Should the Tigers Extend Austin Jackson?

Should Austin Jackson be the next to get a contract extension? (Photo by John Gress/Getty Images)

With the series win in Chicago, the Detroit Tigers are now 4-1 since Austin Jackson returned to the lineup. While that's likely more to do with timing -- playing the National League Central -- it's an interesting footnote to what has been nothing short of a phenomenal first third of the season for the Tigers' center fielder: The oft-cited "power potential" from his prospect days has shone through his first 180+ plate appearances this year with a massive spike in Isolated Power, and he's also walking more often than ever in his career while striking out much less.

This performance, along with some recent deals given to players already under club control -- extensions for players like Andre Eithier and Adam Jones -- pushed the idea of signing Jackson to a below-market, long-term extension into my mind.

Before we can even decide if this is a good idea or not, we should likely explore if this power spike is real or not.

I will say this mostly up-front: I do not believe that Jackson is a perennial .200-isolated power type of batter. Currently, Jackson sports a .234 IsoP which sits him fifth in the major leagues among centerfielders if he were a qualified batter. The four that would be ahead of him are, in order, Josh Hamilton, Adam Jones, Curtis Granderson and Dexter Fowler. In his previous two seasons in Detroit, Jackson had posted Iso's of .107 and .125. We should expect that number to rise for the foreseeable future given that he's just 25 years old and power tends to peak between 27-to-28 or 30-to-32 years of age.

A cursory look at Jackson's three years at the invaluable Hit Tracker Online shows his average speed of bat totals on his home runs have declined from 105.3 in 2010 to 103.9 in 2011 and 102.2 in 2012. Is speed-off-bat data for only home runs -- especially for a player who has only hit four, 10 and six (thus far) -- the best judge of evolving power? Probably not, but it's at least some data point beyond metrics like just isolated power or extra-base hit percentage. So although Jackson's spike indicates a growth in that aspect of his talents, it's unlikely this will hold for the entire season and could very well signal the high water mark for an individual season for A-Jax.

I turned to FanGraphs and pulled all outfielders (in retrospect, I should've isolated all centerfielders instead) since 1990 and looked at their data through age-25 season to try to find some sort of comparable players to Jackson. Here's what I've found: It's hard. Damn hard.

But using a combination of BABIP (currently a career average of .369) and Adjusted Weighted Runs Created (wRC+), which essentially is a runs created measure set on the same scale as OPS+, where 100 is fixed to the league average, and IsoP gave me with the following comparable players:

Name Team Age PA AVG OBP SLG ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+
Austin Jackson Tigers 25 1520 0.276 0.338 0.403 0.127 0.369 0.331 104
Bernie Williams Yankees 25 1770 0.269 0.351 0.405 0.136 0.303 0.337 105
Chase Headley Padres 25 1001 0.263 0.340 0.400 0.137 0.338 0.329 106
Jacoby Ellsbury Red Sox 25 1429 0.297 0.350 0.414 0.117 0.326 0.349 107
Roger Cedeno - - - 25 1612 0.277 0.362 0.375 0.097 0.342 0.339 102
Shannon Stewart Blue Jays 25 1542 0.288 0.370 0.410 0.122 0.321 0.353 107

The one exception I made was for Bernie Williams, as some people on Twitter alerted me to Williams being on Jackson's comp list on Baseball Reference (scroll near the bottom of the page). Personally, I found both Williams and Shannon Stewart to be the best comparisons for Jackson's career-to-date, so I'll mostly focus on them.

Now, here's their totals from age 26-30, as well as the change in performance, for pre-age-25 and from 26-30.

