It was April 5, 2012. A group of 45,027 braved the cool weather to create the largest Opening Day crowd in Comerica Park history. On cue, Justin Verlander reminded the masses what an MVP looks like as his 105 pitches resulted in 24 outs without a tally for Boston. Later in the season, Justin would have been tasked with getting the last three outs. But not on this day. Boston scored two against Valverde to tie the game and necessitate a home ninth. Eighty-six Verlander starts had passed since the last time the Tiger bullpen had lost a lead for the man with the blessed right arm. But the 2012 Tigers were a resilient team. Two singles and a hit batter loaded the bases with one out. And then it happened. Austin Jackson hit his first ground ball of the year. The baseball rolled into left field and the Tigers walked off a winner. One hundred and eighty-one days later, in his last plate appearance of the regular season, Jackson doubled to knock in the only run in a win against the Royals. With that swing, Austin’s average crept from .2989 to .3002. Young Avisail replaced Jackson as a pinch-runner and the .300 hitter joined the Triple Crown winner on the Tiger bench. Magical numbers brought significance to a meaningless game.
What about the games between Opening Day and year end? For the second time in his three seasons, Austin Jackson finished in the top 3 in the American League in batting average on balls in play (BABIP). In his off year, he still finished 7th. Among players with at least 1500 PAs in their first three years, his .370 BABIP is the greatest of all time. The next eight guys on this list are known as Big Poison, Chuck Klein, Al Simmons, Wade Boggs, Big Hurt, Little Poison, Ted Williams, and Ichiro. Six of these players have the letters HOF after their name. The other two (Thomas and Suzuki) will achieve this distinction in due time. To accommodate slow starters we can also ask who has the highest BABIP over a career that spans at least 1500 PAs. Austin Jackson finishes second on that list to a guy named Ty Cobb. The two just after Austin in this ordering are Shoeless Joe and Rogers Hornsby. If we forgive the Shoeless Jackson's association with scandal in 1919, it's fair to say that the Jackson with cleats is in very good company. But few were throwing around the names of Hall of Famers when Mr. Dombrowski plucked Austin Jackson from the New York Yankees on this day in 2009.
How does the guy get it done? One number that stands out for Austin’s 2012 campaign is a major-league leading .370 batting average on his 173 ground balls. This was 22 points ahead of McCutchen’s second-best .348 and the best in the majors since Hanley Ramirez managed .386 in 2009. For the year, major leaguers hit only .238 on ground balls. Was he legging out lots of infield hits like Ichiro in his prime? Nope. Only 7.5 percent of Jackson’s grounders went for infield hits which was actually less than the overall 8.2 percent for all major leaguers. In fact, he wasn’t even able to generate more infield knocks than non-speedsters Delmon and Prince on his own team.
Let’s talk some more about ground balls which, in case you were wondering, will not include bunts. One thing that works in Austin’s favor for the purposes of this discussion is that he hits from the right side. Left-handed batters enjoy the platoon advantage over a much larger fraction of their PAs than right-handed batters. But in an attempt at fairness the game affords right-handed batters an advantage on ground balls. Left-side infielders need to make longer throws to first than their right-side brethren which adds time to a play and often forces them to play tighter at the cost of reduced range. And compromised range becomes even more of a reality against a batter who runs well like Jackson. Despite lefties getting a head start running to first, righties outhit them .245 to .228 on ground balls last year.
As you might expect, right-handed batters did better on grounders hit to the left-side or up-the-middle with a .255 average compared to just .212 when they go the other way. Austin had an even larger differential on left-side or up-the-middle grounders (.383) versus going oppo (.292). His directional distribution on ground balls further enhanced his overall advantage. Jackson hit only 13.9 percent of his grounders the other way which falls well under the average right-handed rate of 20.8 percent. My eyes also tell me that Jackson hits his ground balls harder than most other guys. Someday we’ll have enough HIT f/x data that we can turn this speculation into numbers.
The usual disclaimers about sample size and regression are applicable here but I’ll spare you the analysis. Has Austin had some good luck on batted balls? Probably. But they said the same thing about Ty, Shoeless Joe, and the Rajah.