A look at Austin Jackson’s development

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First Half Review: Corner Infielders

Austin Jackson in the Arizona Fall LeagueAustin Jackson entered the 2009 season as the top prospect in the Yankees system and deservedly so. After all, he had just hit .285-.354-.419 with 19 steals as a 21-yr old in the pitcher friendly Eastern League, playing half his games in pitcher friendly Waterfront Park in Trenton. His supreme athleticism and superb defense in centerfield rounded out an exciting all around package.

Just about three months into the season, Jackson is again putting up stellar numbers (.324-.389-.452, 15 SB) and running down balls from gap to gap in the outfield. However, Jackson’s detractors point to his crazy high .424 batting average on balls in play, his high strikeout rate, and his mediocre power output and say his triple-slash line is luck inflated. That certainly may be true, but thanks to the beauty of the internet we can take a deeper look and find out.

Since there are a few graphs included in this post, I’m going to add a jump right here so the front page doesn’t slow down. Make sure to click through though.

First things first, let’s take a look at that BABIP. Unlike pitchers, position players tend to have their own unique BABIP’s, so you can’t just look at a number and conclude anything from it without first comparing it to the player’s established BABIP. The graph below shows Jackson’s BABIP as his career has progressed, starting with his first game at Low-A Charleston in 2006 and carrying right through to this past Sunday. Remember to click every graph in this post for a larger view.

Austin Jackson's BABIP

Jackson spent a year and a half with Charleston, just a half year with High-A Tampa, a full year with Double-A Trenton, and so far a little over half a season with Triple-A Scranton. As you can see from the graph, Jackson’s BABIP has hovered around .370-.380 for the past two and half seasons. I think it’s safe to say we can consider this his baseline, at least in the minors. So based on that, sure his .424 BABIP in 2009 is high, but that’s nothing we didn’t already know. If we back calculate using a .375 BABIP, Jackson’s picked up 11 extra hits due to luck, meaning his batting average should actually be (drumroll please) .288. It’s a 36 point difference, but there’s nothing wrong with hitting .288 as a 22-yr old in the International League.

One of the other criticisms of Jackson’s game is all the strikeouts, and understandably so. In 332 plate appearances this season he’s struck out 78 times, or 23.5%. That’s high, but not career crippling high. Big leaguers Matt Kemp (24%), Evan Longoria (24.7%) and Justin Upton (27.2%) strike out more, but of course those guys hit for lots more power. We’ll get to the power a little bit later.

Like the BABIP graph above, here’s Jackson’s strikeout rate throughout his career, starting way back in 2006. I also added his walk rate for good measure, since strikeouts and walks go hand-in-hand.

Austin Jackson's Strikeout & Walk Rates

Looking at the graph, you can see Jackson’s strikeout rate has generally gotten better as his career has advanced, but his K% this year is higher than it was last year. There are plenty of potential causes for this, including his long swing and more advanced pitchers. His walk rate is down a touch as well, so we could be looking at a situation where Jackson is working deep counts at the same rate as before, except that those deep counts are resulting in strikeouts more often than they have in the past. That certainly sounds like something that can be explained by the higher quality of pitching, and it’s up to Jackson to make the necessary adjustments. This is all just speculation on my part though, so don’t take it as fact.

Lastly, let’s take a look at Jackson’s power output. Instead of slugging percentage we’ll use isolated power since it more accurately measures the ability to hit for extra bases. Here’s one last graph, this one showing Jackson’s IsoP throughout his career.

Austin Jackson's IsoP

The good news is that his ability to hit for power has gotten better over the years, something you’d expect to see as he’s got older, physically matured, and gained more experience. The drop in power from last year isn’t much, and looking at the graph he’s hit for about a .125 IsoP over the last year and half. The Major League average IsoP is .155 this year, so yeah, you’d like to see him improve in the power department. Remember though, the kid is just 22 and it’s foolish to think he’s a finished product at this point. Heck, four years ago right now he was trying to decide between professional baseball and basketball at Georgia Tech.

