Twelve months ago, outfielder Austin Jackson was the lone impact position player prospect the Yankees had above A-ball. Jesus Montero and Austin Romine had about 200 plate appearances combined above the Low-A level, and Eduardo Nunez was coming off a three year stretch in which he hit .243-.286-.329. Now, Jackson is starring for the Detroit Tigers following the offseason trade for Curtis Granderson. Granderson was off to a .314 wOBA start in 91 plate appearances before landing on the disabled list with Grade II groin strain over the weekend while the player they gave up was busy wOBA’ing .411 in 119 plate appearances for Tigers, so we’ve already seen plenty of second guessing about the trade. It’s only natural, but one month is hardly any kind of sample from which to draw conclusions from.
Jackson, still just 23-years-old despite being around for what feels like forever, is second in the American League with a .367 batting average which you no doubt already know is fueled by the mother of all BABIP’s: .527. For comparison’s sake, Robbie Cano’s league leading .387 batting average is backed by a .365 BABIP, which is high for him considering his .322 career BABIP, but it’s not completely insane at this time of year. Ichiro had a .399 BABIP the year he broke the all-time single season hit record with 262. That gives you can idea of how absurd Jackson’s luck has been. Outside of Little League, there’s just no way a player can sustain having more than 50% of the balls he hits between the lines drop in for a hit. There’s just no way.
Using Derek Carty’s expected BABIP calculator (xBABIP), we find that Jackson would be expected to have a .350 BABIP based on the kind of balls he’s put in play (line drives, ground balls, etc). So we’re talking a 177 point difference here, which translates into 19 13 (!!!) extra hits that the former Yanks’ farmhand has already picked up this season that he normally wouldn’t have been expected to. Assuming those 19 13 extra hits were all singles, he would be hitting just .190-.258-.318 (.257 wOBA) .248-.311-.367 (.305 wOBA) if lady luck weren’t on his side. Jackson’s minor league BABIP is .366 in close to 2,500 plate appearances, so that’s essentially his baseline. The .350 xBABIP is reasonable considering that he’s now in the big boy’s league.
All those extra hits are one piece of the puzzle, there’s also all those strikeouts as well. Jackson leads the league with 34 strikeouts, or 31.2% of his at-bats. Just eight players struck out in at least three out of every ten at-bats last season, and they were all three true outcome sluggers (Mark Reynolds, Jack Cust, Carlos Pena, Russell Branyan, etc), not gap-to-gap hitters like A-Jax. As you would expect, the root of those strikeouts stems from Jackson’s plate discipline, which has never been his strong suit.
So far this season, he’s offered at 27.4% of pitches out of the strike zone, a touch more than the league average of 26.9%. Jackson isn’t just swinging at more pitches out of the zone than the rest of the league, he’s also making contact on fewer, just 60.3% (64.6% lg avg). that’s no doubt due to a 9.7% swinging strike rate (8.3% lg avg), which is pretty high. Swinging and missing at pitches out of the strike zone is a deadly combination. The strikeouts also impact BABIP, since fewer balls are in play. Jackson was always able to swing and miss with the best of them, but his immense production has masked this deficiency so far.
At the moment, pitchers are throwing Jackson a fastball 67.5% of the time, which is partly due to the league making the rookie prove he can hit the cheese before adjusting. Just nine batters has seen a higher percentage of fastballs this year, and they’re all basically no-power slap hitters (David Eckstein, Juan Pierre, Scott Podsednik, Luis Castillo, and of course Brett Gardner). As the season progresses and the league gets two or three or more looks at Jackson, he’ll start getting fed more and more offspeed stuff, which was always his weakness in the bush leagues.
The Tigers are getting a tremendous amount of production out of their new centerfielder so far this season, which is great for both the team and Jackson. I hope Detroit uses the hot start to jump in and sign him to an eight year deal and sets him up for life, I really do. However, it’s still far too early to accept this as Jackson’s true talent level, and it’s definitely way too early to start second guessing the deal. We’ve been preaching patience since the first day of RAB’s existence, and there’s no reason we would change that approach now.