Austin Jackson's struggles have been one of the few persistent problems for the Detroit Tigers this season as they attempt to win their fourth straight AL Central Division title. The 27-year-old was primed for a breakout season in 2014, but an overall .256 average and a complete lack of power have left the center fielder mired in another under-performing campaign.
On June 30 Jackson went 0-3 against the Oakland Athletics and saw his batting average drop to .242. It was his fourth straight game without a hit, and although he struggled through slumps throughout the first four seasons of his career, the prolonged streak that saw him hit a combined .215 in May and June birthed overwhelming impatience at his lack of improvement.
But as the calendar turned to July, manager Brad Ausmus gave the 2014 Tiger lineup a new look by sliding Jackson into a familiar position.
Jackson batted at the top of the order in 11 of the 12 July games before the All-Star break, and looked comfortable in his old role. Jackson hit .340 with four doubles and a triple in those 11 games, compared to .242 with very little power beforehand.
Jackson batting average by lineup position in 2014:
- Leadoff: .302
- Second: .136
- Fifth: .301
- Sixth: .222
- Seventh: .294
- Ninth: .143
Detroit is averaging 6.18 runs per game with Jackson batting leadoff in July, including four games of eight or more runs. The Tigers are 8-3 during those games.
The move by Ausmus initially prompted criticism after Jackson went 0-9 with five strikeouts in his first two starts atop the order. But the first-year manager stuck with his plan, and it appears to have given Jackson a new wave of confidence. Since moving to the leadoff spot the center fielder owns the third best average on the team and has scored the most runs.
A closer look at Jackson's season statistics supports Ausmus's decision to move him to the top of the lineup. Jackson hits .355 when he leads off an inning, and .278 when there are no runners on base. Conversely, he hits just .154 with runners in scoring position, and that number drops to .114 when there are two outs. These numbers show that Jackson has been the worst on the team at driving in runs, but excels at setting the table for guys like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.
The All-Star break couldn't have come at a worse time for Jackson, who was scorching hot in the days leading up to the midsummer classic. In his last five games Jackson hit .455 while scoring seven runs. The four-day break has been hard on Jackson in the past, but he will hope to pick up where he left off Friday when the team opens against Cleveland.
Note: Last season Jackson hit just .143 in the five games following the All-Star break, and he is 19/87 (.218) career in those games.
Jackson's move to the leadoff spot has given the Tigers another weapon in a loaded lineup. If he continues to hit for a high average and score runs, then the offense will only improve throughout the second half of the season.