Jackson serves as vital catalyst for Tigers
Leadoff man provides impact of immeasurable proportions by getting on base
When you load your lineup with mashers, as the Detroit Tigers have, you can make a compelling case that your most important player becomes the guy who can get on base.For the Tigers, that guy is Austin Jackson, and his impact on this club and its fortunes in a year of such vaunted expectations is immeasurable. Well, then again, maybe it can be measured. The Tigers, after all, are six games over .500 (28-22) with Jackson, who missed half of May and early June because of an abdominal issue, in the starting lineup this season and seven games under (8-15) without him. And this tally seems to go beyond quirk or coincidence. "It's the total package that you miss [when he's absent]," manager Jim Leyland said. "The pitchers know he's a great center fielder, so that's an impact from that standpoint. We know he generates offense, so it's an impact from that point. It's not like losing a DH and you plug somebody in there or platoon a couple guys at DH. That's your center fielder, that's the captain of your outfield. So that's a big guy for you." Jackson is big because without him generating run-scoring opportunity atop the order, the impact of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder can become compromised. Obviously, this is a plodding lineup on the whole, and so the speed Jackson and upstart rookie Quentin Berry bring to the top of the order stands out all the more. "If you're doing your job and getting on base for guys like Cabrera and Fielder," said Jackson, "they're going to do their job getting you in. They're pretty good at it." Jackson and Berry have been plenty good at what they do, getting on base at a collective clip of nearly .400. But while Berry is certainly an intriguing talent who has made an instant impact in a small sample, what's notable about Jackson is the adjustments he's made to ensure his instant impact in 2010 won't stand as a one-year wonder. After all, Jackson's largely lackluster sophomore effort in 2011, when he hit .249 with a .317 on-base percentage, led to questions and concerns over whether he was capable of handling the table-setting role for such a talented lineup. Had he not drastically improved on those percentages, a Tigers team wallowing in the realm of .500 might be buried at this point. Instead, the Tigers enter Tuesday's play just two games shy of the American League Central lead, and they very much remain the favorites to capture a decidedly weak division. The Tigers' vitality, despite their shortcomings, is largely a testament to Jackson, for his .311 average, .398 OBP and .520 slugging percentage (second only, amazingly, to Cabrera's .534 mark) have been game-changers. "He brings a dynamic that certainly gives us a different look," hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said. "When he's clicking, it gives our big guys in the middle good pitches to hit." Over the winter, Jackson and McClendon decided it was time to put the center fielder in a better position to capitalize on his pitches to hit. The high leg kick that had been a part of Jackson's at-the-plate repertoire as long as he could remember was scrapped, and in its place a less-busy, more-focused approach took root. That it took root so quickly surprised McClendon. "I told skip when we came down for the [winter] caravan that I had never been so excited about a change," McClendon said. "He picked it up so fast, it was like he had been doing it all his life. I was cautiously optimistic that I thought he was going to be really good this season, but not to this extent." No, it would have been hard to forecast what the 25-year-old Jackson has done here in 2012. To Tigers fans, his growth and development might call to mind the strides Curtis Granderson -- the man the Tigers dealt to get him -- made to become one of the AL's elite outfielders. But Jackson hasn't endured as jarring a left-right split scenario, and his maturation in limiting strikeouts has come quicker than it did for "The Grandy Man." In his first two seasons in the big leagues, Jackson struck out 3.41 times for every walk and once every 3.4 at-bats. This season, the strikeout-to-walk ratio is down to 1.64, and he's averaging 4.3 at-bats between strikeouts. In all, he has 46 strikeouts in 228 plate appearances after striking out 181 times last season. "That's been a very pleasant surprise," McClendon said. "I thought he would cut it down some but not to the rate that he has. At this rate, he may be under 100 for the year, which would be just tremendous." What would truly be tremendous for the Tigers is if Jackson can stay healthy and get back to his pre-injury production. He's hit .267 since his return from the DL, and there's no telling if the abdominal issue is a lingering concern. But it is easy to tell that when Jackson is on top of his game atop the order, the Tigers are capable of being that team we all expected them to be going into the year, from a run-production standpoint. And if that's the case, they're still the team to beat in the Central.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.