Tigers hope Jackson’s rising star will lift them up

Austin Jackson steals a base earlier this season in a game against the Los Angeles Angels.

He’s the straw that stirs the Tigers drink. Without Austin Jackson the Detroit Tigers would be much farther back in the American League Central and quite a bit further below .500 than they currently find themselves. Jackson has shown that last season was an aberration and that he has the ability to be the kind of leadoff hitter that any team would love to have.

Jackson may be quiet off the field, but on it he makes things look easy, from gliding easily under a long fly ball that would send most fielders scrambling, to posting offensive numbers that could pass for a #3 hitter. This guy has it all, and he’s still in only his third major league season.

The most important thing a leadoff hitter can do is get on base, it doesn’t matter how they do it, but they need to get on base. Austin Jackson is doing that, and doing it better than any other leadoff hitter in the American League. Through June 15, Jackson leads all AL leadoff hitters with a .405 on-base percentage; meaning that 40 percent of the time Jackson comes to the plate he will reach bade in some fashion, be it a walk, single, hit-by-pitch, home run, etc. That’s what makes him so important to this ball club.

While Jackson is not known for his power with the bat he is leading in another surprising category, slugging percentage. Among all other AL leadoff hitters, Jackson is leading the pack with a .559 slugging percentage. This high slugging percentage is due to his 13 doubles, two triples and seven home runs. His seven homers is tied for second among AL leadoff hitters. His power splurge so far in 2012 is a facet of the game he hasn’t displayed before. As players reach 26 (identified as a peak for most MLB players) and transition into their late 20s, they usually start to hit for more power. The pop from AJax so far this season is a good sign.

The biggest change for Jackson this season has been with his swing. Before spring training Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon sat down with Jackson and analyzed his swing from the previous two seasons. They were able to identify a difference between the two years – a leg kick. In Jackson’s first season with the Tigers he had a small leg kick prior to his swing, in 2011 that kick became more pronounced and his strikeout numbers elevated. McClendon worked with Jackson to eliminate that kick and it seems to have worked.

Without the kick, Jackson is able to plant his lead foot early and give himself a solid base for him to swing through on. With his leg staying down and being planted earlier Jackson is able to keep his head up and his eyes on the ball throughout his swing, which has allowed his offensive numbers to balloon this season.

Before the 2012 season began, a major concern with Jackson was whether he would be able to keep his strikeout totals down from the previous season. And so far he has been able to do just that. As of June 15, Jackson had totaled just 35 strikeouts on the season while working 23 walks in his favor. That ratio is one that the Tigers can definitely live with.

Jackson also boasts the second-best batting average among American League leadoff hitters with a .323 average. He was able to get off to a solid start to the season before straining his abdominal muscle and then reaggravating it in Cleveland in May. Having him sidelined for nearly three weeks caused the Tigers concern as to whether he could return to the lineup and continue his torrid pace. He has.

So far, the 2012 season has been a letdown for Tigers fans and the team. The club came into the season with lofty expectations, but after a 9-3 start, they’ve ranged between lousy and inconsistent. If Jackson continues to be on the rise this season, the Tigers will have a chance to right their ship and deliver on that promise.