Saturday, January 29, 2011

Austin Jackson's Line Drives

Austin Jackson's 2010 season and projected 2011 season have probably been over analayzed.  Every sabermetric site and every Tigers blogger has covered it with Chris Hannum of Motor City Bengals making the most recent contribution.  Beating topics to death is what bloggers do though, so I'm going discuss Jackson's past and future some more today.

Jackson, of course, had an excellent rookie season batting .293 with 48 extra base hits and 103 runs scored out of the Tigers leadoff spot.  The best part of his rookie campaign was his sterling defense in center field even if the advanced defensive systems can't agree on the extent of his range.  Even after his fine season though, most statistical-minded fans are not ready to project future stardom.

The concern stems from his league leading 170 strikeouts.  It is difficult to bat .293 every year with so many strikeouts.  He was able to do it last year because of a league leading .396 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP).  Most say that he can't sustain such a high rate and his batting average will drop as his BABIP comes back to earth next year unless he makes more frequent contact. 

Before we assume that he can't sustain his BABIP though, we need to understand why it was so high last year.  First, he got a lot of infield hits.  Of his 214 ground balls in 2010, 11.8% went for infield hits which was fourth best in the league.  With his speed, he should continue to get plenty of those types of hits over the next several years.

The second reason for his high BABIP and relatively high batting average was his line drive rate. Nearly a quarter (24.2%) of his balls in play were line drives which ranked second in the league to Twins catcher Joe Mauer.

It should come to no surprise to anyone that players who hit a lot of line drives tend to have high batting averages.  The batting averages from 2005-2009 on different types of batted balls are shown below:

Line drives .732
Outfield flies .280
Ground balls .243
Infield flies .022

That number is correct.  Players hit .732 on line drives!

We are interested in balls in play here though, so let's the remove home runs from batted balls and recalculate batting averages:

Line drives .726
Outfield flies .181
Ground balls .243
Infield flies .022

It is clear that Jackson's line drive hitting helped him a lot last year.  The question is can he keep it up? While batters do have some control over how many line drives they hit, line drive rate tends to vary a lot from year to year.  So, even if Jackson really is a line drive hitter, we can't expect him to hit them at such an outstanding rate each year.

What will happen to his batting average if his line drive rate goes down some?  First, let's assume that his batting averages on line drives, fly balls and pop ups are the same as the MLB averages listed above.  We have to assume that is ground ball rate will be higher because he'll get a lot of infield hits.  Last year, he batted .318 on ground balls, so we'll guess the same for next year.

Now, suppose he has the same number of plate appearances, walks, strikeouts, home runs and bunt hits in 2011 as he did in 2010.  The only thing we are going to change is his batted ball rates.  Assume his line drive rate drops to the league average (18%).  In that case, he would go from 107 line drives to 80 line drives.  We'll take the 27 extra batted balls and make them ground balls, fly balls and pop flies.  About two-third of his non-line drives were ground balls last year, so we'll assume the same in our projection for next year. Given all that, we would estimate a .265 batting average for Jackson next year.

Ok, suppose he really is a good line drive hitter and not just league average.  Let's say his line drive rate drops to 21.5% which is still better than 90% of the hitters in baseball.  Again, we are keeping everything else the same except his line drive rate.  In this case, he would bat .275. 

There is no guarantee his line drive rate will drop, but it probably will and I think 21.5% is a sufficiently generous projection. The result would be an OBP under .330 which is not too good, especially for a lead off hitter without power.

What all the above tells us is that he'll probably need to make some other changes to compensate for a potentially lower line drive percentage.  Those could include more walks, fewer strikeouts and more power.  I'm guessing we'll see all three happen to some extent and that he'll end up with a line something like .275/.345/.415.  Coupled with outstanding defense, I would be pretty happy with that.   

The data for this article were taken from Fan Graphs and Retrosheet.  

Some of the information used here was obtained free of charge from and is copyrighted by
Retrosheet.  Interested parties may contact Retrosheet at "www.retrosheet.org"

4 comments:

  1. This is really insightful analysis. Lee. I'm wondering what the chances are of Jackson making better contact and striking out less and how this might affect his production.

    Is there much statistical evidence demonstrating the likelihood that players who strike out prolifically earlier in their careers can make better contact later? Close to home and merely anecdotally, Granderson began by striking out a lot--174 his first full season. But even cutting down on strikeouts by 20%--which he nearly did, only takes 170 Ks down to 136 which, Intuitively, still seems like a lot.

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  2. Bert, players that strike out a lot early in their career almost always continue to strike out a lot throughout their careers. He could cut it down by 20% like Granderson though. That would still be a lot but the decrease would probably help him significantly.

    I don't envision Jackson ever being a player who gets on base a lot, but I like him because he can do so many things. He can hit, run field and I expect him to add more power soon.

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  4. Thanks, Lee. That was my assumption. It seems kind of pollyanna to think he could cut it down enough to make a difference but I'm glad to know that he can. If he can get 20 or so of those line drives to make it over the fence and be a good defender that would be really great.

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