Sunday, August 12, 2012

Where Austin Jackson's Season Ranks Among Tigers Center Fielders

As illustrated in an earlier post, Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson has upgraded his offensive game dramatically over 2011.  Not only is he one of the most improved hitters ever though, he is also one of the top hitters in the American League this year.  He is third in the AL batting average (.319) and on-base percentage (.402) and seventh in On-Base plus slugging (.925).  Among center fielders, the the right-handed hitting Jackson is third in the league in OPS behind Angels rookie sensation Mike Trout and Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton. 

So, before we even attempt to get into any defensive evaluation, Jackson stacks up quite well to almost any player.  His defense might be a bit overrated by some - he his superb at going back on fly balls and covering ground in Comerica Park's vast center field, but is not that great coming in on the ball and does not have an outstanding arm.  Still, he is a very good fielder at a premium position and that adds to his value.

In terms of Wins Above Replacement, AJax has been a tremendous overall performer regardless of which method one chooses.  He is fourth in the circuit in Baseball-Reference WAR (4.4) and third in Fan Graphs WAR (4.9).  The only players ahead of him on both measures are Trout and Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano.  Teammate Miguel Cabrera is also ahead of Jackson on the Baseball-Reference  measure.  Jackson is looking like an MVP candidate to me and probably would be more in the discussion had he not missed time with an abdominal strain earlier in the season.

I always like to see how current players rank among historic Tigers and I'll use the OPS+ statistic to do that here.  The OPS+ metric is a player's OPS relative to league average and adjusting for ballpark.  An OPS+ of 100 is average, over 100 is above average and below 100 is below average.  Jackson has a 148 OPS+ which places him sixth in the league this year and in the top five percent of players historically - all players not just center fielders. 

 Table 1 below shows that Jackson currently has the 19th highest single-season OPS+ among Tigers center fielders.  That doesn't sound so great until you consider that the top 13 positions belong to the legendary Ty Cobb.  In fact, only Cobb, and fellow Hall-of-Famers Sam Crawford, Al Kaline and Heinie Manush had better offensive seasons as center fielders. 

Table 1: Single-season OPS+ Leaders Among Tigers Center Fielders

Player
Year
PA
OPS+
Ty Cobb
1917
669
210
Ty Cobb
1910
590
206
Ty Cobb
1912
609
200
Ty Cobb
1911
654
196
Ty Cobb
1918
474
194
Ty Cobb
1913
501
194
Ty Cobb
1914
414
190
Ty Cobb
1915
700
185
Ty Cobb
1916
636
180
Ty Cobb
1925
492
171
Ty Cobb
1922
613
169
Ty Cobb
1921
582
166
Ty Cobb
1919
548
166
Sam Crawford
1907
632
160
Sam Crawford
1908
654
159
Heinie Manush
1926
563
154
Sam Crawford
1909
662
152
Al Kaline
1959
594
151
Austin Jackson
2012
415
148
Jimmy Barrett
1903
615
144
Source: Baseball-Reference    

If we limit the list to seasons since World War II, Jackson ranks even better.. His 148 mark ranks second only to Kaline (151) in 1959 and is even better than the 135 OPS of Curtis Granderson's quadruple twenty season (20 homers, 20 triples, 20 doubles, 20 steals) of 2007.  Granderson's 2008 season also made the cut.  Other recent Tigers appearing on the list multiple times are Chet Lemon (three seasons) and Ron Leflore (two). 

 Table 1: Single-season OPS+ Leaders Among Tigers Center Fielders Since 1946

Player
Year
PA
OPS+
Al Kaline
1959
594
151
Austin Jackson
2012
415
148
Curtis Granderson
2007
676
135
Chet Lemon
1984
574
135
Chet Lemon
1987
553
130
Ron LeFlore
1976
603
128
Chet Lemon
1983
573
126
Curtis Granderson
2008
629
124
Ron LeFlore
1977
698
123
Jim Delsing
1953
552
122
 Source: Baseball-Reference   

So, Jackson's season looks impressive historically as well as currently.  How much of his gain from 2011 to 2012 can be maintained going forwards remain to be be seen, but 2012 has been a remarkable season for the Tigers lead-off hitter. 

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