Looking at History to Project Austin Jackson in 2011

DETROIT - MAY 2: Austin Jackson #14 of the Detroit Tigers singles to center field in the sixth inning scoring Alex Avila (not in photo) against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim during the game on May 2, 2010 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. The Tigers defeated the Angels 5-1. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

While waiting to board a flight I saw the following tweet by Jon Heyman regarding the Detroit Tigers Austin Jackson:

fantasy thought: austin jackson looks fantastic in #tigers camp. could be primed for monster year

Of course, this got me thinking about what we should expect from Jackson this year. Unlike Heyman, I think Jackson has a huge hill to climb if he's going to have a "monster year"--history is not on his side.

The Detroit Tigers rookie had a solid debut in 2011, posting a 3.8 fWAR. More impressive, Jackson finished the season with a .396 batting average on balls in play. Jackson became one of only 40 players to post a >=.390 BABIP since 1901. His .396 average was good for a share of 33rd place all time in a single season.

What's interesting about Jackson's season was how unimpressive it was when you put it into context:

Of all players that posted a >=.390 BABIP, Jackson sported the lowest OPS (.745), lowest OBP (.345), and second lowest SLG (.400) all-time. His OPS was .41 points lower than his fellow Tiger, Ron LeFlore, who posted a .391 BABIP and a .786 OPS in 1976. Additionally, Jackson posted the 8th lowest ISO (.107) among the 40 other high BABIP players.

Given that a .396 BABIP is historically rare and the average BABIP is .300, Jackson will undoubtedly come back to earth in 2011. But given that we only have one year of major league data to go by, answering the question of "how much" is tricky.

I'm pretty confident that Jackson won't repeat his BABIP, given that only 25% of the players that posted a .390+ BABIP ever repeated the feat, and that list includes guys like Al Simmons, Rod Carew, George Sisler, and some guy named Ty Cobb. Even if Jackson is a high BABIP hitter, only eight players have managed career BABIP averages of over .350 (again, the list is quite impressive).

In fact, on average hitters that posted a .390+ BABIP saw their OBP drop by .033, their SLG drop by .044, and their OPS fall by .077 the following year. Only 13 hitters saw their OPS increase the following year, and only 9 batters posted a higher OBP.

Jackson was already starting with weak OBP/SLG/OPS numbers, so you have to wonder how he could possibly improve in 2011. 

One possibility is that Jackson can improve on his dreadful BB/K ratio. Jackson struck out 170 times last year while only walking 47 times (.276 BB/K), which was 16th worst in the league last year (>=350 PA's). More balls in play will increase his OBP and SLG--even if his BABIP falls back to earth--and an increase in walks will also boost OBP.

Oustide of that, I'm finding it hard to see how Jackson has a better 2011. Bill James and Tango's Marcel both have Jackson posting a slightly higher wOBA next year (.344 and .341 vs. .333) as well as OBP and SLG, but I wonder how much of that is driven by their (high in my opinion ) projections of his BABIP (.383 and .377). 

Coming off .396 in his first season, there is no precedent for a hitter posting a .370+ BABIP in season two. Just take a look at the highest BABIP average after a player's first two seasons--the highest you get is Wade Boggs at .368.

My back-of-the-envelope estimate is that Jackson will post a BABIP between .330

There's always a first time for everything, but nothing about Jackson suggests to me he'll be the first in this area.

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