Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Curious Case Of Austin Jackson

This past off season the Detroit Tigers shipped veteran center fielder and fan favorite Curtis Granderson to the Yankees for prospect Austin Jackson and reliever Phil Coke. Both players immediately assumed roles with the team and while Coke has been a nice option in the bullpen, the only player anyone in Detroit wants to talk about is Jackson.

For good reason.

While I expected Jackson to be able to come up and provide strong defense in center and speed on the bases, what I wasn't ready for, was his bat. Jackson had a very good completely outrageous spring training for the Tigers, posting a 1.050 OPS with three home runs  (ten extra base hits in all) in just 73 at-bats.

I wrote it off as spring training stats. Lots of guys hit well in spring training.

But now we're wrapping up April, and the kid who had only once posted an OPS over .780 (back in A ball in 2007) has an OPS of .917 with nine extra base hits in 99 at-bats and he leads baseball with 36 hits. The natural question to ask? "What the hell is going on with this kid?"

Good question.

Everything about Jackson's performance screams luck. From his career minor league statistics, to his .530 BABIP! to his 32.3% strikeout rate, and a line drive rate that stands at 37.5%.

But luck usually starts to run out with a big enough sample size, and now with spring training and the first month of the season behind us, Jackson has been red hot for two months and nearly 200 at-bats. What gives, and when this kid comes back to Earth, what can we expect from him going forward?

I don't know if I can definitively answer the first part of that question. Obviously this is why we don't look into early season performances too much - because they have a tendency to be fluky, both on the team and individual level.

However when it comes to BABIP, Jackson has made a career of carrying a higher than normal one. The lowest career BABIP for Jackson during his minor league career was .331 - Major League average is .303. Yes, Minor League BABIP's tend to be higher than Major League ones due to improved defense at this level. But with a career MiLB BABIP of around .365, it can be safely assumed that he'll outperform the average.

So let's say we presume a .365 BABIP for Jackson (way above average) that leaves Jackson taking over a 100 point hit to his batting average, and consequently a hit to his power (fewer hits overall leads to fewer extra-base hits). At the same time, one of the statistics that we use to say Jackson is due for regression - his LD% - also suggests that he will be a legitimate Major League hitter once he conquers his strikeout issues.

If Jackson were to continue to hit as he has, but with a normalized BABIP (.365) and a refined strikeout rate (23.6% <- his career MiLB rate) a reasonable batting average expectation would be around .278. With a 10% MiLB walk rate per at-bat, we can add 60 walks to his 167 hits for a OBP of .344. With a reasonable ISO of .130 that would give him a SLG of .408. For a total triple slash of...

.278/.344/.408 - .752.

That's awfully good for a very young hitter, especially at a defense first position like center field. But it's nowhere near his current .917

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