It's nice when you look at your baseball team and its weaknesses say more about how good it is than how bad it's going to be. The past couple days have served as a bit of an example, where we've written a couple articles on how offense from the backup catcher might be a bit of a concern.
In a similar fashion—in that same "so these are our problems now" pile—is the question of whether or not the Mariners' one-time five-win center fielder can return to his past form. And that isn't to downplay the situation with Austin Jackson. The floor with him is obviously very real, and we know because we saw him face down on it last September.
Still, much of the hope that he can bounce back to his past form—at least an approximation of it—comes from his extensive track record as a valuable player. And, of course, much of that track record was built with Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon as his hitting coach. So you'd hope a reunion, complete with a full spring training and season-long strategy, might help.
Here's what Lloyd told Greg Johns of Mariners.com about Jackson back in December:
"From what I saw with Austin -- and I probably know Austin better than anybody -- I think he's going to be just fine," McClendon said. "We didn't see the best of Austin Jackson, for a number of different reasons.
"One, he was a little beaten down physically," said McClendon. "He needs to get himself stronger this offseason. He has to find a way to keep the weight on. And there's some things from a mechanical standpoint we need to shore up. But this guy is a good player. He's an above-average center fielder defensively and an above-average offensive player when he's going like he can go."[...]
"We have to clean his [swing] path up," McClendon said. "When he came here, it was not same swing I saw when I had him in Detroit. There are some things he needs to work on, and he knows what those things are. And from a physical standpoint, he has to get a little stronger. I think he wore down a little toward the end. But I'm very confident that going into next year, you'll see a different player."
This article was originally published the day before Michael Saunders was traded, when comments on general frailty and wearing down were, if not dismissed, the source of some disgruntlement. It seemed like a shallow assessment of a guy who was just a skinny dude.
Well, for the man who claims to know Jackson "better than anybody," he might be onto something.
This is going to look like a lot of noise, but here's a look at the trajectory of Austin Jackson's offensive performance, by wRC+, over the course of his career.
Again, there's a lot there. But if you look close, you can generally see a bit of a trend—that slower second halves are a bit of an issue with Jackson. And you could plainly see that by just noticing that his second-half wRC+ is 13 points lower than the first-half, 109 to 96. Still, isolated out, here's his career wRC+.
Now, "isolated" is actually a good segue here—as Jackson's isolated power might tell this story even better. Whether it's the best year of his career (2012), or the very worst, the story's still the same—there's a bit of a fade there.
So, this very well may just be a thing that Austin Jackson does. And that's kind of bad news, because you worry it's going to happen again—and you do wonder, if this is a noticeable trend, why the Mariners chose Jackson to be a second-half spark in 2014. Then again, that may be part of the reason the cost of acquisition was only Nick Franklin.
And, of course, the Mariners got Jackson for more than 2014. Obviously. There have been people worried that Jackson just might be done, which isn't impossible. But when you look at his career, 2014 was, in a way, just an extreme version of what he's normally done.
So, why might 2015 have been an even worse fade than Jackson's experienced in the past? Here's his explanation, on what happened, as told to Bob Dutton of The News Tribune between appearances at FanFest.
"A lot of things," Jackson said between FanFest appearances at Safeco Field. "Not making excuses, but I think getting traded and trying to get used to the (longer) travel and the sleep — those things affect your play on the field.
"When you’re going from an hour (flight) to losing three hours; that kind of plays with your sleep schedule. Trying to get used to a different team and all that, I had a lot of distractions, I think, that crept into my head a little bit.
"Hopefully, getting started here and staying here, those distractions won’t be there."
It isn't a definitive cause, but there's reason to hope. Jackson wasn't the only one who looked physically drained at the end of last season, and 2015's schedule looks to be at least a little bit friendlier—what with no hellacious three-timezone trip to close out the season.
Then, of course, the Mariners now have a better idea of what's coming and can manage accordingly. McClendon has already said he plans to give Jackson more days off early in the season. Whether that ultimately makes a difference remains to be seen, but fans should be hopeful.
Like I mentioned above, what we saw wasn't new with Jackson. But if the Mariners can take advantage of his normally-stronger first-half while manage his playing time such that he's a little better off in the second, they might get exactly what they need at the center field position.