The Cleveland Indians needed a little bit of help in the outfield entering the 2017 season. Rajai Davis departed for Oakland, Bradley Zimmer didn’t quite appear to be ready, Michael Brantley’s health terrified everyone, and no one knew exactly what to expect out of Landon Guyerhall or Abraham Almonte.
As an insurance policy, the Indians signed Austin Jackson to a minor league contract heading into spring training. He played well enough to make the opening day roster, and therefore would make $1,500,000. He even started on opening day in CF, notching two singles and scoring a run.
Things only improved from there. In only 318 plate appearances, Jackson earned a 3WAR of 1.9. There’s actually no variance at all between the three most popular value stats; they all ranked him as a 1.9 or a 1.8-win player. Jackson’s value came from a surprising season at the plate, slashing .318/.387/.482. These are all career highs. If you threw out generally accepted statistical practices and extrapolate his season to 700 plate appearances, he would log career highs in most of the counting categories, as well.
This is where the real key to Jackon’s season emerges, however. Francona used him as a platoon player all season long, filling in gaps due to injury or scheduled time off as-needed. The handedness didn’t necessarily matter, though Jackson absolutely obliterated left-handed pitching all season long, posting a .352/.440/.574 split. Those are Mike Trout numbers.
The reason Jackson produced like this is precisely because of his usage. He always entered the game fresh and was never asked to do anything he couldn’t handle. He missed most of last season due to knee surgery; this is part of the reason for the platoonery. When Bradley Zimmer came up and dazzled defensively in center, Jackson slid to the corners with ease, sharing time with Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer, and Michael Brantley (when not dead).
It seems unlikely to me that Jackson would produce at the rate he did this season playing every day, although he’s certainly earned the opportunity to prove me wrong. While I appreciate his tenure in Cleveland — and will forever think of him as Professional Hitter Austin Jackson — it isn’t the right move for Cleveland to bring him back. His offensive numbers should be measured against a BABIP of .385. While Jackson’s career average is .352, it’s hovered near .320 for the last several years. I expect him to give back those 60 points of batting average.
I wish the Indians could have celebrated a World Series championship with Jackson on the roster, but it wasn’t to be. His performance in the ALDS against the Yankees certainly didn’t help; he reached base three times in fifteen plate appearances. Am I blaming him for the result? Absolutely not. I think that falls squarely on the shoulders of the team’s three MVP candidates.
His estimated value on the open market is $13,202,436, which is both oddly specific, a little high, and not a number the Indians will even come close to with the other obligations and decisions they must make. So, like Rajai Davis, I wish Jackson to best of luck elsewhere in baseball. Like Davis, Jackson also provided one of the best highlights in all of baseball this season, and one that will likely remain on of the more memorable plays of all time:
I still get a little teary eyed when I see this.
Which veteran outfielder will the Indians next sign to a one-year deal? I don’t know for sure, but he will have two fantastic acts to follow.