Coco Crisp and Austin Jackson are the leadoff men for the Oakland A's and Detroit Tigers, respectively. Both play center field. That is about where the similarities end, as far as the 2013 postseason is concerned. Crisp has proved himself to be a nuisance and a "Tiger killer" at the plate, hitting .500 in 18 plate appearances, with two doubles, a triple, two RBI, an on-base percentage of .556, and an OPS of 1.341. (That OPS is well within "healthy Miguel Cabrera" territory.) Austin Jackson, on the other hand, is batting .133 in 16 plate appearances, with one double and one RBI, an on-base percentage of .188, and an OPS of .388.
You don't necessarily need your leadoff hitter to be a slugger who will potentially pound doubles and triples, but that's a nice bonus. What you need is a leadoff hitter who gets on base and sets the table for the upcoming 3-4-5 hitters. Crisp's crazy OPS is pretty to look at, but it's his on-base rate of 56 percent that is so dangerous, and it's Jackson's on-base rate of 19 percent that is so frustrating for Tigers fans. When Austin Jackson gets on base, believe it or not, he tends to have a better chance of scoring. And in games where Austin Jackson scores runs, the Tigers have won 74 percent of the time.
The most glaring problem with Austin Jackson in this ALDS series, as has been repeatedly pointed out by everyone with two eyes and a Twitter account, is that he is striking out at an alarmingly regular rate. Going into Game 5, Jackson has struck out in 10 of his 15 at-bats, for a truly wicked rate of 66.6 percent. Crisp, on the other hand, has only struck out twice.
A deeper dive into each batter's at-bat data gives some indication as to what's going on.
Total pitches per at-bat
One of the things that Oakland's batters are good at is driving up pitch counts against Tigers starters. Coco Crisp has seen 77 total pitches so far this series, and Austin Jackson has seen 71. That works out to an average of 4.3 pitches per plate appearance for Crisp, and 4.4 pitches per plate appearance for Jackson. On the surface, it looks as though Jackson is actually doing a better job of driving up pitch counts and wearing out the opposition's hurlers.
Called balls per at-bat
Jackson may be getting slightly more pitches thrown to him per at-bat, but that doesn't mean he's seeing or watching those pitches. Coco Crisp has taken 37 called balls in this series, and Jackson has taken only 23, which breaks down to 2.1 called balls per plate appearance for Crisp, and only 1.4 for Jackson. The importance of this data can hardly be overstated. It means that Crisp is getting himself into "batter's counts" more often than Jackson, and is putting more pressure on the Tigers' pitchers. It translates directly into the fact that Crisp has drawn three walks in this series and Jackson has only drawn one. More walks means a higher on-base percentage for Crisp, and more "batter's counts" means more pitches to hit, which means a higher OPS. It's also the reason why Crisp has seen two more plate appearances than Jackson in this series. Getting on base extends innings.
So if Jackson is getting more pitches thrown to him than Crisp, but Crisp is taking more called balls than Jackson, what is Jackson doing with the extra pitches?
Jackson has fouled off 14 pitches so far in this series, and Crisp has fouled off 12, for an average of fouls-per-at-bat of 0.9 for Jackson and 0.7 for Crisp. There's no major difference here, except to say that maybe Crisp is squaring up ever-so slightly better than Jackson. This data does show us something, however, when combined with this: Jackson has had 11 swinging strikes (or "whiffs") in this series, and Crisp has had a grand total of three. That works out to an average of 0.7 whiffs per plate appearance for Jackson, and only 0.2 for Crisp. Combined with the foul ball data, it's not hard to see why Austin Jackson is striking out two out of every three at-bats, and Crisp is getting on base more than half of the time. Jackson is hacking, and the result is that he's either racking up strikes by fouling the ball off, or by missing it completely. Crisp, by contrast, isn't whiffing at stuff he can't hit, and he's taking a lot more called balls.
In order to increase the Tigers' chances of clinching the series Thursday, two things need to happen: Crisp needs to be neutralized, and Jackson needs to progress back to his career mean. With Verlander on the mound, Crisp can be quieted -- he went 0-4 in Game 2 against Verlander, and two of those three swinging strikes he's had in this series were induced by Verlander's changeup in one at-bat (the other came against Drew Smyly in that same game).
As for Jackson, we all know he's capable of better. Before he went on the disabled list in May, he was slashing .272/.333/.371, with seven doubles, a triple, two home runs, and 11 RBI's. He was still striking out in 22 percent of his at-bats, but I think we'd all accept a regression from his current 66 percent strikeout rate. When he came back from the disabled list, for the rest of June he slashed .339/.471/.482, with two doubles, two home runs, seven RBI's, and a very palatable 16 percent strikeout rate.
We've seen the "worst of times" with Austin Jackson in this series so far. Let's hope he quickly returns to the "best of times" version of himself that we know is there, lying dormant just under the surface.