As the Tigers prepared for life without all-star center fielder Curtis Granderson following his off season trade to the Yankees for Austin Jackson and Phil Coke (that also helped net Max Scherzer) last year, they had a need for their new young center fielder to help make up for at least some of the 3.0 WAR performance lost in Granderson's departure.
Asking anyone, much less a 23 year old who had posted an OPS of just .759 in AAA the previous season to come up and replace a perennial all-star candidate like Granderson was asking a lot. Yet Jackson would manage to do all of that and more in 2010. Jackson had a phenomenal rookie season with the Tigers, providing the team with a solid on base percentage and plus speed out of the leadoff spot while simultaneous playing strong defense in center field, and somehow managing to help fans forget about Granderson by providing much of the same "ooh and ahh factor" that Granderson took with him to New York. In fact, the 3.8 WAR posted by Jackson as a rookie was better than all but one of Granderson's seasons.
Still, for all of the success he had in his rookie campaign, he's going to be hard-pressed to repeat that success in 2011. Baseball, especially at the Major League level, is in many ways a very unforgiving game. Minor Leaguers generally have the benefit of being relatively new to their opponents. Because of all the different leagues and levels, as players progress through the system they don't usually see the same pitchers or hitters for two years in a row. And even when they do, players are at a stage where so much development is still occurring that the player you face one year isn't necessarily going to be the same player you face the next season.
That changes in the Majors. If you have success as a hitter against a certain pitcher, they'll remember that and adjust accordingly. The advance scouting is also significantly better. Once you have a weakness that gets recognized, players will attack that weakness mercilessly until you prove you can cover for it. That's at least one big reason for what fans have come to know as 'the sophomore slump.'
Another big reason however, is luck. Simply put, it's far easier for a player to get lucky in any one given season than it would be to do so over the scope of a career. As a result, it's relatively easy for fans to latch onto an impressive rookie performance because unless you play close attention to the performance of Minor Leaguers, you have no real basis for comparison. Similarly, when a player with an established track record of mediocrity has a really great year out of nowhere, it's easier for our minds to associate that as being a fluke performance.
That may be the case with Jackson.
In 2010, he managed to post a .293/.345/.400 triple slash mark. Now, a .745 OPS doesn't really stand out as a phenomenal mark, but it's right around league average for a MLB center fielder, and given his .766 career MiLB OPS, it's surprisingly strong. That strong performance was buoyed by a wildly unsustainable .396 BABIP that ranks among the 10 highest single-season BABIP marks for players with more than 500 plate appearances in a season in the modern era. The highest sustained BABIP for any player over the past decade is the .351 mark posted by Derek Jeter, a full 45 points lower than Jackson's 2010.
Obviously he wont maintain such a significant BABIP throughout his career, and without providing any context what-so-ever, he's clearly in line for a pretty significant regression. But we can do better by utilizing my guide for projecting player performances with sabermetrics. In that guide I explain precisely why Jackson, despite having a significant amount of offensive regression in his future, still projects to have one of the best BABIP marks in baseball given his penchant for high line dive rates and strong ground ball rates which let him utilize his plus speed to beat out ground balls.
Unfortunately neither his strong line drive rates nor his ability to beat out infield grounders can hold of the looming regression that's to come. Eventually, luck runs out. Jackson's problems don't lie in his talent. He has an ability to consistently put the barrel of the bat on the ball and his swing is sound. The problem with Jackson lies in his ultra-aggressive approach.
Jackson is a free swinger who isn't exactly Jeff Francouer-ish in his disdain for drawing walks, but who doesn't seek them out, or lay off borderline pitches either. As a result, he strikes out far too much to maintain a high average. Paired with his general unwillingness to work a walk, that will make it difficult for him to maintain either a high average or on-base percentage. In turn, that limits his ability to effect the game with his legs.
Thankfully to say, these aren't problems that can't be overcome, and given that he'll be just 24 years old in 2011, he's almost certain to continue to improve in both areas. As he does, he'll have the opportunity to turn himself into a hitter who fluked his way into a really strong rookie campaign, and into one that can maintain his success without the benefit of luck. In the meantime, Jackson should be capable of providing the Tigers with strong defense in center, even if his bat doesn't live up to the standard he set for himself during his rookie campaign.
Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both 612Sports.net, 312Sports.com, and 313sports.com. He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.