Why Austin Jackson Should Be Just Fine

Among the many significant trades that went down at last July’s trading deadline, the three-way deal among the Tigers, Rays and Mariners that centered around David Price was particularly unique. The Tigers and Rays’ respective goals were pretty clear; the Tigers wanted Price to bolster their rotation for what they hoped would be a World Series run, and the Rays were bailing on the race and restocking for the future with the acquisition of Drew Smyly, Nick Franklin and minor leaguer Willy Adames. The Mariners’ role in the deal was a little more understated but just as intriguing. In exchange for Franklin, they acquired center fielder Austin Jackson, filling an organizational void in the hopes of making a playoff charge of their own. They fell a game short of a wild card berth, and Jackson’s ineffectiveness played a role. Still, some interesting batted-ball data suggests that the M’s may get their money’s worth in 2015, if some targeted adjustments are made.

Austin Jackson was drafted by the Yankees on the 8th round of the 2005 draft out of Billy Ryan HS in Denton, Texas. He posted a .287-.355-.408 line in his minor league career, certifying himself as a legitimate big league prospect with a huge second half at High-A Tampa in 2007. Each season I compile my own ordered list of top minor league hitting prospects based on players’ OBP and SLG relative to their league and level, adjusted for age. It serves basically as a follow list, with traditional scouting methods then used to adjust the rankings. Jackson earned his peak ranking that season at #5, but also qualified for the list in 2006, 2007 and 2009, ranking in the low 100’s each year. His peak ranking hinted to a strong offensive upside, but his more sustained lower rankings suggested some offensive limitations as well.

The Price deal was actually not the largest three-way deal in which Jackson has played a part. Following the 2009 season, before he had a single big league at-bat, Jackson went from New York to Detroit in a mega-deal that also involved the Arizona Diamondbacks, which redistributed to new clubs the likes of Max Scherzer, Ian Kennedy, Curtis Granderson, Edwin Jackson, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth. Jackson immediately started and produced in Detroit, contributing roughly league average offense as well as capable center field defense. That made him a steady 3.5-4.0 WAR per year player until the bottom fell out offensively in 2014.

What makes Austin Jackson tick offensively, and what might the Seattle Mariners expect of him in 2015, their only year of control before he hits the free agent market? Let’s take a deeper look at his offensive game by analyzing his 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by ball-in-play type data. First, the frequency information:

FREQ – 2014
A.Jackson % REL PCT
K 22.0% 118 76
BB 7.2% 92 46
POP 3.4% 42 8
FLY 30.1% 105 61
LD 24.7% 117 91
GB 41.9% 99 48

Jackson’s K rate is high, with a 76 percentile rank, but is basically in line with career norms. His BB rate percentile rank of 46 was his lowest since his rookie year, and has declined fairly dramatically since peaking at 84 in 2012. So while his K/BB ratio is far from ideal, and has deteriorated in the recent past, it’s far from a deal-killer given a couple of exceptional BIP frequencies.

Jackson almost never pops up. His 2014 popup percentile rank of 8 is exceptional, and is right in line with career norms. In five seasons, his popup rate percentile ranks have floated in a narrow band between 5 and 12. Outside of the K’s, he gives away few truly free outs. His 61 fly ball and 48 ground ball rate percentile ranks are basically in line with career norms, and raise no red or even orange flags.

Jackson also had a very high liner rate in 2014, good for a very strong liner percentile rank of 91. Again, this wasn’t a one-year fluke. While liner rates fluctuate more than those of other BIP types from year to year, there are certain players for whom this represents a repeatable skill. Jackson is one such player. His liner rate percentile rank has ranged between 91 and 99 in four of the last five, and each of the last three seasons. Other AL players who boast the ability to repeat high liner rates from year to year include Miguel Cabrera (from 64 to 96 since 2008, 91 in both 2013-14), Robinson Cano (from 65 to 92 since 08, 87-92 from 2011-14), Joe Mauer (from 81 to 96 since 2008, 92 in both 2013-14), Michael Brantley (from 78 to 82 in four of last five years, 88 and 84 in 2013-14), James Loney (75 to 99 since 2009, 99 in both 2013-14) and David Freese (68 to 94 since 2011).

So Jackson never pops up and hits a ton of liners. That would sure seem to be a recipe for excellence, or at the very least above average-ness. So what the heck happened in 2014? Well, we have not taken BIP authority or direction into account. As we shall see, both are pretty central to what Jackson is today and could be tomorrow. Let’s get a better feel for both by taking a look at his production by BIP type data:

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.195 0.398 39 57
LD 0.688 0.899 108 101
GB 0.259 0.281 111 105
ALL BIP 0.330 0.448 93 97
ALL PA 0.252 0.306 0.341 88 91

Jackson’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and it’s converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

The nub of Jackson’s primary 2014 problem sits starkly in the very first line item. He hit a mighty .195 AVG-.398 SLG on fly balls in 2014, good for a 39 REL PRD. Sure, some of that is Safeco, but even after adjustment for context, his fly ball ADJ PRD is a measly 57.

Now, his actual production on fly balls wasn’t the lowest in the AL. Among hitters with 215 or more batted balls, there were 10 less productive fly ballers:
Ichiro Suzuki (17), Eric Sogard (19), Norichika Aoki (22), Mike Aviles (26), Adam Eaton (26), Yunel Escobar (31), Elvis Andrus (33), Derek Jeter (33), Jackie Bradley (36) and Omar Infante (36). All of those 10 hitters have one very significant thing in common; their average fly ball velocity was below, often well below the league average. Jackson, on the other hand, had an average fly ball velocity over one half standard deviation above the AL average. Again, what gives?

