The Detroit Tigers are in third place in the American League Central at 20-21. They’re not where they — and many of us — expected them to be at this part of the season. Yes, the starting rotation’s been inconsistent, other than the supremely good and consistent Justin Verlander. The bullpen has sprung a few leaks, and leads the American League in losses with eight. But it’s the offense that’s been the most disappointing.
Through 41 games, the Tigers have scored 180 runs, just the seventh-most in the American League. The Rangers have scored 236. Even with Evan Longoria sidelined, the Rays are ahead of the Tigers with 184 runs. The Yankees, who haven’t had a hit with a runner in scoring position in two weeks (or so it seems), have scored 189.
There are a variety of reasons for the Tigers’ more sluggish-than-expected offense. Both Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera are significantly below their career numbers in walks and slugging. Catcher Alex Avila has reverted to his pedestrian 2010 form. And second base has been a pile of dreck among Brandon Inge (before he was released), Ramon Santiago, and Ryan Raburn.
The bright spot has been center fielder Austin Jackson. A very, very bright spot.
After a break-out rookie year with the Tigers in 2010, Jackson struggled at the plate last season. There was grumbling among Tigers fans who saw the team lose Curtis Granderson in a trade for the young Jackson at the end of 2009. Jackson wasn’t living up to his potential — potential first recognized when Baseball America named him the best 12-year-old in the nation.
This season is a whole different story.
Jackson’s started in 35 of the Tigers’ 41 games. He left the game on May 16 with an abdominal strain injury and hasn’t played since. He also sat on April 26 and May 12 (other than a pinch hit appearance). The Tigers average 4.49 runs/game with Jackson in the starting lineup and are 18-17 in those games. They average 3.5 runs/game when he’s on the bench and are 2-4 in those games.
Jackson leads the Tigers in nearly every offense-related category. He has the highest batting average, on-base percentage,wOBA, wRC+, walks, doubles, triples (tied with Andy Dirks), and stolen bases. He’s second in slugging percentage behind Andy Dirks. That’s right, he’s ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in slugging percentage.
Jackson’s weakness has always been strikeouts. Lots and lots of strikeouts. This season, his K rate is down to 18.2 percent, substantially below his career average of 25.3 percent, and below the major-league average of 19.4 percent.
What’s fueling Jackson’s offensive surge?
He ditched his leg kick.
Take a look at these Jackson at-bats from last season. Lots of movement in the batter’s box. A should-I-or-shouldn’t-I leg kick. And an off-balance swing. Even when he got a hit, he did not strike the ball with authority.
Now this season. The leg kick is gone. The energy in the box is focused. And the results look like this:
The Tigers are struggling on offense with Jackson out of the lineup. Detroit was hoping to get him back for the all three games of the team’s series with the first-place Indians, which starts tonight. But Jackson is still feeling the effects of his abdominal strain and isn’t likely for tonight’s matchup. That’s bad new for the Tigers. They need his calm and consistent energy at the top of the lineup. And they need it now.