AJax: Not This Bad, But Probably Never Great

Tigers fans have a very complicated relationship with Austin Jackson. There are moments when he looks like he's nearing stardom and moments when you're not sure he's capable of handling a starting job on a contender. The word most people use is streaky. Jackson has always been an up and down player, but at 27, this prolonged slump is weighing on many. Which Jackson will we see in the second half?

Once upon a time, we could always count on Austin Jackson's baserunning and defense to keep his head above water even during his offensive craters. This year (all numbers entering Monday), the numbers aren't so kind in those two departments. He's swiped eight bases and been caught three times, which is a fine mark given that his base stealing has been limited since his first two seasons. He's also taking the extra base and avoiding outs on the bases at roughly the same clip as he has in recent years. However, Jackson's baserunning isn't getting a chance to shine this year because he has a career worst .310 on base percentage. His ability to run the bases doesn't look substantially diminished compared to recent years, but he isn't getting the opportunity to cut loose on balls up the gap.

"There are many ways to measure defense, but Jackson comes up lacking in all of them, which usually supports a singular conclusion: He's playing worse."

Jackson's lack of baserunning value appears to be a symptom rather than a cause, so if he solves his issues at the plate his wheels should start to matter again. The more concerning side of the coin, however, is Jackson's suddenly plummeting skills in centerfield.

There are many ways to measure defense, but Jackson comes up lacking in all of them, which usually supports a singular conclusion: He's playing worse. For Jackson's first two seasons he played like an elite defender in center and over the next two seasons he played like an above average one. This year, he's below average across the board.

Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating estimate he's cost the team between six and seven runs compared to an average defender in center this year (about ten runs equals one win) and the secondary numbers back that up. He's turning only 91.1% of balls in his defensive zone into outs this year, which is the lowest mark of his career and he's making plays outside his zone less often as well.

Inside Edge has Jackson making only 67% of plays that are typically made between 60 and 90 percent of the time and zero plays that are converted between one and 40 percent of the time. FanGraphs only carries this data back to 2012, but the 2014 version of Jackson isn't doing very well. He's never been great at holding or nailing runners, but this year they're taking the extra base more often against him. Heck, if you like Fielding Percentage for some reason, Jackson's also having his worst season in that department.

Having watched the vast majority of Jackson's innings in center, it doesn't appear as if one particular type of play is hurting him or one skill is diminishing. For my money, Jackson's never been great at the first five steps or the last five steps of a tough play in the outfield. His routes have never been terrific and his unwillingness to dive often leads him to indecision on close plays in front of him. When he was 24, he could make up for these deficiencies with his terrific closing speed, but speed peaks early and one lost step can be the difference. It also doesn't help that he's frequently playing between very poor defenders, so he may be adjusting his preparations knowing he's basically out there on his own.

Given all of this, I suspect that while Jackson is no longer an elite defender in center, he should improve in the second half as a matter of regression to the mean. Without injury, it's uncommon to see a player in their twenties lose 15 runs on defense in one year. He'll probably be close to average out there the rest of the way.

Jackson's baserunning and defense have had issues in 2014, but they shouldn't hold him back significantly. The real concern, as it always is, is the consistency of his bat.

When the season started many observers, myself included, were very excited about the fact that Jackson was making more contact and striking out less. While Jackson's contact rate and strikeout rate remain the best of his career, they now look much more like 2012 and 2013 than some sort of new peak. He's walking plenty, but his ability to run a high BABIP and hit for some power seem to have vanished.

Jackson's BABIP entering the season was over .350 for his career but this year it's a rather human .298. In 2012 and 2013 his isolated power (SLG minus AVG) was above .140. This year it's .115. When Jackson puts the ball in play, it's falling for a hit much less often than at any point in his career and those hits are going for extra bases much less often than any time since his rookie year.

He's traded line drives and ground balls for fly balls this year, which is a good enough explanation for why his BABIP is lower due to the fact that fly balls fall for hits less often than line drives and ground balls, but fly balls tend to generate more power too. His BABIP on fly balls is in line with his career norms but his ISO on fly balls is much lower (.266 this year, over .360 from 2011 to 2013). When it comes to line drives, his BABIP and ISO are much lower this year than in years past. His ground ball results look normal.

So when it comes down to it, Jackson isn't getting hits for average or power on line drives and his fly balls aren't going for extra bases. The crutch explanation is that this might be bad luck. It does seem like he's hitting into a lot of hard luck outs, but if you really compare the quality of contact from year to year, there does appear to be a drop off in 2014. Unfortunately, certain data that might be more precise isn't publicly available such as hard hit ball rate and exit velocity.

Right now, Austin Jackson is having the worst season of his career. At the plate he's hitting .249/.310/.359 (.297 wOBA) and has been worth a staggering -0.1 fWAR through 298 PA. The projection systems (ZiPS and Steamer) like him to bounce back into the .320-.330 wOBA range for the remainder of the year while playing average defense. If that's true, Jackson will still wind with his first truly below average season since joining the Tigers.

The answer to the important question is one that isn't entirely clear. Is Jackson going to rebound and give the Tigers a quality second half? That depends on the cause of his struggles and how easy it is to fix them. If Jackson lacks meaningful power because he's over-adjusted his swing to become a "middle of the order hitter," then the coaching staff should be able to pull him out of this tailspin. However, if Jackson is starting to lose bat speed at 27, the age at which players tend to peak, then the concerns are more serious.

Having examined his numbers and watched a very high number of his plate appearance during his career, I think that Jackson is probably just suffering from some sort of technical funk. I don't think his skills are declining this dramatically, but after four and a half years it might be time to recognize that 2012 was the mirage year in which he didn't struggle. Jackson's probably simply a .330 wOBA guy with solid baserunning skills and playable defense in center. That's a good player, but it isn't a star player. Jackson might flash greatness, but there are simply too many mistimed swings for it to routinely show up over the course of a season.

Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, and the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44

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