Austin Jackson: Breakout Candidate?

In Tuesday night’s After Dark chat, several people wanted to know if Austin Jackson is having a breakout season. A triple slash line of 0.500/0.583/0.850 definitely looks impressive, but those numbers are just not sustainable. With such a small sample, I will look to see if he is showing any signs of real improvement.

The most important note to remember is that Austin has only had 24 PAs this season. That number is just too few a number of at bats to draw any definite conclusions. In past seasons, he has reached similar numbers in other 6 game spans:

Apr 28th to May 3rd 2010: 0.571/0586/0.750
Jul 20th to Jul 25th 2010: 0.500/0.500/0.692
Jun 3rd to Jun 8th 2011: 0.400/0.438/0.533
Aug 30th to Sep 4th 2011: 0.552/0.567/1.069

Almost all players will get on an extreme hot hitting streak at some time. Jackson just seems to be the player starting the season on one.

The main cause of Austin’s improved performance is his unsustainable 0.643 BABIP. His career BABIP (0.374) has always been high, but not in the 0.643 range. Last season, Adrian Gonzalez led the league with a 0.380 BABIP. Using my xBABIP Spreadsheet, which uses batted ball data, his xBABIP projects a BABIP of just 0.428. A main contributor for the difference between his expected and actual BAPIP values is a 25% infield hit percentage (IFH%). Normally, a player’s IFH% maxes out around 14% in a season. For example, here are the 2011 and 2009 to 2011 IFH% leaders:

2011: Cameron Maybin: 14.2%
2009-2011: Ichiro Suzuki: 13.8%

While Jackson has always had a decent BABIP, his 2012 value will eventually come down. People should expect Austin to max out with a BABIP south of 0.400.

The other factor for the increase in production is a drop in his strikeout rate from his previous average of 26% to 20% this season. The drop in K% is supported by his Swing % dropping from 46% to 42% and his contact % going from 63% to 75%. In his few PAs, he seems to be a little more selective with his swings and when he does swing, he is making more contact.

Of the higher BABIP or lower K%, I would track the K% to see if it stabilizes at a new level. With a lower K%, he will see a nice bump in AVG. Here is a what his AVG will look like with a 20% and 25% K% assuming a 0.380 BABIP:

25% K%: 0.285 AVG
20% K%: 0.304 AVG

It is way too early to draw any real conclusions from Austin Jackson’s start to the season. Most of his production has come from a completely unsustainable BABIP. Besides the high BABIP, he is also showing improved plate discipline. While the sample size is way too small right now, I would continue to track his K% and see if he has better control over the strike zone as the season goes on. Any chance for a breakout will be tied to lowering his strikeout numbers.

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Jeff, one of the authors of the fantasy baseball guide,The Process, writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first two seasons in Tout Wars, he's won the H2H league and mixed auction league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

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Austin’s biggest improvement so far in 2012 is his jump to 17.9% BB%, up from 7.9% career. Disappointing that it wasn’t mentioned.