2009 was a tough year for the Detroit Tigers.
After rebounding from a last-place finish in the 2008 season, the 2009 Tigers took a firm grasp on the AL Central and held onto first place for 146 days. After a heartbreaking loss in game 163, it was almost inevitable that a shakeup was going to take place.
The news broke on December 9th that general manager Dave Dowbrowski had traded fan-favorite and all-around good guy Curtis Granderson in a three-team deal. When the dust settled, the Tigers had netted Phil Coke (ugh), Max Scherzer (yay), and a kid named Austin Jackson who many teams stayed away from because they believed he was more suited for a basketball court than a baseball field.
Early scouting reports on Jackson expressed similar areas on concern: there were holes in his swing, he needed to cut down on strikeouts and it was essential for him to harness his raw speed to become a true base-stealing threat. Despite the concerns, he was immediately thrust atop the Detroit Tigers lineup in his first Major League game.
In 2010, his first season, Jackson led the league in strikeouts with 170 in 675 plate appearances. He did steal 27 bases out of 33 attempts for a painfully heavy-footed Tigers team, however. His speed was a nice weapon to have, but one that would need to be utilized more consistently if he were to become an elite lead-off hitter.
His sophomore year produced 181 strikeouts in 668 plate appearances, and his stolen bases dropped down to 22. Although his extra base-hits dropped slightly in that second season, his home run total went up and it was starting to become apparent that maybe Jackson was not a lead-off hitter. He has always possessed above-average gap-to-gap power, and with some discipline and added weight he could potentially become a bat that could do some damage lower in the order.
Some work would need to be done to address the holes in his swing, however.
Jackson used to have a very pronounced leg kick that would produce a good push of momentum through his lower half. He would plant his foot early after a Juan Gonzalez-like stride, resulting in a two-part swing. His lower half rotated first, followed by his upper half laboring to catch up. He was forced to react to off-speed pitches -- since he was already in the "loaded" position -- making him particularly susceptible to pitches low and away. This would also cause his shoulder to fly open unnecessarily. In short, his body was had too many moving parts flying in too many directions.
In this video you can see a young Austin Jackson over-matched by Clay Buchholz in the minor leagues. (Admittedly that last call looks to be outside of the strike zone.) Take note of the leg kick and his open shoulder.
After the 2011 season, Jackson and then-hitting coach Lloyd McClendon worked on simplifying his approach, altering his leg kick to a more subtle step. He would stride lightly and quickly allowing himself to have plenty of time to load his hands into the hitting position. The change was reminiscent of the Ryan Braun style of hitting. The adjustment led to a .300/.377/.479 triple slash line in 2012. Jackson's stolen bases would also drop to just 12 in 21 attempts, but with no other legitimate lead-off options, he stayed put.
Fast-forward through a difficult and injury-hampered 2013 season, and Jackson appears to have made legitimate improvements.
The 2014 Tigers famously changed their approach under new manager Brad Ausmus. Now, on a team built around speed, the former lead-off hitter has taken on a middle of the lineup role, hitting behind sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter. What the Tigers have gained from moving Jackson down is another extra-base presence and a more balanced lineup.
As of today, Jackson has 30 total bases to go along with seven extra-base hits and nine walks. He is also tied with Ian Kinsler for the team lead in oWAR at 0.6.
The trade of Prince Fielder left a large hole in the middle of Tigers offense -- a hole that was purposefully filled by speed and defense. And although these are areas that Jackson can easily contribute in, it's nice to see that he is taking on some of the big-bat responsibilities as well.