The problem though, looking the last two graphs, is the plateau. As a player climbs the ladder ideally you’d want to see improvement at every step of the way. It not always perfectly linear improvement of course, as there’s often bumps along the way. There’s no better example of that than Brett Gardner. Jackson has exhibited somewhat of a plateau since his big coming out party with High-A Tampa in the second half of 2007. That’s when his IsoP jumped from sub-.100 to the .120-.130 range, but it’s stayed there ever since. The strikeout rate as a whole is gradually coming down, which is nice, but the walk rate is relatively unchanged in the last two and half years.

Again, as I said above, it’s foolish to think Jackson is done developing at this point. He has been a full time baseball player for only four years now, which isn’t much in the grand scheme of things. However, you can’t completely discredit the plateau, and it’s the primary reason Jackson’s stock has taken a little bit of a hit over the last year. There just haven’t been many signs of improvement lately.

Still one of the 50 best prospects in the game, Jackson projects as a solid everyday centerfielder in the major leagues, and that means he should be a damn fine player. If he starts to show some improvement and completely turns his physical gifts into baseball skills and production, he’s still got a chance to a special, special player.

Photo Credit: Flickr user phxwebguy

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Pondering the addition of a veteran starter
First Half Review: Corner Infielders
  • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

    Sounds awesome.

    Let’s trade him immediately for Cliff Lee.

    • pat

      Let’s trade him, Phil Hughes, and somebody else in the system not named Montero immediately for Cliff Lee. Roy Halladay

      If you’re gonna go big, go HUGE.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        Let’s trade him, Hughes, Montero, and Joba for Johan Santana.

        • pat

          I’d prefer to save Montero/Hughes/Joba for Branson Arroyah.

          • UNION YES.

            Branson Arroyah- “Hey Pally.” “This ain’t ova.”

        • http://deleted RollingWave

          Or We could trade them for this secert pitcher who has actually been quiet a bit more valuable than Santana over the last year and a half, and was widely rurmoed to be involved in the Santana trade.

          Let’s call him Lon Jester for now.

          • pat

            So if you were to snarkily sum up what you just said using internet savvy it would be.. Bill Smith FTL?

  • Frank Fernandez

    Those who are closest to him say leave him be in SWB and we’ll have a nice (not to mention cost-controlled) CF for years to come. Sounds good to me.

  • Todd

    Nice read. Thanks Mike.

    I do find it kind of “funny” that this notion that AJ has more to learn than other minor leaguers coming out of HS has stuck. It will be interesting to see if this year’s #1 pick has the same tag line applied to him, even though he played football in HS and also did not focus on one sport. It is almost like he is cursed by the perception that he is “just an athlete playing baseball” because he happened to be better at his other sport than most. As I learned on RAB, Melancon was All State in three sports, yet the fact that he has only been playing baseball exclusively for a few years and has a lot to learn is rarely-if ever-mentioned.

    • Rick in Boston

      I think you’re mixing apples and oranges here a bit. Melancon and Strausberg (sp?) both went to colleges to play baseball exclusively. Even if you’re referrring to Heathcock, it’s still not the same thing. Basketball players spend a lot more time away from baseball than football players do, especially guys like AJax who was looking at playing for a Top-25 caliber program.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        It’s sad that Melancon was the only one of those names you got right.

        Heathcock? Really?

        • UNION YES.

          Melancum. Strattlesburg. Heathcock.

          • blee

            lol’d

    • rbizzler

      I think the reason that A-Jax is considered raw is that he was a prominent hoops prospect who spent a lot of time on the AAU/summer league hoops circuit when other big baseball prospects are playing travel baseball against top competition.

      I also enjoyed you use of the term “funny.”

      http://www.unnecessaryquotes.com/

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        I “enjoyed” that website way too much.

        Thanks.

