Had this version of Austin Jackson shown up after last July's trade deadline, there's a chance we'd all be looking back on 2014 a bit differently. Hell, had Abraham Almonte shown up after last July's trade deadline, there's a chance things go better than they did.
As is, they did not—and the Mariners got a version of Jackson I don't believe anyone had seen at any point in his career. In the two months down the stretch, during a time in which the Mariners desperately needed a legitimate major league center fielder, they received .229/.267/.260 and a 51 wRC+ from Jackson. To put that in perspective, that latter number is the same figure Stefen Romero put up in 2014.
Naturally, Jackson's play stood out as a major point of concern entering 2015, and that concern lasted through Jackson's early struggles. But recently, things have been different, as he's posted a 140 wRC+ since coming off the DL a little more than two weeks ago—and the hot stretch has raised his season line up to being roughly a league-average hitter.
While the post-DL stretch is an extremely small sample, what he's been able to do recently, and really all of 2015, paints a clear picture of what he needs to do have some level of success. And it's something someone actually identified in the offseason.
That someone is Tony Blengino, as he wrote for Fangraphs that Jackson would be just fine if he could do one certain thing. And here's what that is, separated from piles and piles of evidence that are worth reading:
...Jackson needs to make a relatively simple adjustment to get more mileage out of his fly balls; he needs to selectively pull in the air the pitches he can truly drive.
This might sound like an oversimplification, but when you get down to it, it’s something highly trained amateur and all professional hitters do in virtually every batting practice session in which they participate. Move the ball around the first couple of rounds, but in that last round, look for a pitch to drive, and do maximum damage with it, usually in the air to the pull side. It’s obviously a bit harder to take that approach to the game, when you don’t know what pitch is coming, but BP is structured in such a manner for a reason.
What he needed to do is, well, this:
And that isn't a fluke.
To dive into what's going on with Jackson this year as compared to what we saw of him during his time with Seattle last year, I used Baseball Savant to take a look at Jackson's fly balls (green) and line drives (yellow) to the outfield—and the change is dramatic.
When the Mariners acquired Jackson, coaches and writers raved about his ability to spray the ball to all fields. He wasn't afraid to go the other way, they said. Well, as you can see, going the other way is about all he did. Now, a much more balanced approach.
If visuals aren't your thing, there are numbers.
For the first batch, let's include center field as well. Here's the percentage of balls in play off Jackson's bat that were flies or liners to left and center for a couple different periods.
- 2014, as a Mariner: 22.4 percent.
- 2015: 27.6 percent.
- 2015, post-DL: 32.6 percent.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, the overall figure for 2015 isn't that high—and is actually one percentage point lower than the number for the full 2014 season. But the post-DL figure though—that's nearly identical, only 0.1 less, than where he was in 2012. In 2012, Austin Jackson was a five-win player with a 134 wRC+.
And if you're looking for more numbers that line up with 2012, you can eliminate the center field crop and identify only the balls in play that Jackson is really pulling to left field—again, either in the air or on a line. Here are those percentages:
- 2014, as a Mariner: 7.9 percent
- 2015: 13.0 percent
- 2015, post-DL: 13.0 percent
- 2012, for fun: 13.5 percent
Outside of 2012 and 2015, the next highest annual total for such balls in play was 11.4 in 2013. His full-season number in 2014 was way down at 9.3 percent.
This isn't all to say Jackson will transform back into a veritable star, but this is what he needs to do to succeed—and he's doing it. He's hitting the ball harder than he did last year, that we can tell. While we don't have the exit velo for any years preceding this one, we can see through the hard-hit percentages displayed on Fangraphs that he's returning more to form, with his 30.9 percent mark this year being more in line with the 32.6 and 34.1 numbers we saw in 2013 and 2012—and a step up from 26.1 percent in 2014.
Really though, something I should say: advanced statistics like this are the 'what,' but not the 'how.' We know this is what Jackson's doing and there's a good chance it's why he's having success. But how he's going about doing it, I don't know, or at least haven't looked yet. It could be better pitches to hit, it could be a slight change in his swing or it could be feeling healthier than he has in a while. Or, who knows, it could be as simple as "Oh. Yeah. I should do that and now I'm going to." I have no idea.
Whatever it is though, I hope he keeps doing it. Because it certainly does seem to be working.