The Curious Case of Austin Jackson

With the signing of Ian Desmond by the Texas Rangers on Sunday, the last qualifying offer free agent found a home. While the majority of the heavy lifting has already been completed this offseason, there are still quite a few players looking for teams. Perhaps the most notable of all the remaining free agents is outfielder Austin Jackson. Obviously Jackson was not the cream of the outfield crop going into this offseason, but it is still surprising that he has yet to sign a contract for the 2016 season. This begs the question: Why is Austin Jackson still unsigned as the calendar turns to March?

Clearly that’s a bit of a loaded question, with no real answer. With that in mind, let’s delve into a separate question a little deeper.

Who is Austin Jackson?

Originally drafted in the 8th round (259th overall) by the New York Yankees in the 2005 draft, Jackson has bounced around quite a bit over the course of his career, especially in the last few seasons. Despite being drafted by the Yankees, Jackson didn’t see any big league time with the team before being traded to the Detroit Tigers. Jackson played four seasons in Detroit (and half of a fifth), with varying levels of success, including a 5.4 fWAR season in 2012. Halfway through the 2014 season, Jackson ended up in Seattle where he stayed for the rest of the 2014 season and half of the 2015 season until winding up in Chicago with the Cubs.

So that’s the short version of where Austin Jackson has been over the course of his career. Statistically, he has been about as up and down as they come. Over his last six seasons as a big leaguer, Jackson has provided 4.0, 2.4, 5.4, 3.0, 0.9, and 2.3 fWAR. Going off of that, his wRC+ over the course of his career is 102, with individual seasons of 101, 87, 134, 108, 86, and 94 last season. Despite the gulf between various seasons, and the varying levels of success Jackson has had, he has proven that he can be an effective hitter more often than not.

Defensively, Jackson has been a little more consistent over the course of his career. While never putting up gold glove numbers, Jackson has been rather consistently above average in center field throughout his career. Over six seasons as a center fielder, Jackson has put up UZRs of 5.3, 7.8, 3.5, -3.8, -8.6, and 7.5. There was obviously some struggles for Jackson in 2013 and 2014, but over the course of his career he has a UZR of 11.8 in over 7,000 innings in center field.

So, at least statistically, Jackson has been a pretty decent player over the course of his career. He’s never been too flashy, even during his 5.4 fWAR 2012 season. More so than anything else, Jackson has been relatively consistent and pretty dependable as well prior to his 2014 struggles. Despite those struggles, Jackson rebounded nicely in 2015; putting up a 2+ WAR season split between two teams. With his small level of success in 2015, it is rather surprising that Jackson is still without a home for 2016.

Looking at surface level statistics doesn’t tell us much about what’s holding Jackson back. So perhaps a more in depth statistical breakdown will shed light on Jackson’s never-ending free agency.

For some context, let’s compare Jackson’s best season, 2012, with his worst, 2014.

Based on these numbers, it’s pretty easy to see where Jackson fell off most considerably. His batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS all fell significantly in the frame of just two years. Now here is his 2015 season, split between his time with the Cubs and the Mariners.

Despite the drop in batting average between Seattle and Chicago, Jackson’s 2015 season resembled his 2012 season much more than his 2014 season. Obviously he didn’t attain the same level of success, but a 2.3 fWAR was a steep improvement from his abysmal 2014 season.

I know what you’re thinking, “Those aren’t in-depth statistics.” But I am getting there.

For a better reason as to why Jackson’s offensive numbers fell so significantly over the last several years, look no farther than his batted ball data.

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Here’s where the real discrepancies lie. Despite having a poor 2014 season, his batted ball profile matched rather consistently with his 2012 numbers. However, his 2015 saw a ten percent increase in ground balls. Further, he saw an eight percent decrease in his fly ball rate from 2014 and a ten percent decrease from 2012. In 2015, Jackson was hitting the ball on the ground more often, and not hitting the ball with the authority he did in 2012.

Let’s take this one step further and look at his soft, medium, and hard hit percentages.

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This is where it gets a little more confusing. Jackson is making more soft contact now than he did in 2012, but he also improved his hard hit percentage four percent from 2014. So Jackson is hitting the ball softer more often, but also hitting the ball harder more often. So what does this mean for him in 2016?

It seems unlikely that Austin Jackson will return to his best performance of 2012. Even if he is unable to attain that level of play, Jackson could still be a useful piece for a contending team. It’s hard to see Jackson as a starting outfielder for 2016, but he could serve very well in a fourth outfield/utility sort of role. With no draft pick attached and a low asking price, Jackson should be able to find a job for 2016.

Really it should be any day now.

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