Jackson can join elite list of Tigers with most hits in first five seasons

In his fifth season, Austin Jackson is climbing up the ranks of Detroit hitters.

In his fifth season, Austin Jackson is climbing up the ranks of Detroit hitters.

By the end of this season, Austin Jackson might take his place alongside Ty Cobb, who patrolled center field for the Detroit Tigers 100 years ago. Or AJax may surpass The Georgia Peach.

How is that possible? Well, it’s very possible because Jackson is accumulating hits at a clip unheard of in team history. Through Thursday’s game against the Blue Jays, Jackson had notched 687 hits in his first four-plus seasons, a total that ranks him 12th all-time in franchise history for players in their first five seasons in the big leagues. Given his season average of 160 coming into 2014, it seems likely he’ll end up with enough in his first five seasons to climb past Cobb’s total of 765. In fact, Jackson has a chance, if he perks up at the plate, to set a team record for hits in his first five, a record held by Harvey Kuenn.

Jackson has been somewhat of an enigma thus far in his career. Acquired in a high-profile trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, Jackson had a fine rookie campaign, finishing 2nd in AL Rookie of the Year balloting. But he slumped in his sophomore season, setting a team record with 181 K’s (it took Cobb about six seasons to strike out that much), then he rebounded in 2012 to hit .300 but struggled so much last season he was yanked from the leadoff spot. He now occupies the #5 spot in the lineup but he’s been so sketchy there that cleanup hitter Victor Martinez has been intentionally walked 10 times. Jackson doesn’t scare opposing pitchers, unless you count the fear that he might swing so hard and miss the baseball so badly that he could injure someone with his follow through. It remains to be seen where Jackson’s career will go from here. He has one more year on his contract, and given his strange lapses in fundamentals and his up-and-down offensive performance, it’s not a given he’ll remain in a Tiger uniform past 2015. But he’s still piling up a lot of hits for a player at the start of his career, and this year he’ll pass many big names on the Detroit hit list.

Here are the 11 Detroit hitters (Jackson ranks 12th as of June 5th) with the most hits in their first five seasons, and a comment on where they went from there.

11. Travis Fryman, 692 hits (1990-94)

He was supposed to replace Alan Trammell at short, but the Tigers nudged him to third base, where Fryman finished 6th in Rookie of the Year voting despite playing only 66 games in 1990. He was a four-time All-Star for Detroit before being traded twice in two weeks and ending up in Cleveland. He had two good seasons with the Tribe, and it would have been nice to have had him spend his career with the Tigers, he was a good guy and a fan favorite. Even so, his career was over at the relatively early age of 33.

10. Vic Wertz, 693 hits (1947-51)

He was used as a platoon player his first two season but still amassed a good number of hits in his first five seasons. Wertz is the only player on this list who left the Tigers and went on to have a good lengthy career after the promise of his first few seasons. He was an All-Star at the age of 32 for the Indians and three years later for Boston he drove in more than 100 runs. In all, he played 17 seasons in the big leagues, returning to Detroit for 2 1/2 years at the tail end of his run.

9. Marv Owen, 706 (1931, 33-36)

Owen was a pretty mediocre offensive player with the exception of the ’34 season when he hit .317 with a .451 slugging percentage, which was well above his career norms. He played a sixth season with the Tigers before being packaged in a trade that sent him to the White Sox. He was washed up as a player.

8. Al Kaline, 710 (1953-57)

Kaline had a .307 average and a 127 OPS+ (on-base plus slugging adjusted to the league) in his first five seasons. His OPS+ ranks second among these players behind only Cobb (who posted an astronomical 163 OPS+ for his first five seasons).

7. Steve Kemp, 711 (1977-81)

Remember how he would corkscrew himself into the ground on a big swing and miss? But when Kemp made contact he was a dangerous hitter, which he showed almost immediately when he came to the Tigers as a 22-year old rookie. After his fifth season the Tigers traded Kemp to the White Sox straight-up for Chet Lemon, who was also 26 years old at the time of the deal. The swap proved to be one of the best in Detroit history, as Kemp only had 41 homers in 484 games after leaving the Tigers. Maybe the Tigers should look back at this deal when deciding on whether to keep Jackson after his five seasons are up. Might be his value will never be better than it is now.

