The Development of Austin Jackson

Coming into this season, the prospect who was showing up biggest on the collective radar of most Yankee fans was outfielder Austin Jackson.

austin-jacksonIn 2008, Jackson spent the entire season with double-A Trenton and put up a respectable line of .285/.354/.418, with 9 homers, 69 driven in, and 19 steals. The average was nice and the on base percentage was good, even though there were a lot of strikeouts (113) and the power output was pretty low.

Regardless, the Yankees deemed Jackson ready for triple-A Scranton and that’s where he’s been all year. Despite his high profile in the Yankee system, Jackson ended up being a bit overshadowed this season by the emergence of ultra prospect, The Jesus Montero. In a way, Jackson has sort of flown under the radar in 2009.

Overall, it was a very successful year in the International League for Jackson as he was recently named the league’s Rookie of the Year. Teammate Shelley Duncan was named the league’s MVP. Jackson, thus far, has hit .298/.355/.404 with 4 home runs, 62 batted in, and has stolen 23 bases while being caught only four times, good enough for an 85.19% clip.

After this strong season from Jackson, and with the relative struggles and streaky-ness of Yankee centerfielders Melky Cabrera and Brett Gardner this year, it would seem that 2010 is the right time for the Yankees to pass the torch to the 8th round pick from Denton, Texas.

At the beginning of the season, that’s what I thought would happen. Gardner and Cabrera would keep CF warm for Jackson in 2010. Now, however, I am rethinking that position. Jackson should start 2010 in AAA Scranton, and here’s why.

The first thing that jumps out is the lack of power Jackson displayed at triple-A this year. A .404 SLG with only 4 homers is not something to write home about. This power outage by Jackson has made a lot of scouts re-think what Jackson’s ceiling is and has perhaps soured them a bit.

I, too, am turned off by the lack of power but there is a huge caveat here. Jackson is not a corner outfielder; he’s a centerfielder. If Jackson was a corner outfielder and the power had not showed up yet, I’d be much more worried. However, since Jackson is a CF, I’m more willing to accept lesser power. Power is usually the last thing a young player develops and starting 2010 could very well help Jackson find his power stroke.

Next there is the fact that Jackson’s production has dropped in each month of this season. Jackson started off hot with a stellar .912 OPS. In May, it dropped to a still good .841. In June and July it was .761 and .665. His OPS bottomed out in August at a lousy .615. This could mean one of two things: either Jackson has hit a very long slump and is possibly fatigued or that the International League has caught up to him for this season. Regardless of what it is, this drop in production is something that definitely catches my eye and makes me hesitant on wanting to see him start the year in the Bronx in 2010.

Many analysts point to Jackson’s ridiculously high BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) as unsustainable. Jackson’s BABIP tallies in the minors have, indeed, been very high. This year it was .383 according to Austin’s Minor League Splits page (sidenote: that website is awesome). That is a very high number and would seem hard to keep up. This, ironically enough, is not something I’m too concerned about. A high BABIP usually means some combination of the following things: a good deal of luck or hitting the ball hard. With Jackson, it seems to be the latter. According to MLS, Jackson has smoked the ball around the field this year, posting a 21.9 line drive percentage. So, despite how high the BABIP is, I’m not too worried about it. When Jackson does make contact, he tends to hit it hard.

The big problem, though, is that Jackson doesn’t make contact very often. While the .285 batting average shows us good contact skills, there is one glaring hole in Jackson’s game. This reason is the one that causes the biggest concern. That problem is the dreaded big K. The strikeout. Jackson strikes out. A lot.

He’s struck out 119 times in 126 games according to his Baseball Reference Page. These strikeouts wouldn’t be as much of a concern if Jackson was walking more or hitting for more power. However, with a walk rate of only 7.50% and a .404 SLG, the strikeouts look much, much worse. While only 7.50% of his plate appearances have ended in walks, 22.33% of them have ended in strikeouts. That’s a K/BB ratio of 2.975. If Jackson were a pitcher, that’d be a good mark. He isn’t, obviously, so that’s a bad mark. If Jackson is whiffing that much without walking and hitting for power at triple-A, I cringe to think at what he’d do against Major League pitching without some more seasoning.

Don’t get me wrong, folks. This post is not me giving up on Austin Jackson. I still think Jackson has a shot to be a solid Major League outfielder. This is, however, me tempering my expectations for him a bit and realizing that he needs more seasoning at AAA. The Pirates took a similar approach to their new center fielder Andrew McCutchen, whose 2008 AAA season looks a lot like Jackson’s 2009 AAA season, and it seems to have worked out for them. If the Pirates, desperate for talent as they are, were this patient with one of their top prospects, the Yankees should be just as patient with Austin Jackson; another year of development can only help him.

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