Just like last year, we'll be grading all the Tigers who contributed significant playing time over the course of the season, starting with the position players, then doing the rotation members, and finally finishing up with the bullpen and writing profiles for players without enough playing time to earn a grade. Each list will run in alphabetical order. These reviews will occasionally dip into sabermetrics so we can get a better idea why things happened, but I'll try to explain as we go through things.
Remember a year ago when everyone was excited because Austin Jackson had finished his rookie season with a near-.300 batting average? Remember how they disregarded warnings that Jackson was not going to be able to sustain that kind of number for his career because so much of it was assisted by luck?
Well, this season is a lot close to the reality of Austin Jackson's batting line than last year was. He continued to strike out too much and not walk often enough. This year, those balls that seemed to have eyes of their own found fielder's mitts a lot more often.
Fortunately, he remained a stellar fielder, who was a finalist for an AL Gold Glove award, per ESPN, and was named the MLB's best center fielder by the Fielding Bible.
Run prevention is pretty important. With few good fielders anywhere else, and numerous memories of outstanding catches that saved runs and sometimes even wins, Jackson has more than earned his spot in the everyday lineup.
Unfortunately, he just shouldn't be batting anywhere in the top seven spots.
At the plate:
There's no denying, Austin Jackson was a below average batter. You can't even make any excuses about his being a center fielder, because you don't have to look hard to find a list of center fielders who hit better than him in 2011.
The chief difference between 2010 and 2011 for Jackson was the line-drive rate. Jackson's batting line last year was driven by a LD% of 24.2%. This year, that figure dropped to 16.8%. Although we tend to think of LD% as being a figure that stays pretty consistent, there was little reason to hope for it to remain at that level -- which is basically MLB elite and hard for anyone not named Joe Mauer to repeat and way above even Miguel Cabrera. Furthermore, looking at his minor league figures at FirstInning.com shows Jackson did not have a history of extremely high LD%. He had done it before, but he also has extremely low figures showing a real up-and-down player. In the end, that's going to make it hard to predict what Jackson does, well, basically ever. But it also makes you doubt he can maintain elite hitting status with any regularity at all.
Add in the fact that Jackson strikes out a lot and doesn't have a real high walk rate and you have a recipe for disaster if everything isn't working well. In the end, Jackson's batting season looked rather dismal even with a rather fair .340 BABIP (.333 xBABIP, fwiw.)
There were maybe two bright points. One was that Jackson developed a bit of power. Many have said to expect that as he ages. He hit 10 home runs in 2011, giving him his highest isolated power (.125) since his 2007 minor league season. The other was that Jackson did take his leadoff job serious and attempted to work the counts well. That gave him among the highest pitcher per plate appearance on his team. So that was good.
In the end, I feel like it's safe to say he can put up a better season at the plate in 2012, but you shouldn't expect it to be remotely near his rookie year. He's better off near the bottom of the lineup, but the Tigers will have to find a leadoff hitter because they really don't have anyone who you'd expect to hit the mold. (And going non-traditional is never going to happen in the MLB.)
In the field
OK, let's just get this out of the way right now: Jackson is not afraid to get his uniform dirty. It seems to be a theme that only recently developed. I saw it suddenly show up on Twitter in October. Then I saw it show up on our Facebook page in comments.
Jackson doesn't dive for the ball often. So what? He is an elite defender by any measure you want to use. I don't care if he doesn't dive. If he doesn't feel like that's an area of his game he feels comfortable with, he shouldn't do it. If he dove and the ball got past him, well with those corner outfielders the batter's going to have a nice triple. Or more.
You could waste a lot of enjoyable time watching his highlight reels. You've heard his accolades already. Probably should have won the Gold Glove for CF. Did win the Fielding Bible award for best CF in the MLB.
That's good enough for me.
As I've alluded to, he shouldn't be expected to hit 300. Nor 250, I would guess. I find it perfectly reasonable to expect the line drive rate to go up a bit. Given his history and minor league numbers, I wouldn't be surprised to see the BABIP go up along side it. And if he can do that and maintain power, he's going to be an acceptable batter. In the field, he's Austin Jackson. What more do you need me to say?
People rushed too quickly to jump on the bandwagon. Now they're rushing too quickly to jump off. I say, just enjoy what you've got. An elite defender who sometimes helps out at the plate and who's really exciting when the ball find the gap.