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30 Questions: Detroit Tigers

3/11/2011
Tigers

Was Austin Jackson more lucky than good in 2010?

It's better to be lucky than good.

That's what one of my college professors used to say, anyway. And it certainly held true for Austin Jackson last season. On the surface, Jackson had a strong but unspectacular rookie campaign, hitting .293 with a .345 OBP, four home runs, 41 RBIs, 27 stolen bases and 103 runs. The performance was good enough to rank him 29th among outfielders last year, according to ESPN's Player Rater, one spot ahead of Matt Kemp. Jackson also finished second in the American League rookie of the year voting, falling 24 points shy of Neftali Feliz.

It was a fine rookie effort, to be sure, but it doesn't take much digging to see just how luck-driven it was. At the forefront was Jackson's .293 batting average, which was aided by a .396 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Not only was that the highest BABIP mark in the majors last season, it was the highest mark in the big leagues since Ichiro Suzuki sported a .399 BABIP in 2004.

From 2001 to 2009, players have sported a BABIP of .370 or higher 29 times. Not surprisingly, every single player experienced a BABIP regression the following year. And all but two players (Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo) saw their batting average regress, too. Here's the list (BABIP data courtesy of Fangraphs.com):

On average, each player saw his BABIP drop 52 points and his batting average drop 41 points. That's the difference between a .300 hitter and a .260 hitter, so these aren't small drop-offs we're talking about.

Also consider that on average each player hit .333 in their .370 BABIP season. Jackson, meanwhile, hit just .293 in 2010. The only player to hit lower than .293 in his relevant season was Jose Hernandez, who batted .288 in 2002 despite a .404 BABIP. The following year, Hernandez BABIP fell to .311 (still above average), but his batting average slid all the way to .225. That's not to say Jackson will experience a similar fate in 2011, but it does show us a possible outcome if his BABIP significantly regresses as expected.

Jackson's BABIP isn't the only concern. If the 24-year-old made a lot of contact, that'd be one thing. But he doesn't. Based on his performance with the Tigers last season, it wouldn't be a stretch to call him a "hacker." The best hitters in baseball generally make contact close to 90 percent of the time. For instance, Albert Pujols' contact rate last year was 88 percent, and Joe Mauer's was 89 percent. Jackson made contact just 72 percent of the time last season, and his 170 strikeouts were the fifth most in baseball. For comparison's sake, consider that Nick Swisher, a .252 career hitter, has a 74 percent career contact rate, better than what Jackson managed in 2010. Over 2,000-plus minor league at-bats, Jackson's contact rate was 75 percent, so there won't be much growth here unless he drastically changes his approach at the plate.

A precipitous drop in Jackson's batting average this year might not be as damning if he was more adept at reaching base in other ways, but he's not. He drew walks 7 percent of the time last season, hardly an impressive rate. Among the 151 players with at least 500 plate appearances in 2010, 104 of them drew walks more consistently than the Tigers' outfielder. A 12.6 percent walk rate at Triple-A in 2009 offers some hope, but there's clearly still a lot of work to do at the big league level.

So all of this begs the question: If Jackson can't get on base consistently, what kind of fantasy value can we realistically expect him to have going forward? He has very little power (adding 10 pounds of muscle this offseason won't change that), so his value in 2010 was driven by his batting average, runs scored and stolen bases. If his batting average falls significantly this season like we expect and he doesn't improve his walk rate, it's reasonable to expect his runs and stolen bases to decline this year.

If Jackson does in fact encounter some severe struggles this season, the Tigers could consider moving him out of the leadoff spot, which would negatively affect all of his counting numbers. As things stand now, the Tigers don't have another clear-cut option to hit at the top of the order, so Jackson should have a reasonably long leash, but you never know. If his production plummets, the team may have no choice but to look at other options.

That's not to say everything regarding Jackson's rookie campaign was bad news. If there's one thing Jackson supporters can hang their hats on, it's that 24.2 percent of his batted balls last year were line drives. That was the second best mark (tied with Mauer) in the majors among those who qualified. Considering line drives are the most likely type of batted ball to fall in for a hit, that's very encouraging. Still, a good line-drive rate doesn't guarantee success. James Loney, for example, led baseball with a 24.5 line-drive percentage last year but hit just .267. Plus, Jackson sported a combined 33 percent line-drive rate in April and May last season, but it fell to 20 percent from June through October, so we expect a regression in that area, too.

Yes, we need to remember that Jackson is only 24 years old and has only one season of big league at-bats under his belt, so he still has time to make adjustments and refine his game. And as they say, speed never slumps. So even if Jackson doesn't steal as many bases as last season, he'll steal enough to at least be a usable cheap-steals source.

For 2011, the downside is greater than the upside. The best-case scenario for Jackson this season is something similar to what he did last year. The worst-case scenario is a sub-.250 batting average, fewer than 20 stolen bases and a demotion to the bottom of the batting order.

Unfortunately, unless he pulls out his lucky rabbit's foot again, the latter looks to be the more likely of the two outcomes.