It didn’t take long for Austin Jackson to show that he wanted to put his second season slump behind him last season. On Opening Day in Detroit, Jackson delivered a walk-off single to give the Tigers a 3-2 victory over the Red Sox. It was a thrilling win that started the roller coaster season for the Tigers that culminated in their 11th pennant.
But while the Detroit offense sputtered at times, and the club amazingly went more than a month without winning consecutive games, Jackson was a constant source of production from the leadoff spot. He hit .400 in May before succumbing to an injury that kept him out of the lineup for about two weeks, but when he returned he continued to get on base and drive the ball. He posted a slugging percentage of at least .430 in every month and did things in 2012 that no other Tiger had ever done at such an age.
After three years in the big leagues and at the age of 25, Jackson is the only Tiger at that stage to score 90 runs or more in every season. He’s the first Tiger to lead the league in triples twice before being 26, and he’s already logged 14.8 Wins Above Replacement, the most by any Tiger in his first three seasons. That’s right – more than Ty Cobb, more than Charlie Gehringer, more than Al Kaline.
Jackson’s career has gotten off to a splendid beginning, and he only seems to be coming into his prime. Can he get better? It’s likely. Last season, working with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, Jackson eliminated his leg kick and shortened his swing. That helped lead to an increase of 51 points in his batting average in 2012.
An area of his game that seems impossible to improve is Jackson’s defensive play in center field. There are few – if any – center fielders with the range and natural instincts of Jackson, who tracks down fly balls like a Gold Glover, though he has yet to be awarded that hardware. It’s only a matter of time.
The Tigers have brought in a baserunning coach named Jeff Cox to work with Jackson this spring. They want AJax to regain his knack for theft. In his three seasons, Jackson’s stolen base totals have dipped from 27 to 22 to 12 last season. Seeing as the Tigers steal fewer bases than almost any team in baseball, they’d like Jackson to become their one legitimate threat on the base paths. Odds are Jackson will be back over the 20 stolen base mark in 2013.
Most players see an increase in power as they mature. Jackson had 55 extra-base hits in 2012, seven more than in his successful rookie season. He slugged at a .479 clip – more than 100 points higher than in 2011. With 16 home runs last season, Jackson proved he could send the ball into the seats, even though Comerica Park is one of the biggest fields in the game. Jackson hit 10 of his 16 dingers on the road, though predictably he hit seven of his 10 triples at spacious CoPa.
With Jackson still learning to become a more complete offensive player, it wouldn’t be surprising if he improved in many areas in 2013. That bodes well for Jim Leyland’s Tigers, as well as Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, and the others hitting behind Jackson in the Detroit lineup.