6. Pete Fox, 742 (1933-37)

Fox had the good fortune of coming up with the Tigers when they were really good (like Jackson). He was pretty fast but not that great at stealing bases (like Jackson). But unlike Jackson, Fox hit for a high average based on his ability to make contact. He usually played right field, though he pitched in at center occasionally. He was a sparkplug for the 1930s Tigers and one of the more popular players on those teams. After getting 208 hits in his 5th season, he tailed off, only having two more solid years in a career that was extended only because he was never drafted into the service in World War II, so he kept a job in the big leagues. He was a career .298 hitter, but once the war was over, his career was done.

5. Barney McCosky, 744 (1939-42, 46)

McCosky actually had 853 hits in his first five seasons, but 109 of them came with the Philadelphia A’s in 1946 after the Tigers traded him in the middle of the season. McCosky missed three years while he was in the military in World War II, but he was a very good hitter. Ultimately, Detroit was right to trade him, because he was effectively done as a player by the age of 31. But he did have three good seasons with the Athletics after he was traded (for George Kell, so that worked out well). McCosky was a high school sandlot star in Detroit and his 390 hits in his first two seasons are a record for the Tigers. Given some better luck (like not having his career interrupted by WWII), he may have been sitting on 1,700 hits and a .330 career average after his first 10 seasons. Given his lack of power though, unless he won a batting title or two, he probably wouldn’t have had a chance at the Hall of Fame. As it is, he played 11 seasons, hit .312, and got MVP votes in six years.

4. Ty Cobb, 765 (1905-09)

Cobb was only 18 as a rookie in ’05 and he only played for about a month, but by 1907 he was one of the best hitters in the league and became the youngest player to win the batting title (and he still is, by one day over Kaline). He obviously had the best career of any of these players and scores of words have been written about Cobb, but here are a few things you may not know about him:

  • He hit the first home run by an opposing player at Boston’s Fenway Park.
  • He perfected his bunting skills by challenging himself to lay down bunts on a sweater he spread out along the baselines.
  • His first big league hit, a double, came off a Hall of Famer, Jack Chesbro.
  • During his playing career, Cobb never drank or chewed tobacco.
  • He was part of an elite chemical warfare unit in World War I.

3. Lu Blue, 784 (1921-25)

Like many of the players on this list, Blue’s most productive offensive seasons were his first five or so. He was a switch-hitter adept at hitting line drives over the head of the infield. He served as Cobb’s first baseman from 1921-26, and hit near .300, but that was basically the league average back then, so it’s not that impressive. Still, a good little hitter.

2. Ron LeFlore, 790 (1974-78)

LeFlore stepped out of prison and into pro ball and hit well immediately. He was a really gifted athlete. Just watch him in this Superstars competition to see how gifted he was. He was a cruddy person though, lying and snorting his way out of baseball in a waste of talent. Sparky Anderson saw right through him and LeFlore was sent packing quickly after Sparky’s arrival in Motown, and it was a good thing, because he only had about a year of good baseball left in him.

1. Harvey Kuenn, 822 hits (1952-56)

Before Trammell/Whitaker, Kuenn & Kaline were the best two young players to come up with the Tigers at the same time (albeit a year apart), and you could argue that Kuenn/Kaline were better. It was Kuenn, not Kaline, who led the league in hits not once, not twice, not three times, but four times in the 1950s. Most impressive about Kuenn’s 822 hits in his first five years is that he only played in September in 1952. As controversial as the trade was that sent Harvey to Cleveland for Rocky Colavito, it was the perfect time for Detroit to get rid of him, since his value was never higher and he faded quickly in his 30s. Kuenn hit .283 and only had 720 hits in seven seasons after the Tigers traded him. Jackson will need 182 hits this year to surpass Kuenn’s total, which would be one more than Austin’s career high which he set in his rookie season. The way AJax is struggling at the dish, I wouldn’t bank on it.