        • rbizzler

          Glad you enjoyed it, but I can’t take credit for the discovery – Neyer linked to it on his ESPN blog a few weeks ago.

          As for A-Jax, I think the best part of Mike’s analysis is that, despite a few warts, Austin still projects as an extremely useful player.

          I know it is a long way off, but both Callis and KLaw feel that Slade has a higher ceiling than A-Jax.

    • JoeSit.(ragman)

      Drew mHenson had that type of pedigree. All State Football, all everything baseball and all state basketball

  • jjyank

    I always get excited by the toolsy athletic types, and Ajax is no exception. Hopefully he can cut down on his K rates a bit and hit for a little more power.

    I’m not super concerned though, he’s young and to me power is not the primary focus when we’re talking about a CFer. If Ajax can get on base at a decent clip, we should have enough power in our lineup elsewhere that can supplement him. As long as Ajax is a good defender in CF and we don’t need to move him to a corner, I’d say he’d be fine (assuming he pans out of course, which is always a big assumption).

  • Reggie C.

    I’ll take a .375 BaBIP as a really positive ML debut next season from Jackson. I think we all would. It’d certainly cement him as a better offensive option than the pair alternating today. Even if Jackson only slugged @ .400 initially, he’s shown a starting-quality OBP. Jackson has laid the groundwork to succeed next season.

  • pat

    I think also worth noting that he’s sporting a cool 15:1 SB:CS ratio. If he can steal 35 to 45 bases a year that can make up for some of the lack of power.

    • Reggie C.

      If Ajax can steal bases at that rate on top of sporting a .375 BaBip, decent OBP, good running routes, then one of Gardner and Melky has to go. Right? So who goes to the bench and who goes to another team…

      • Ed

        then one of Gardner and Melky has to go. Right? So who goes to the bench and who goes to another team…

        Melky – no options left, free agent after 2011
        Gardner – two options left, free agent after 2014 (assuming no significant additional time in the minors)

        I’d think you would prefer to keep Gardner, but it really depends on what trade possibilities exist.

      • pat

        At the beginning of the season I would have shipped the melkman out no problem. His recent return to respectability has changed that opinion however. Leche would probably fetch more in a trade but I’d rather keep him around. Gardy is a sweet ass pinch runner though. We’ve seen how his speed can mess with a pitcher’s focus and lead to a big inning. I’d have no problem with trading either if we got something useful in return.

    • Doug

      don’t think he’s going to bat high enough in the order to steal that many bases

      • pat

        He’s probably not as fast as Gardner, but in semi regular playing time, (215 AB) batting out of the 9 hole, Gardy has stolen 18. I don’t think his spot in the lineup would have a huge impact on his SB #’s.

        • Doug

          exactly, he has nowhere near the raw speed that gardner has.

          gardner playing everyday out of the 9 hole would steal about 40 bases, jackson more like 20 (imo)

          • pat

            Oof, that’s my mistake I looked at the wrong #’s on b-ref. I thought gardy stole 21 bases in 94 games. It was actually 21 bases in 45 games which is obviously much much better than ajax current rate. He’s obviously not the threat gardner is and 35-40 would be a bit of a stretch, BUT he would still be a legit SB threat which would lessen the blow of not reaching his full power potential.

            • Doug

              absolutely.

              in his prime, i see him as a slightly faster marlon byrd (a comp i threw out below)

  • steve s

    Nice analysis. In your opinion who is AJ projecting like in best case scenario (Devon White?; BJ Upton?; Grady Sizemore? (minus some power) and somewhat or real worst case (Jeremy Reed? Roberto Kelly?). Thanks.

    • http://deleted RollingWave

      good case, Mike Cameron

      bad case …. himmmm . a less powerful version of Chris Young?

      • Thomas

        I’d suspect Jackson hits for higher average and a much better OBP with better defense. If Jackson becomes Chris Young with less power, then we have a very bad CF on our hands.

