Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Austin Jackson living large

One of the great joys of following baseball is watching young players develop and come into their own. Guys like Wieters for the Orioles now look totally more confident than just a couple of seasons ago. Easy outs become clutch hits. Weaknesses are mitigated. And magic happens. That is all what we are seeing from Austin Jackson this season. He has grown right before our eyes. Now in his third full season, Jackson looks more confident and his play readily reflects a player who is figuring out life in the Major Leagues.

The glaring weakness in Austin Jackson's game to this point was the strikeouts. When he made contact, good things happened. His BABIP has always been way above league average, but putting the ball in play has been the problem. And since he hits line drives at a pace above most mortals, he will always have a good BABIP. Contact was the problem. Much was made of attempts to cut down on his tendency to go down on strikes this spring. And though we've heard that before from other big-time strikeout guys, this time, it actually seems to have meant something.

In Austin Jackson's first 304 games in the majors, Jackson struck out 351 times. This season. in 21 games, he has struck out only 20 times. His 21 percent strikeout rate still seems a bit on the high side. But that is a darn sight better than the 25.8 percent he has averaged for his career. And while he is striking out less, he is walking more. His 12.8 percent walk rate is far and above his career 8.0 percent walk rate. For years, people have been talking about those silly Tigers that kept batting Jackson at the lead off position. And yes, his OBP of .317 last season did make that decision silly. But this year, his .376 on-base percentage justifies his batting order position for perhaps the first time in his career.

And this is a progression at work for Jackson. His O-swing percentage, or the percentage of pitches he swings at out of the strike zone, has decreased in each of his big league seasons. Currently at 26.7 percent, he is already getting there. But if he keeps progressing and can get that discipline down a few more percentage points, there will be no stopping him.

To see Jackson's offensive game round into something near awesome, a complete package is developing. He is already one of the most exciting center fielders in the game today. That play he almost made on Curtis Granderson on Sunday was unbelievable and no other center fielder in the game would have come close to that ball, never mind almost catch it. A case could be made that Jackson is the best fielding center fielder in baseball right now. Seriously. Name someone better.

Everything about Austin Jackson's game is better. He has the highest ISO of his career, the highest wOBA, the highest OPS, the lowest strikeout rate. There was a time as recent as last year's post season, when it was a relief to have Austin Jackson come to the plate in a big situation. A relief for the opposition that is. Now, seeing the young center fielder stride to the plate brings apprehension. 

It is early in the season. The sample size is still a big small. Let's see if Austin Jackson can keep this up. This observer thinks he can. Fangraphs currently ranks him as the third most valuable non-pitcher in baseball. And he's still not as good as he is going to be.

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