DETROIT - As Austin Jackson trotted around the base paths on April 8, having just blasted his first home run of the season off of the Dodgers' Dan Haren, excitement brewed around the young centerfielder, who showed signs of conquering his inconsistency in 2013 but ultimately underperformed in the playoffs, batting .214 when it mattered most for the Detroit Tigers.
His 379-foot shot to left field raised his average to .381 and tallied his fourth extra-base hit in the first six games. The conversation surrounding Jackson throughout the offseason centered around his 27-year-old Major League season, when young players often experience breakout performances and earn their first big contracts.
The importance given to the age-27 season marked 2014 as a make-or-break campaign for the fifth-year center fielder. Jackson routinely hovers on the fringes of greatness, like when he stole 27 bases in 2010 and hit .300 for the first time in 2012.
But Jackson has long teased Tiger fans during his young career. Though his speed is inevitable, his stolen bases have decreased each season of his career. His power, at times staggering for a sub-200-pound hitter, has never resulted in the 20-home run season that experts swear he's capable of. Jackson owns all the tools to become a star in Detroit, but the question is if that potential will culminate into the five-tool player that Dave Dombrowski traded fan-favorite Curtis Granderson for in 2009.
During the month of April Jackson looked to be taking advantage of his age-27 season, hitting .310 with 13 runs scored and 10 RBI. The most noticeable difference in the youngster's approach was the decrease in swings and misses. Perhaps the tendency that knocked Jackson from the leadoff spot in the Tiger lineup was the number of poor at-bats that ended in strikeouts throughout his first four seasons.
Austin Jackson grounds into a fielder's choice during the eighth inning on May 27 against the Oakland Athletics.
In fact, Jackson's best walk-to-strikeout ratio came in 2012 when he struck out twice for every walk he drew (0.5 BB/K). To put this number in perspective, Miguel Cabrera owns a career BB/K ratio of 0.66 and a 2014 ratio of 0.44. As a result of his improved plate discipline, Jackson posted the best average of his career in 2012, allowing him to notch career-highs in home runs (16), RBI (66) and on-base percentage (.377).
His approach mirrored that of two seasons ago during the month of April as he drew as many walks as strikeouts (13). Jackson had only accomplished this feat once in his career, during an injury-shortened June last season in which he hit .339. The outfielder carried his hot streak into May, hitting in each of his first nine games and keeping his average slightly above .300.
But as the hitting streak came to an end on May 12, the strikeouts started racking up. He struck out five games in a row for the first time this season from May 11-16 and drew only one walk in the process.
Poor plate discipline haunted Jackson for the rest of May and all of his numbers suffered as he hit just .200 with seven RBI and 10 runs scored. A double on Saturday ended an 0-13 stretch for Jackson, whose average sits at a season-low .244.
The X factor for Jackson is simple: When he exercises strong discipline at the plate, his production as a whole skyrockets for the Tigers. But when the strikeouts pile up he becomes ineffective in the middle of the Tiger order, not only making outs but providing little protection for a red-hot Victor Martinez in the five-hole.
Since he drew his last walk on May 20, Jackson has struck out 10 times in 11 games, hitting just .190 over that span. In order to be more productive in the month of June, the Tigers' center fielder will have to overcome his inconsistency and show regular patience at the plate.
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