        • http://deleted RollingWave

          hence thats why it’s a “bad case”

          • Thomas

            I was just saying that I think Chris Young (w/o power) is below Jackson’s bad case, based on his past history. I’d say Melky is probably more in line with Jackson’s bad case comp: poor OBP, decent average, low power, some speed, and solid defense.

    • Doug

      in a prior thread, marlon byrd’s name was thrown out there

  • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

    I’d love for him to steal more bases, though, to increase his offensive production since he figures to have minimal power at first.

    15/1 is a good ratio, but only 15 SB’s thus far is a little small, IMO.

    • pat

      Stolen bases were already discussed by a much more smarter and handsomer poster. Please avoid any more further redundancy. kthanksbye.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        Discussed poorly.

        Thanks but no thanks.

        • pat

          I’ll give you poorly.

          • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

            I’m flattered, but no. I don’t do that thing you do, it’s too physically dangerous.

  • Steve in PDX

    I picked up tickets to the AAA All-Star Game for no other reason to see AJax, can’t wait. I think that Shelley guy might be there too…

  • A.D.

    So he’s not the most over-hyped prospect ever???

    • http://www.puristbleedspinstripes.com Rebecca-Optimist Prime

      Eric Duncan says hello

  • Corey

    just to point it out, intranet != internet

    • Thomas A. Anderson

      just easier to refer to it as the interwebs or intertubes.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        Ted Stevens says hello.

  • ledavidisrael

    A Jax + Gardner = Amazing production out of CF for the next couple of years..

    • Jefe

      Why should he platoon if hes good?

  • History Teacher

    With Gardner being young and playing well… does AJAX become easier to part with? Granted I’ve been enticed ever since I saw him hit that HR in spring training, but it seems like Gardner and him are similiar players? Should we try to use him and Joba to get Halladay?

    • UNION YES.

      Don’t forget defensive value.

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      No.

    • I Remember Celerino Sanchez

      A-Jax’s ceiling >>>> Gardner’s ceiling.

      I’m not putting down Gardner. He’s done a good job. But A-Jax can be better.

    • A.D.

      Not really, it makes Gardner more valuable if you trade him, and Melky more easy to trade, but AJAX has the most upside of the 3, with Melk & Gardner pretty much still being 4th OF, albeit pretty good ones.

      Best case it allows the Yankees some negotiating leverage with any corner outfielders next year, because they could go with an outfield of Gardbrerra/AJAX/Swisher, and get by given the production they get out of the infield.

  • 27 this year

    Gardner has been really good of late. He is hitting .282 with a .352 OBP which is exactly what we said we would be happy with. I think Gardner is starting to become that player we wanted and is quite productive IMO.

    • AndrewYF

      He’s a platoon player, however. It’s actually okay, since he’s got the good side of the platoon, but he can’t hit lefties in any case.

      • Jefe

        Gardner is a nice fourth outfielder type.

  • Chris P.

    Mike, or anyone for that matter,

    You mention that Jackson’s 30 point increase in BABIP is the result of luck. But isn’t it just as likely that he has improved at making better contact? Can one improve BABIP? My logic tells me you could but I just don’t know.

    • jjyank

      I see what you’re saying. I’m not sure, but my own thought is that as you become a better hitter and mature physically, the balls you make contact with are generally hit better then those from a couple of years ago.

      But I could be wrong, I like the use of sabermetrics and stats, but I don’t fully understand a lot of it.

    • Ed

      For hitters, BABIP is a skill. Everyone eventually settles at their own level. It’s definitely possible that he’s improved, but even the .375 BABIP is extremely high.

    • Max

      BABIP can be improved as it dependent for the most part on LD%. This link is for a expected BABIP calculator. Just plug in the batted ball info.

      http://www.hardballtimes.com/m.....alculator/

  • Observer283

    I think the issue is we have a much larger sample size of Ajax with a lower BABIP, so, at this point, it is very likely that his bump in BABIp is the product of luck. If he shows this kind of improvement through the rest of this year and next year, then it is much more likely that his increased BABIP is due to making better contact.

