineup. He looked comfortable. He looked fast. He looked like everything he should have been.
For his career in Detroit, Jackson played under the strategies that Jim Leyland laid out. He was thrust into the leadoff spot despite being slow to show an improvement in his batting eye, and he forbidden to steal when he got on for fear of squandering an opportunity to be driven in. The latter was unfortunate because Jackson is, in fact, one of the faster players in the league: Fangraphs’ Spd score measures a player’s speed from 7 (excellent) to 2 (awful), and Jackson’s scores in the majors have been 7.9, 7.6, 6.3, 6.1.
Leyland did, however, experiment with Jackson in other positions. In 2010 he was 1 for 2 in the 8th spot, , 2011 he was 2 for 3 with a steal, a run, a walk, and a strikeout.
This is all ridiculous conjecture on my part, dealing with such small sample sizes, but I think it’s leading to something great for Jackson. He really, honestly seems to struggle batting leadoff for some reason. He doesn’t look comfortable and he struggles with his confidence. There has been a modicum of success so far for him batting that low in the order, so why not put him in position to better utilize his skills as almost a secondary leadoff man?
Batting Jackson 8th or 9th (personally, I prefer 9th) sets him up to have Ian Kinsler batting behind him, and Hunter behind Kinsler. He’ll still be in position to score a metric ton of runs, and he should be given the green light to run far more often. I also like the protection that scenario offers, and I like the inherent low-pressure nature of the position. Batting him at 5th or 6th seems to be overestimating his extra-base power and could end up putting undue pressure on the guy. Batting lower in the order could be just the thing to get him back to 15+ homer power.
If Brad Ausmus plans to keep the Tigers running and wants to see Jackson’s best he may have to keep him low in the order.
**END SMALL SAMPLE SIZE ALERT**