Austin Jackson is an interesting ballplayer. The Detroit Tigers center fielder is hitting .330/.394/.468 out of the leadoff spot. And thought the ultra-athletic rookie is far from a finished product, you can’t argue with his numbers thus far. But how about this one: 34 percent. As in, the 23-year-old is striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances. That’s Mark Reynolds’ territory. Jackson is being talked about as a rookie of the year contender, but can he sustain his excellence with his current strikeout rate?
The most obvious reason to doubt Jackson is his batting average on balls in play, which currently sits at .492 and is the highest in baseball. Last year, the league leader in BABIP was David Wright at .394, so we can expect Jackson’s BABIP to come crashing down. But it appears his high BABIP is a little more than just luck, and is a byproduct of the way he is being pitched.
Like a lot of young players, Jackson clearly enjoys hitting the fastball. A look at his pitch-type values shows that he’s 0.93 runs above average (per 100 pitches) against the heater. Compare that to a -1.68 against changeups, and you suddenly have a pretty good idea of what to throw to Jackson. In his column today, Tim Kurkjian discusses the fundamental failings of some of the game’s top young players, and Jackson’s inability to hit off-speed stuff fits that topic. So far this season, Jackson has been seeing a large number of fastballs, as pitchers are no doubt testing the young hitter. He’s been challenged with the heat 68 percent of the time. In contrast, teammate Miguel Cabrera — a proven fastball hitter — has seen 56 percent fastballs. Jackson has been thrown changeups 11 percent of the time, and we should see that number continue to rise as opponents figure out his weakness. Also, Jackson swings at pitches outside the strike zone just 1.0 percent more often than the league average. However, he has a significant issue with making contact on pitches outside the zone: 57.9 percent compared to an average of 64.5 percent.
It’s clear that Jackson needs to make some adjustments if he’s still going to be in the AL Rookie of the Year race in September. As a leadoff catalyst, his job is to get on base and into scoring position for the club’s run producers. A player with a strikeout rate of more than 30 percent is not going to get the job done over the course of a full season. If we regress Jackson’s BABIP to a still-high .380, he’s going to produce an on-base percentage around .323. If we lower his BABIP to the current league-average of approximately .300, his OBP suddenly becomes a welcome-back-to-the-minors .276.
The scouting report on Jackson is no doubt filtering through the league as we speak: Changeups, preferably out of the zone. It will be up to the rookie to adjust. If he doesn’t, the next five months of the season will be rough when his BABIP comes back down to earth.