    But again, until we see him maintain such a high BABIP for an extended period of time, the more prudent conclusion is that it is due to luck.

  • The Scout

    The description is of a solid prospect likely to becoem a good major league outfielder, not a star (although in NY he’ll be hyped as one). And a prospect of that caliber is certainly expendable in the right deal — one that makes a World Series significantly more likely this year and next.

    • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

      Nobody has said that Austin Jackson is not expendable in the right deal.

      We’ve said none of these deals have been the right deal. People aren’t objecting to AJax being used to obtain Halladay. They’re objecting to Joba, Hughes, and Montero being used to obtain Halladay. Whether or not AJax is included at the end of that package is moot.

  • dino

    bj upton had 6 HR during the reg. season last year…..thats not significant power, thats no power….at 22-25 these guys are still kids, the power comes around age 26,27 as they begin to truly fill out their bodies…..if at age 23, AJAX, in his first full MLB season hit 5 HR, and we can reasonably expect an increase in power with age, more big league experience and body growth, it wouldnt be unexpected to see him hit around 5 more homers per year getting him by the time hes 26, 27 to around 20 HR per year consistently, especially playing half his games in YSII…..

    • A.D.

      BJ Upton had 9 HRs last year in the regular season, and another 7 in the playoffs, and he had a shoulder injury that hurt his power through most of the year. His first full season in the bigs he hit 24 HR, which is some decent power, especially given his first full season.

      That said power does come with age, as batters both fill out, and become better at recognizing pitches/knowing what they can drive. Mauer is finally showing his power this year, Youk last year, Alex Rios took a few years, and I’m sure there’s numerous other examples.

      • zack

        Well, except that Mauer has changed his approach, which accounts for a lot of his power, and Mauer is just an amazing hitter.

        Youk didn’t show any power until his year 29 season, and is kind of an outlier. Ok, really an outlier.

        The point being, yes, it does take time to develop and show power, but you have to start with a baseline.

        Rios is probably a really good comp, because he showed almost no power in the minors, saw his power spike right around 25, and has since see it return to what is probably a more likely range.

        Would people be happy if Jackson had Rios’ first 5 1/2 years in the majors?

        • Reggie C.

          Rios’s power spike created a shitload of expectations that now in hindsight appears grossly overestimated. I don’t think Jackson has the physical tools Rios possesses like that degree of raw power. Rios has a terrific frame – think Bernie. Jackson is skinnier and shorter. No prob though. Jackson simply needs to play to his .375 BaBip and incrementally improve. But a .375 Babip as a baseline is a great base.

          • Doug

            not sure a BABIP that high is remotely sustainably in the majors. has anyone had a career (or even a 1st 5 years) figure that high?

            • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

              No, not really.

              Looking through Fangraphs, there’s only 5-7 guys a year who have a BABIP of .375 or higher, and the list varies. A career BABIP of .350 or so is still pretty rarefied air.

              Comparing him to some of his suggested comps, like Marlon Byrd, Curtis Granderson, Mike Cameron, etc., and you’ll find career BABIP’s in the .330-.340 range.

              • Doug

                was just about to go to fangraphs myself…. thanks for saving me some work :-)

                and, yeah, those numbers seem more like it.

                • Doug

                  well, went anyway.

                  did you know that jeter’s career mark of .361 is 15th highest all-time

  • zack

    At first I figured we were looking at Johnny Damon, perhaps with a slightly lower slugging (though Damon’s slugging for his career has been more in line with the #s Jackson has put up this season), but the more I looked at Damon’s minor league #s, he showed the kind of increase you would want from A, A+, and AA (never did AAA). Then his power dropped off as to be expected for his first years in the majors.

    My point being, most major league hitters show a power reduction upon hitting the majors (most, especially guys without huge power to begin with), so considering that Jackson is already showing signs of hitting a plateau, I would be worried.