This is where Jackson’s problem shifts from fly ball authority to direction. I utilize a very simple statistic, pull ratio, to analyze the directional tendencies of MLB hitters. For a righty like Jackson, I use this formula for each major BIP type: (balls hit to LF + LCF)/(balls hit to RCF + RF). A typical hitter might have a fly ball pull ratio around 1:1, a liner pull ratio around 2:1, and a grounder pull ratio around 4:1. Jackson’s pull ratios, especially in the air and on a line, were well below these norms in 2014; he posted 0.53 fly ball, 0.93 line drive, and a 3.71 ground ball pull ratio. Theses marks were down from 0.73, 1.12 and 4.38 in 2013.

Now in general, it’s a good thing to utilize the entire field. It prevents opponents from introducing the dreaded overshift in the infield. The Cardinals, for example, have built their predictable low-risk, moderate-reward team offense around the ability to hit the ball hard the other way. Players who use the whole field have long, gentle decline phases, in general. There comes a time, however, when hitting the ball in the air the other way becomes relatively pointless, and in Jackson’s case that time came in 2014.

There is a cliff off of which fly ball production dives, velocity-wise. Without going off on too much of a tangent, consider this; when hitters hit a fly ball at a speed of 92.5 MPH or higher in 2014, they batted .560 and slugged 1.884. When they hit a fly ball between 75 and 90 MPH, they batted .077 and slugged .148. Now go back and read that again. The upper boundary of the second category is just 2.5 MPH less than the lower boundary of the first, and the production is so dramatically different. Now, depending upon the field sector to which the ball is hit, those MPH boundaries shift a bit; one obviously must hit a ball harder to the middle three sectors of the field to do damage than to the two dead pull sectors.

Jackson’s raw fly ball authority dropped just a little bit in 2014, but it was just that little bit, along with a touch of the Safeco effect, that dropped many of his fly balls from the highly productive to the much lesser productive bucket. This is where Jackson needs to make a relatively simple adjustment to get more mileage out of his fly balls; he needs to selectively pull in the air the pitches he can truly drive.

This might sound like an oversimplification, but when you get down to it, it’s something highly trained amateur and all professional hitters do in virtually every batting practice session in which they participate. Move the ball around the first couple of rounds, but in that last round, look for a pitch to drive, and do maximum damage with it, usually in the air to the pull side. It’s obviously a bit harder to take that approach to the game, when you don’t know what pitch is coming, but BP is structured in such a manner for a reason.

Without looking too hard, one can find hitters who in 2014 successfully made the adjustment that Jackson needs to make this season. Alex Gordon had a 1.00 fly ball pull factor in 2013, and increased it to 1.56 in 2014, increasing his overall production despite a freakishly low liner percentile rank of 3. Brett Gardner was basically the lefthanded equivalent of Jackson’s directionally in 2013, with a fly ball pull ratio of 0.78 to Jackson’s 0.73. Gardner’s pull ratio spiked to 1.37 in 2014, and he more than doubled his career high in homers, though his liner percentile rank shrunk to 18. Jackson is righthanded, and does play in Safeco, but there are homers available to him there down the left field line, where the fence was lowered a couple years back.

Both Gordon and Gardner saw their grounder pull ratio creep up a bit as they selectively pulled in the air more frequently, but not to the point that it invited an overshift. Even more importantly, neither of those two have ever possessed the popup avoidance and line drive striking true talents that Jackson does. After adjustment for context, there is no reason that he can’t be every bit the offensive player that they are moving forward.

Despite hitting his fly balls harder than MLB average velocity, Austin Jackson had a 39 REL PRD on fly balls last year. If he mustered merely his context-adjusted level of 57, his overall 2014 REL PRD jumps from 88 to 94. If it were merely 81 — Brett Gardner’s 2014 ADJ PRD on fly balls — his overall line jumps to .258-.318-.388, for a 102 REL PRD. If he could have somehow posted a 100, league average REL PRD on fly balls, admittedly a reach in Safeco, his overall line jumps to .269-.322-.408, and he becomes a very rich man in free agency next offseason.

Obviously, it is in both the club and the player’s best interests that Jackson has a productive walk year. It enhances the chances that the Mariners make the postseason in addition to the obvious positive effect on Jackson’s bank account. His ability to make the adjustments discussed above would also seem to be enhanced by the fact that his manager in Seattle, Lloyd McClendon, was his hitting coach in Detroit when he had his greatest success.

There comes a point in every hitter’s career when his physical gifts begin to recede, sometimes ever so slightly, and adjustments, process and plan are needed to compensate for the shortfall and extend the player’s useful life. That time has come for Austin Jackson. Fortunately for him, he possesses some significant, fairly rare abilities that gives him an exceptionally strong foundation upon which to make such adjustments and thrive. After all, this isn’t Eric Sogard we’re talking about here.

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Good piece as always Tony.

Been thinking about your Dozier piece from last week and Melvin Upton – seems to me like Melvin took the same extreme pull approach in 2012 and thus personifies how badly that approach can bottom out. The link below directs to his spray charts in 2012. Does that make any sense whatsoever?