CLEVELAND – Twelve home runs and 43 stolen bases of production is difficult to replace at the center field position.
When Rajai Davis elected free agency before signing with the Oakland Athletics in January, the Indians knew they would have a difficult time matching his stellar combination of speed and power for a right-handed platoon player at one of the most important positions the game has to offer.
It is only 27 at-bats, but Austin Jackson is making a case to fill the void while patrolling the outfield against left-handed pitching.
“I think when you see him get more repetition, he’s never been a big split guy, really, but on our club right now, it seems to make sense to play him against lefties,” said manager Terry Francona. “You can see him getting at-bats, kind of like Guyer, just kind of based on the makeup of the roster, health of guys, things like that.”
Jackson is slashing .296/.387/.556 with four doubles, one home run, two RBIs and features a .943 OPS, the fourth highest mark on the team. The 30-year-old journeyman has not hit any game-tying home runs off Aroldis Chapman in Game 7 of the World Series just yet, but he has exceeded expectations in the early stages of the 2017 campaign.
“Starting to get back to feeling like myself again as far as physically,” Jackson said. “Offensively, defensively, things like that. That stuff just comes with playing more. The more I play the more comfortable I get out there.”
The former White Sox center fielder had a medial meniscus tear in his left knee to spend the remaining four months of the 2016 season on the disabled list. A small portion of Jackson’s meniscus was removed when he underwent knee surgery on June 17.
“I think he deserves a ton of credit for getting himself in game shape as quickly as he did because, I think when people see a knee scope they say, ‘little knee scope,’” said Francona. “He had a lot done in there and he missed a fair amount of time. When he got the okay from the trainers, he was going game speed pretty quickly, which was impressive, but he maintained it.”
Jackson has appeared on the DL four different times for an abdominal strain (2012), pulled right hamstring (2013), right ankle sprain (2015) and the meniscus tear (2016). He has logged action for the Tigers (2010-14), Mariners (2014), Cubs (2015) and White Sox (2016) before signing with the Tribe on a minor league contract with a non-roster invitation to spring training on January 25.
“Physically, that was the main hurdle really to get over,” Jackson said of his early-season adjustments. “When you’re dealing with the knees, that’s tough. All the cutting and pushing off of things, like that.”
In addition to his standard stats, Jackson is also swinging at a career-low 21.1% of pitches outside of the strike zone while swinging at a career-high 72.2% of pitches inside the strike zone through 10 games played. Despite the small sample size, early plate discipline percentages indicate Jackson is seeing the ball substantially better than his previous seven years in the big leagues.
Rounding out Jackson’s prosperous April was a solo home run on Tuesday night, his first blast since October 1, 2015 as a member of the Cubs.
“Always feels good,” said Jackson. “Wish it could have meant a little more but it did feel good to round ‘em again.”