Sunday, July 15, 2012

Austin Jackson's Historic Improvement

Center fielder Austin Jackson has gone through a remarkable transformation in the first half of 2012.  The Tigers lead-off hitter has improved by leaps and bounds over 2011 on just about every statistical measure.  He has raised is batting average from .249 to .323, his on-base percentage from .317 to .405 and his slugging percentage from .374 to .538.

Looking at Jackson's overall production, his Weighted On Base Average (explained here) has increased from .309 in 2011 to .400 in 2012, a 29% change over 2011.  If we use OPS instead, AJax has improved by an extraordinary 37% (.691 versus .943).

I wanted to see how Jackson's jump in OPS would rank among past hitters.  So, I looked into my database (provided by Baseball-Databank.org) to determine the biggest one year increases since 1901.  I limited my analysis to hitters with at least 400 plate appearances for the same team in two consecutive seasons.  Table 1 below shows that if Jackson can maintain his  improvement through the season, it would be the 20th biggest increase ever.


Table 1: All-Time Best One-Year Improvements in OPS

Player
Team
Year 1
OPS 1
Year 2
OPS 2
% change
Cito Gaston
SDN
1969
0.585
1970
0.907
55.1
Rico Petrocelli
BOS
1968
0.667
1969
0.992
48.8
Carl Furillo
BRO
1952
0.655
1953
0.973
48.6
Al Kaline
DET
1954
0.652
1955
0.967
48.3
Wayne Garrett
NYN
1969
0.558
1970
0.811
45.4
Dusty Baker
LAN
1976
0.605
1977
0.876
44.8
Jimmy Wynn
HOU
1971
0.596
1972
0.860
44.2
Roy Campanella
BRO
1954
0.686
1955
0.978
42.6
Adrian Beltre
LAN
2003
0.714
2004
1.017
42.4
Clay Dalrymple
PHI
1961
0.575
1962
0.809
40.7
Al Zarilla
SLA
1947
0.621
1948
0.871
40.3
Tim Wallach
LAN
1993
0.612
1994
0.859
40.2
Ray Powell
BSN
1920
0.595
1921
0.830
39.5
Darin Erstad
ANA
1999
0.683
2000
0.951
39.3
Al Cowens
KCA
1976
0.639
1977
0.885
38.6
Mike Mitchell
CIN
1908
0.585
1909
0.808
38.1
Horace Clarke
NYA
1968
0.512
1969
0.706
37.8
Richard Hidalgo
HOU
1999
0.748
2000
1.028
37.3
Mike Epstein
WS2
1968
0.704
1969
0.965
37.0
Austin Jackson
DET
2011
0.690
2012
0.943
36.7

Data Source: Baseball-Databank.org

The biggest step up in OPS was by Padres outfielder Cito Gaston, who raised his OPS from  .585 in 1969 to .907 in 1970, an incredible 55% improvement.  Unfortunately, Gaston fell back to .650 in 1971 and never approached an OPS of .800 again.  The biggest jump in the American League was by Red Sox shortstop Rico Petrocelli who went from .667 in 1968 to .992 in 1969, a 49% change.  That one warrants an asterisk as 1969 was the year the pitchers mound was lowered from 15 inches to 10 inches.

The biggest OPS improvements for Tigers players are shown in Table 2 below.  Jackson's 37% increase would be the second largest in team history to Hall of Famer Al Kaline.  Kaline went from .652 in 1954 to .967 in, a 48% change.  Unlike many of the players on Table 1, Kaline was able to maintain much of his improvement going forward (although 1954 may have been his best season).   


Table 2: Top Ten One-Year Improvements for Tigers

Player
Year 1
OPS 1
Year 2
OPS 2
% change
Al Kaline
1954
0.652
1955
0.967
48.3
Austin Jackson
2011
0.690
2012
0.943
36.7
Bobby Higginson
1995
0.721
1996
0.982
36.1
Harry Heilmann
1920
0.787
1921
1.051
33.5
Bill Freehan
1973
0.636
1974
0.840
32.1
Ralph Young
1919
0.562
1920
0.729
29.7
Bill Freehan
1966
0.646
1967
0.835
29.4
Sam Crawford
1910
0.756
1911
0.964
27.5
Alan Trammell
1989
0.648
1990
0.826
27.4
Norm Cash
1960
0.903
1961
1.148
27.1
Data Source: Baseball-Databank.org

Can Jackson keep it up for the whole season and into future seasons? His walk and strikeout rates are both significantly better than past seasons which is generally a very good sign.  His increase in power does not surprise scouts who had previously said he had the potential to hit more home runs.  His inflated .406 BABIP would suggest that he'll regress a bit by the end of the season, but much of his improvement seems legitimate.  At this point, it looks historic. 

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