clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Austin Jackson and grounders, which should go away

Austin Jackson might be undervalued because of an adjustment he tried to make in Seattle.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason has been weird for anyone not preferring to be paid to hurl a stitched-together 5 ounce weapon of doom. Well, maybe not so much ‘weird’ as ‘slow to form’. Then Alex Gordon re-signed with the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants followed up by signing Denard Span to a three year deal the next day. Slowly but surely the outfield market is beginning to take shape. Yoenis Cespedes, Dexter Fowler, and Justin Upton lead the remaining class in star power still available. Presumably, all three will be standing on a foul line somewhere following the playing of the National Anthem on opening day, but right now, they're in a stand-off waiting for the other to move first. It’s like a blinking contest, but for millions of dollars.

Then there is Austin Jackson, who is absolutely fascinating.

If we’re looking at players over the course of their career, Jackson has been worth more than Fowler. Now I know you’re probably thinking, "well it is probably something insignificant like 1-2 wins. Over the course of six seasons that doesn’t mean he has been better, it just means they’ve put up similar production. WAR is not mean to be an exact metric, it is meant to be a range." To which I would say yes, that is 100% true. I would also compliment you on your hair, tell you that jacket looks good on you, and ask if you’ve been working out. Here is the thing though, the difference (according to fWAR) is five and a half wins. Almost six wins. Even more impressive? Jackson did that in ~100 fewer plate appearances than Fowler.

Jackson created his value  with a strong backing from defensive metrics, but it isn’t like he was completely inept at the plate. As a Detroit Tiger from 2010-2013 he hit well, going from prospect to productive Major League talent. He posted a solid .278/.344/.416 clip while owning an impressive 107 wRC+ over that time period. All looked well for the man expected to replace Curtis Granderson in center. That is, until they traded the man expected to replace Curtis Granderson in center.

As you probably remember, at the 2014 trade deadline the Mariners shipped Jackson to the Seattle Mariners as part of a three-team trade that (amongst other players) sent David Price to Detroit. This was going to be a great thing for Seattle. All it cost to finally get a mainstay in center was one whole Nick Franklin. Well maybe not a mainstay, as Jackson was a year and a half away from free agency, but someone who could provide stability at a position that had experienced anything but that. On paper, the trade looked like it would be tremendously helpful to a team that was competing for a playoff spot.

That could not have been farther from the case. In the last 236 plate appearances of his 2014 season, Jackson was bad...very in .039 ISO bad. As in an abysmally-low .239 wOBA. I think it’s fair to all Mariners’ fans to leave it at that. It was not pretty.

In 2015 things would get better, Jackson would be better offensively. He would return to having an ISO above .100 and a wRC+ that creeped ever-so-close to league average. Not amazing, but respectable for the caliber defense Jackson plays. Finally, he would be shipped off to the Chicago Cubs to back up the aforementioned Fowler. Which brings us back to the present.

Jackson was good, then he was really bad, and now he's a soon-to-be 29 year old free agent. What do we make of him offensively?

Well, he has the potential to be a bargain. I want you, the logical, critical thinking reader, to look at something. It is the batted ball percentages for Austin Jackson over the course of the last few seasons—including these last two as split seasons:

Season Team LD% GB% FB% IFFB%
2013 Tigers 27.6% 41.7% 30.7% 3.1%
2014 Tigers 24.6% 37.4% 38.0% 4.4%
2014 Mariners 27.3% 49.7% 23.0% 0.0%
2014 Overall 25.5% 41.8% 32.7% 3.3%
2015 Mariners 23.3% 51.1% 25.6% 1.3%
2015 Cubs 30.2% 50.9% 18.9% 10.0%
2015 Overall 24.3% 51.1% 24.6% 2.2%
Career 23.8% 45.2% 31.0% 2.8%

Seemingly out of nowhere, upon joining the Mariners Jackson began to hit more ground balls than at any point with the Tigers. This would certainly explain the drop in power, as it is hard to garner a lot of power from ground balls. Essentially what this means is that Jackson traded power for contact. Whether this was a conscious choice by either Jackson or one of the Mariners’ hitting coaches, it is a move most would have thought would work. Jackson is fast; surely if he puts the ball on the ground more often as opposed to using his power he will be the most effective. So that’s what he disastrous results.

Knowing that Safeco Field is as favorable to a pitcher as it is, could it be that Jackson realized he shouldn’t attempt hitting for power in that environment? He’s not the only recent player that the Mariners acquired who has tried to do this. Robinson Cano has hit grounders above his career average in his two seasons with Seattle, while Nelson Cruz has also seen a slight spike. The problem isn’t that ground balls are a bad idea, in this case the root cause is that Jackson’s speed has steadily decreased every year, making it harder for him to beat out the ground balls. At its core, he is producing worse results on the batted balls he's generating.

The good news is that the power is still there for him to tap back into. Last season Jackson hit the ball hard 30.4 percent of the time, which is slightly above his career average. Not only that, the outfielder still put fly balls and line drives in play effectively. Check it out:

Season ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+ Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
2013 0.433 0.169 0.385 145 14.6% 36.2% 49.2% 9.2% 52.3% 38.5%
2014 0.204 0.136 0.218 34 8.6% 42.4% 49.0% 12.6% 55.0% 32.5%
2015 0.420 0.138 0.359 132 20.2% 41.6% 38.2% 6.7% 57.3% 36.0%
Career 0.374 0.163 0.336 111 13.4% 38.8% 47.7% 10.5% 54.2% 35.4%

Season ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+ Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
2013 0.188 0.641 0.640 320 27.4% 40.2% 32.5% 7.7% 53.0% 39.3%
2014 0.178 0.653 0.651 336 28.0% 39.0% 33.1% 4.2% 61.0% 34.8%
2015 0.216 0.693 0.691 360 26.1% 38.6% 35.2% 9.1% 46.6% 44.3%
Career 0.217 0.685 0.691 355 27.4% 37.8% 34.8% 7.4% 53.1% 39.5%

We wouldn’t know if Jackson hitting more ground balls was something that just happened of its own volition or a determined effort wit conscious thought. What we can see though is that there is some power left in Jackson. It should be fairly obvious that fly balls and line drives are more conducive to power than grounders, and if Jackson can manage to trade in some ground balls we could see a hitter re-emerge.

MLBTR pegged Jackson at one year, $12 million to rebuild value. This would put his break-even WAR point at 1.5 fWAR, while Steamer projects Jackson as a 1.4 fWAR player. That makes Jackson a good, cheap-ish option for rebuilding teams looking to flip him for prospects at the deadline, or teams who want a good centerfielder but don’t want to spend greatly above market value. If Jackson can turn his ground balls into fly balls and line drives he will end up being even more worth that projection in the end, anyway. Which, of course, just greatly adds to the best outfield bargain still available in free agency—Austin Jackson.

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.