A couple of years back the Tigers' Austin Jackson was a hot property. He was coming off a season in which he hit .300 with 16 homers and 103 runs scored. Last season his effort was well off the pace, and the result is that no one is putting much faith in the speedy outfielder who comes into the 2014 with very little “juice” behind his name. Should you follow the crowd with Jackson and only show interest at a point where he's nothing more than a depth outfielder for you, or should you have a plan to target him as an essential piece of a championship club?
Alex Rios does it. So does Austin Jackson. The “it” is the unexplainable trend of alternating productive and moderate seasons. Some players – with these two at the top of the list – have alternated efforts of value every other season. However, it means nothing in the grand scheme. By that I mean that sometimes all of us look for patterns where there are none to be found. We look for meaning where there really isn't any. This is one of those cases. Yes Jackson has been good, bad, good and bad over his four year career. That doesn't mean he will be good in 2014 because of “the pattern” - there's just no scientific backing for such a claim. Just be sure you understand that before moving forward.
Here are Jackson's four year numbers in the fantasy game. It's pretty easy why someone would think that the “pattern” with Jackson would continue, even if I'm going to somewhat expose that line of thought below.
Yes, there has been big time fluctuation with his batting average, I'll get to that in a second, and there is no disputing that his steal rate has dwindled (albeit in a linear manner and not year-to-year with the yo-yo thing). The last three years he's hit 10, 16 and 12 homers for an average of 13 a season. He hasn't been all over the place in homers, he's been relatively consistent. In the RBI column he's been in the 40's three times. Not much volatility there either. In the runs scored column he's been between 90 and 103 each of the four seasons. Again, not much in the way of volatility. The stability he's shown in those three categories is pretty impressive given that he's appeared in 137 and 129 games the past two seasons. The truth is that if he had appeared in 150 games, like he did his first two seasons in the bigs, Austin would have posted even stronger marks in homers, runs and RBIs the past two seasons. There has been some minor growth here that has been camouflaged by the games he's missed. So the fact that people think he does this year-to-year thing is really only based on his batting average and steal marks. Let's explore both.
Jackson is a career .278 hitter, but the perception is that he is spotty as all get out in batting average because of how he got there. Perception test. These are Jackson's actual batting averages over the past four seasons.
.293, .249, .300 and .272.
What if the numbers looked like this?
.249, .272, .293 and .300.
You would be stoked about adding that guy to your team, wouldn't you?
What about this guy?
.278, .278, .278 and .278.
Boring. You wouldn't really be interested, right?
The fact is all of the above number strings lead to one number and that is .278. You can see how much everyone is affected as to “how” Jackson got to where he is now, but the fact is that each of the three offered number strings would all lead to the same end result – a .278 batting average. It's one thing to be worried about a 34 year old with declining production, but in this case Jackson is a 27 year old just entering his prime years (note, I'm not saying that the “age 27 breakout” thing is true. As a matter of fact, I don't believe it is).
Why has Jackson vacillated so much season-to-season in the batting average category? Let's investigate.
Jackson has a K-rate of 24 percent for his career. Here are his four season marks: 25.2, 27.1, 21.7 and 21.0. As you will note his effort that last two years has been much better but he's still hit .300 and .272 despite the fact that Jackson has improved his BB/K the past two years.
What about his GB/FB rates? As a rookie he had a mark of 1.77, but the last three years he's really settled in with marks of 1.31, 1.24 and 1.36. Can't explain the batting average craziness with this measure.
What about his line drive rates? Now these mark have been all over the place. Check it: 24.2, 16.8, 23.8, and 27.6. The last number is massive, the second number far too tepid for Jackson's skills. His career mark is 23.2 and his season marks from 2010 (24.2) and 2012 (23.8) are pretty darn close to his career rate. This is the type of hitter I would expect Jackson to be. However, the real key here could be his BABIP.
The league average BABIP is usually in the .290-.300 range. Some players are consistently below that level while others are consistently above it. Shorthand? Players set their own baseline in BABIP. Using a running three year background check also provides a decent place to look if we're trying to project things for the next season.
Jackson is one of those players who, even in a down year, is an elite BABIP option. Here are his four year marks.
2010: .396 (to lead baseball)
That's an elite career mark and even in his “down” seasons he's been extremely impressive. Given the volatility in BABIP from season to season, the fact is that Jackson is likely to always be a bit frustrating in the batting average column. He doesn't walk much (more on that below). He doesn't flash much power. He strikes out a good deal (though he has improved the last two seasons). All of that conspires to leave Jackson fairly dependent on how many of his batted balls squeak through the infield or fall just out of the reach of defenders. The two seasons Jackson has been a nine out of 10 in BABIP he's hit .249 and .272. The two seasons he's been a 10 out of 10 in BABIP he's hit .293 and .300. Just some food for thought.