Used to be one of the principal complaints — nay, the principal complaint — about Austin Jackson was that he struck out too much. He had all the tools, but the strikeouts were limiting his upside. Similarly, used to be one of the principal complaints about Torii Hunter was that he struck out too much. It was the same conversation, years and years earlier, and now both Jackson and Hunter are teammates. Funny thing about that.
Paul Swydan just posted about Austin Jackson’s dramatic strikeout reduction. Jackson’s strikeouts are down this season more than you would believe, and that’s given even more life to the top of the Tigers’ order. But I became independently interested in Jackson while conducting my FanGraphs chat on Tuesday, wherein I was asked plenty of times whether or not I’m buying Jackson’s early success and change. We’re always looking to make something of the early numbers, because they’re the only numbers we have and we want for them to be meaningful. Most of the early numbers are bad and stupid, but we know that certain stats stabilize faster than others, and Jackson’s stable stats are eye-popping, if you’re familiar with the previous versions of Austin Jackson.
Here’s stuff that we know:
2011: 27% strikeouts for Austin Jackson
2012: 22% strikeouts after mechanical adjustment
2013: 7.5% strikeouts
2011: 77% contact
2012: 80% contact
2013: 92% contact
Back in the day, Austin Jackson made contact about as often as…oh, hell, Austin Jackson. So far this season, he’s made contact about as often as Ichiro. Actually more often. Since 2002, Ichiro’s posted a contact rate of 90%. Austin Jackson is topping that. Ichiro is a bat-control wizard. Austin Jackson — Austin Jackson — is topping him.
I grew curious, as you do. I wanted to know who else has seen a big jump in contact rate between 2012 and 2013. Even this early, you’d think that the noise in contact rate would be minimal, relative to the noise in other statistics. I went in figuring that no one would compare to Jackson’s leap. I mean, that’s a big jump forward. After setting some minimums, here’s the top of my leaderboard:
Torii Hunter, +12.3% contact between 2012-2013
Austin Jackson, +11.9%
Matt Holliday, +10.1%
The difference between Jackson’s 2012 contact rate and his 2013 contact rate is the second-biggest in baseball, at the positive end. The only bigger one belongs to teammate Torii Hunter, who’s been batting right behind Jackson in the lineup. So Jackson’s improvement isn’t an isolated, individual case. There might be something going on with the Tigers.
It occurred to me that the first thing to check would be the quality of competition. Even with something as stable as plate-discipline statistics, numbers can be skewed in small samples by facing non-representative populations of players. Thankfully, because it’s so early, it wasn’t time-consuming to generate the data I wanted from the pitchers Jackson and Hunter have faced. I put together those two pitcher populations and weighted their 2013 statistics by the number of showdowns against Jackson and Hunter, respectively. American League average numbers right now are 20% strikeouts and 79% contact. The weighted pool of Jackson opponents averages 16% strikeouts and 82% contact. You get the same numbers for Hunter, which isn’t a surprise, since Jackson and Hunter have been batting back-to-back.
So it seems that these hitters haven’t been facing average strikeout generators, overall. In turn, you’d expect them to post better contact numbers. It then occurred to me to look at something else. We have a pretty good understanding of the correlation between velocity and contact. That is, as velocity increases, the rate of contact decreases. A year ago, the average fastball thrown to Hunter was 92.3 miles per hour. So far this year they’ve clocked in at 90.3 miles per hour, down two ticks. For Jackson, the numbers are 91.8 and 90.3, yielding a difference of one and a half ticks. These are two of the very biggest drops in the American League. Naturally, this isn’t independent of the contact numbers discussed in the previous paragraph, but it’s just another way of looking at things.
So both Jackson and Hunter have faced slower-throwing pitchers who allow greater-than-average rates of contact. Yet that probably doesn’t explain the whole observation, which is that they’ve taken significant steps forward. Jackson doesn’t seem to have made any additional mechanical tweaks. With Hunter, we get a clue:
Rather than be the guy who gets to eat, Hunter has made it very clear — using inelegant terms like “kill” or “die” the self — that he’s more than willing to serve it up for others. That’s a large part of the reason for the change in the way he’s hitting.
And all the balls to right field.
“It did. It adjusted. I don’t swing as hard. Just try to stay inside the ball, shoot it out to the right side sometimes — not all the time.”
Last year, Hunter hit 24% of his balls in play to the opposite field. So far this year, he’s hit 39% of his balls in play to the opposite field, suggesting that he has indeed cut down on his swing in an effort to make more contact and drive the ball the other way. In this way Hunter is making himself more of a classic No. 2 hitter, even if he was just fine the way that he was. It feels like we can mostly explain what we’re seeing.
With Jackson, what’s unclear is how much is improvement and how much is noise or externally caused. Which, of course, is always the question, and as usual, I’m ill-equipped to provide a certain answer. It wouldn’t make sense to completely ignore the fact that Jackson and Hunter are hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. The situation was the same for Jackson a year ago, but instead of having Hunter behind him, he had guys like Quintin Berry and Andy Dirks and Brennan Boesch behind him. My assumption is always against protection mattering but there could be a real effect that’s giving Jackson a meaningful boost.
It’ll be interesting to check back in a month. It’ll be interesting to check back on everybody in a month, when the numbers by and large start to feel more familiar. It’s not like this sort of thing is entirely unprecedented — last year, between April 21 and June 10, Jackson struck out in just 12% of his plate appearances. Even in 2011, between August 12 and September 3, he struck out in just 13% of his plate appearances. Everybody fluctuates and just because it’s boring to acknowledge as much doesn’t mean it’s better to pretend that everything matters until it’s proven to be insignificant. The proper assumption at this point of the year is probably that every seemingly meaningful change isn’t. You won’t be right every time, but you’ll be right the overwhelming majority of the time.
But Jackson’s hit the ball more. He’s swung at strikes more, without swinging at more balls. Yeah, the sample’s small. Yeah, the quality of competition is unquestionably a contributing factor. But consider that we can even talk about the possibility of Austin Jackson not being strikeout-prone anymore. Even if this isn’t a miracle, in the bigger picture, it’s kind of a miracle.