Name Team PA AVG OBP SLG ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+ BB% K%
Bernie Williams Pre-26 Yankees 1770 0.269 0.351 0.405 0.136 0.303 0.337 105 0.109 0.143
Shannon Stewart Pre-26 Blue Jays 1542 0.288 0.370 0.410 0.122 0.321 0.353 107 0.115 0.125
Bernie Williams 26-30 Yankees 3155 0.324 0.410 0.534 0.210 0.346 0.404 143 0.117 0.135
Shannon Stewart 26-30 - - - 3044 0.310 0.369 0.467 0.157 0.330 0.364 118 0.085 0.105
Bernie Williams Change Yankees 1.20 1.17 1.32 1.54 1.14 1.20 1.36 1.08 0.94
Shannon Stewart Change - - - 1.08 1.00 1.14 1.29 1.03 1.03 1.10 0.74 0.84

If their performance hadn't changed from pre-25 to their 26-30 seasons, it'd show as 1.0. For instance, Bernie Williams saw a 54-percent increase in his IsoP from through age-25 and his age 26-30 seasons. We see both players improving across the board -- strike outs dip, walks, IsoP, BABIP, wRC+ all increase -- which are all to be expected.

Two specific player data points doesn't make it certain that Jackson will have the same estimated increases, but all of these players were entering their prime years and, thus, improved. This says nothing of both Williams and Stewart playing in much higher run environments from what we're currently in. My gut feeling before looking at any data was that Jackson could put up consistent isolated power numbers of around .170-.180. For context, consider this: The average American League center fielder posted a .150 Iso last season. If we put that on the OPS+/wRC+ scale where 100 is league average, Jackson posting a .170-.180 Iso would translate to a position-adjusted Isolated Power of 113 to 120. In layman's terms, quite above-average for a normally weak hitting position.

That brings us to what he may be worth. Using some trial-and-error and a plethora of assumptions, I created a quick-and-dirty projection which pegs Jackson at producing 22 Wins Above Replacement from age 26-30. I'd estimate that to be worth around $128 million if you prefer the dollars-to-wins rate that FanGraphs typically likes to use. As I argued when the Tigers signed Prince Fielder, however, Detroit isn't a small market team working within a small budget. Spending big doesn't hinder future spending (yet) for the club. Also, their placement on the win curve would mean that the value of a win for Detroit in the near future is higher than the going rate.

We have at least two examples for a contract that could be offered to Jackson. Adam Jones had one more arbitration year remaining before he signed his extension back in May after he avoided arbitration with the Orioles the previous two seasons, as did Andre Ethier with the Dodgers. Jones signed for $85.5 million over six seasons while Ethier received $85 million over five.

I would propose a six-year, $90 million deal for Austin Jackson.

Let's play out how the next three years would look, should Jackson simply be tendered a contract each year. Tigers CEO/GM Dave Dombrowski doesn't go to arbitration, so we'll assume all values are agreed upon by both parties.

Jackson is a safe bet to get $3-4 million in the first year of arbitration (Adam Jones received $3.25 in 2011 to avoid his first year arb hearing and Ethier received $3.1 in 2009 to do the same).

In his second year of arbitration eligibility, Jackson would likely receive around $6-7 million, assuming no sharp drop-off from his expected production level. Jones signed a one-year deal worth $6.15 back in February to avoid his second year of arbitration. Ethier, in 2010, received a two-year, $15.25 million deal.

In the third year, let's keep it conservative and assume that Jackson would get paid $12 million. That means, year-to-year, we'd expect Jackson to make somewhere in the neighborhood of $22 million. Now, there's a lot o be said for financial and contract security. Surely, Jackson would trade testing the market in the future for a big contract now. I'd estimate his 22 WAR to be worth around $120-130 million using a 5% per-year inflation in the cost of a win. I'd be willing to bet that Jackson is likely to take 70 cents on the dollar of his value to stay in Detroit, bank a large contract and get the long-term security a former center fielder in Detroit didn't quite get.

What's 70 cents on the $120-130 million value I've pegged for Jackson's talents? It's $84-91 million. Right in line with my hypothetical extension for Jackson.

The Tigers don't need to sign Jackson at a price that is below or at market value to allow them to spend in the future. However, why not get a deal that isn't an over payment for a young, emerging talent?

Editor's note: Mike Rogers was part of my original team at BYB. He periodically blogs (once a year) at BYB. -- Kurt

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