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A Deeper Look at Austin Jackson

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Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

One of the looming questions facing the Seattle Mariners as Spring Training ramps up is whether or not Austin Jackson will be able to find his hitting stroke again. We're all familiar with Jackson's narrative-a trade deadline acquisition who completely fell apart during the second half of the season. The Mariners were hoping for a solid center fielder who would be under team control for a season and a half. What they got was two months of misery and a big fat question mark for 2015.

A few months ago, Andrew had a great write up on Austin Jackson and the offensive struggles we witnessed towards the end of the season last year. In short, Jackson's ability to hit for power completely dried up. This graph illustrates this perfectly:

In 2014, Jackson's average batted ball distance with the Tigers was 207 feet. His average distance with the Mariners was just 160 feet.

The most dramatic change in Jackson's offensive profile was the spike in groundball rate after he joined the Mariners. In August and September, Jackson hit almost half of his balls in play on the ground. Granted, his groundball rate was 46.5% in July when he was still with the Tigers but the rest of his batted ball profile and batted ball distance was good enough to post a robust 152 wRC+ that month. More groundballs aren't necessarily a bad thing. As Andrew puts it:

This might have been tolerable if Jackson had transformed into a slap-happy hitter who piled up a bunch of singles (which one might expect to happen with his speed and elevated GB:FB rate), but Jackson's batting average and BABIP also decreased significantly once he joined the M's.

Today, I want to take a deeper look at Austin Jackson's batted ball profile. Here's his traditional batted ball profile over the last three years:

Year

LD%

GB%

FB%

2012

23.8%

42.2%

34.0%

2013

27.6%

41.7%

30.7%

2014

25.5%

41.8%

32.7%

Despite the spike in groundball rate at the end of the year, his overall batted ball profile looks remarkably similar to the last two years of data. A cursory glance at his batted ball profile might tell us that nothing was amiss regarding his batted ball type distribution. Maybe the spike in groundball rate at the end of the year was just random noise. We know better than to take this data at face value though.

Inside Edge tracks nine distinct batted ball types. The regular three types (groundball, line drive, fly ball) are divided into three additional categories based on the quality of contact (weak, medium, well-hit). Obviously, the most desirable types of batted balls are line drives and well-hit fly balls and groundballs. The least desirable batted ball types are weakly hit fly balls and groundballs.

I don't have direct access to Inside Edge data, but over on FanGraphs, Jeff Zimmerman has been curating batted ball data to develop more robust hitter analytics. So, what does Austin Jackson's advanced batted ball profile look like over the last three years?

Year

LD_WH

LD_M

FB_WH

GB_WH

LD_W

GB_M

GB_W

FB_W

FB_M

2012

133%

67%

127%

164%

85%

114%

76%

106%

97%

2013

141%

124%

117%

92%

72%

122%

83%

64%

141%

2014

106%

198%

56%

79%

85%

104%

93%

81%

124%

These values are expressed using a Plus system where 100 equals league average. 90% would be 10% below league average and 110% would be 10% above league average. They're also ordered by expected BABIP -- highest on the left, lowest on the right.

Jackson's well-hit fly ball rate immediately jumps out as a red flag. In 2014, it was 44% below league average after being well above average in 2012 and 2013. That certainly helps explain why his batted ball distance took a steep dive in 2014. If he's going to bounce back in 2015, Jackson will have to figure out how to start hitting his fly balls with more authority.

The other thing I noticed was his groundball rates. Above, I said that more groundballs aren't necessarily a bad thing. A high groundball rate paired with good speed is usually a formula for an above average BABIP. That's only the case if the groundballs are hit hard. Austin Jackson's well-hit groundball rate was at a three year low last year, coming in 21% below league average. So, not only was Jackson hitting the ball into the ground more often last year, he was hitting weakly hit grounders that get gobbled up by fielders. That might be the most concerning trend for Jackson. He has enough speed to post above average BABIPs (his career BABIP is .353!), but if he's not making quality contact, he's not going see much success.

This data does not paint an appealing picture for Austin Jackson. Something was seriously wrong with him last year, whether it was mental or physical. Lloyd McClendon seems confident that everything will be straightened out this year and there's nothing to worry about. That might be some wishful thinking. Austin Jackson needs to figure out how to flip his batted ball trends or risk duplicating his miserable performance from last year.