    Put another way, Melky and Jackson have put up very similar minor league lines, with Melky showing more power and a worse OBP.

  • Brandon

    How about we dont deal for Halladay, install Hughes back into the rotation and give Joba 2 more starts to straighten himself out. If he doesnt tell him to say hello to the bullpen or hello to Scranton’s rotation. He obviously needs alot of work and cut down on the hits and walks. He also isnt doing that good this year. Also there does seem to be a trend in the major leagues that young starters will come up in their 1st season, after the season began, and do amazing, then their 1st full season as a starter do terrible. Then they get demoted down to AAA. But when they get called back up, they look strong.

    As for A-Jax, no way do you trade him. He can be a stud one day. Also, the Blue Jays would want Jackson, Hughes, Montero and another A or B prospect for Halladay. I would consider that highway robbery. Halladay is a great player, but givng up that much for an aging player is a huge no no. It also contradicts our philosopy of keeping our prospects and undermines the decision to not trade for Santana. It pretty much admits a mistake on Cashman’s and Steinbrenner’s part to keep our guys. I dont think it was a mistake to not deal for Santana at all.

    Jackson could be a star CF one day and Montero can be one of the best offensive catchers to ever play the game. Hughes is a good pitcer and has all the potentential in the world to be as dominant as Halladay, in my opinion.

    • gxpanos

      You may have unreasonable/naive expectations for the Yankee young guys. I wouldnt trade for Halladay either, but “as dominant as Halladay,” a “star,” and “one of the best offensive catchers to ever play the game?” C’mon. They’re very good prospects, but not that good.

    • Doug

      “It pretty much admits a mistake on Cashman’s and Steinbrenner’s part to keep our guys.”

      or it just says that halladay is better than santana. which he is imo. that said, i wouldn’t the deal for halladay either.

      • Bo

        If the Jays wanted Jackson and Joba for Halladay that deal would be done in 3 seconds.

  • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

    I’m excited for A-Jax, really excited. I can’t wait to see him blossom into a major leaguer, but I’m also tempering my expectations. I do not think he’s gonna be the next Bernie Williams with the bat or maybe even have Gardner’s glove, but I think he’ll be a solid regular. Austin Jackson will probably be Mike Cameron w/o the power and a slightly lesser glove if all goes right. I’d say his average season will be something like:

    .270-.285 BA
    .340-.360 OBP
    .410-.430 SLG
    10-15 HRs
    25-30 SB

    All that with above average defense and the Yankees will have a solid, steady CF.

    • gxpanos

      Sign me the hell up for that. I also am jonesing to see AJax in action.

      • http://twitter.com/tsjc68 tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside

        Thirded. Bonus: AJax being a slightyl-above-average in all respects centerfielder allows us to have a cheap up the middle plus defender, which allows us to splurge on a quality corner outfielder when one comes available, since he’ll be cheap for the next 5-7 years or so.

        • daneptizl

          J-Up agrees.

      • Charlie

        isn’t he in the AAA all star game tommorow? its on espn2

    • Doug

      agree with those numbers except for a slight downtick on the SBs…more like 18-23. also think his OBP range may be more like .335-.350

  • Charlie

    thanks, cool article. I’m a huge Ajax fan and i really hope to see him called up in september and get the starting job in CF next year. i think the power will come along soon and he’ll be a very good player.

  • http://theenlighteneddespot.com NC Saint

    He can be a “special, special player”, sure. But he’ll always be uninspiring, right?

  • Bo

    So, now hes not uninspiring??

  • Jefe

    Austin Jackson = Trade while value is sky high

  • blee

    how is a matt kemp comparison?

  • http://amonthhoffundays.blogspot.com/ Phil in LA

    They’ve been shortening AJack’s swing this year, and I think we’ll see him take a nice step up in power when he’s mastered the shorter swing.

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