clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Austin Jackson, power hitter?

There’s something different about the Indians outfielder. It’s hard to track, but changes have been made.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Cleveland Indians outfielder Austin Jackson ended up having a pretty good Memorial Day weekend. He got to return to playing the game he presumably loves at the highest level, and after an 0-for-4 day in his first start off the disabled list he keyed the Tribe offense to a 10-1 blasting of the hated Kansas City Royals.

Jackson was 2-for-3 with three runs batted in on the day, central in Cleveland's offensive attack. The next day he homered for the second time this season to give the Indians a 1-0 lead against the A's, a lead that held for the win. Clearly he knocked the rust of three weeks on the bench off pretty quick. Though it's still early in the season for him due to the disabled list stint, one must ask the question: Austin Jackson, power hitter?

It's a foolish supposition on its face, of course. This is a man who's made his money with this legs. With the Tigers he was a spark plug, hitting grounders and gappers for doubles and triples, making havoc on the basepaths. He's also only got three seasons in his career with a wRC+ over 100, and only one of those was over 108. He's been "toolsy" in the most pejorative sense. The things he did well though, they fade with age. Especially when you're a year removed from a bad knee injury that eliminates an entire season from your already too-short career. Surely Jackson is smart enough to see the writing on the wall, and the movement of baseball around him, and know he must change. There's an inkling that he has.

Two home runs in a span of seven games isn't much to write home about, especially if they're separated by more than a month of actual time. A double and a few sac flies isn't that impressive, either, but we have to look beyond that. For instance, the most sacrifice flies Jackson has hit in a single season is nine, which he did in 2014 over a span of 154 games and 656 plate appearances. He has three this season, all of them coming this past weekend. On its own this isn't that amazing, since sacrifice flies are super contextual and hard to actually pile up a ton of on purpose. The leader in 2016 was Francisco Lindor with 15. It's just not easy to create the perfect situation for a sac fly (man on second or third, less than two outs) and also execute. Pitchers are typically trying to not let you do that. They want ground balls if possible, ideally one to the left side. For most of his career, Jackson (1.43 GB/FB ratio) obliged. So far this year he's decided to try something different.

At this point in the season, Jackson's GB/FB ratio is .93. It's not like he's taken a huge hit in his grounder rate to flip it though, it's still 41.2 percent. That's only three points lower than his career average. His fly-ball rate has leapt nearly 13 points from his career average to 44.2 percent. Adding to that, he’s stopped pulling the ball quite as much, from 34.8 percent in his career down to 26.5 percent. He’s going opposite field a correspondingly high amount of time, 41.2 percent compared to 29 percent for his career. There’s still the “it’s early” card to play for him, since again, he did miss 22 games in May. But this is an interesting development, to say the least.

He’s also hitting the ball pretty hard again. Take a look at his rolling average batted ball velocity:

Baseball Savant

Note the huge crater followed by a sharp rise before he settled back into an average 87.4 mph exit speed. Actually average is 87.7, but he’s got launch angle in his favor at 15.4 degrees compared to 13.02 league average. It’s not exactly Giancarlo Stanton, but it’s definitely enough to knock some home runs and extra-base hits. His BABIP might be lower than in the past but the damage has a chance to be bigger. And we shouldn’t discount that he’s still rounding into form, especially with all that missed time.

So I rooted around to find some video of him from last year to compare with this year. Here is Jackson hitting a double at Rogers Centre:

Opposite field, much like what he’s doing more of this year. Here’s his home run from Sunday:

That is struck with much more authority, more elevation to get it over the wall (in a bigger park, no less), and he finishes on a flatter plane. It’s hard to get the hang of because the angles are different (and the whole thing is a bit hypnotizing) but there’s something there. These are just to instances more than a year apart, and I am by no means an expert swing analysis, but follow through on a very similarly located pitch should be pretty similar, one would think. In this case though, it’s quite different. There’s less upward flourish at the end. Could he have flattened his swing, so with less uppercut he’s hitting down on the ball less and getting more air time? Possibly. He may also have the bat in the hitting zone for a longer period, meaning a better chance to make better contact. And he’s got less wind-up it seems less movement in the hands, meaning he can get to balls quicker. This could all lead to firmer contact, and better reaction time. Again, not an expert. But it’s something. And “something” in baseball can be a big change.

It’ll be a while before anything settles in for Jackson because he’s going to be fighting for playing time. More so when Abe Almonte comes back, as well as Brandon Guyer and Lonnie Chisenhall. But this is his chance to show that he’s made changes and is more than the part-time, barely average hitter he’s expected to be. He’s hit the ball very hard at extra base angles so far this season though, both in spring training (.606 slugging even if it’s fake baseball) and now in the regular season with a .523 slugging percentage and .250 isolated power. If this isn’t a fluke, if his entire batted ball profile has been switched up, he could turn into a central piece for the Indians. Or at least a key piece.

Power hitter might be a bit bold, but this could be a new Austin Jackson, one nobody expected when the season began.