The 2012 version of the Detroit Tigers comes to the table with plenty of certainties. But as absolute as their extra-base power and front-line starting pitching are, a few x-factors remain that can put this team over the top or hold them back from their ultimate goal.
Make no mistake, barring a rash of injuries; the Tigers are going to the playoffs. The AL Central is one of the weaker divisions in baseball and Detroit is at the head of the class. The destination for this team is a World Series title. Anything short of that will be met with a feeling of disappointment.
Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. Owner Mike Ilitch didn’t pony up $214M for Prince Fielder to simply be the bridesmaid.
It’s the certainties of a powerful middle of the lineup and above average starting rotation and back-end of the bullpen that make the playoffs seem like a shoe-in. But what needs to happen to bring the Tigers their first World Series title since 1984?
A few things come to mind, but first and foremost – Austin Jackson must transition himself into a true leadoff hitter. When he is in the midst of one of his patented hot streaks, the Tigers are an unstoppable force. When he steps in the box swinging the Swiss cheese stick around with the confidence of a zit-faced kid who just got braces, the Tigers’ offense is human.
Jackson has been working with hitting Coach Lloyd McClendon this offseason on limiting his leg kick and keeping his head level on the ball. This should lead to better strike zone recognition and contact rates.
If a young player is lobbying for a leg kick, just watch the game’s best hitters. A quick at-bat sampling of Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols’ work will show just about anybody that it’s unnecessary, and more than anything, disrupts the hitter’s timing.
Jackson hit .293 as a rookie with a .345 on-base % even though he struck out 170 times. In his sophomore season, striking out only 11 more times, he hit just .249 with a .317 OBP. As predicted, his BABIP (batting average on balls in play) took a big dip. He had a disturbingly high BABIP of .396 in 2010. Last year, it dipped to a still respectable .340.
The translation here is this: when he hits the ball, he gets on base at an above-average rate, but that’s only when he hits the ball. He has managed just 103 walks in over 1,300 plate appearances as a professional. If the new approach at the plate can limit his whiffs and lead to more contact and bases on balls, Jackson will propel the Tigers’ offense to a new level.
Imagine the opposing pitcher’s fear when Jackson gets on base to start a game. Not only is he dealing with the eventuality that he may get run on, but he’s also trying to figure out how to pitch to Brennan Boesch, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder in succession. The odds of coming out of that vortex unscathed are minimal.
Jackson holds the key. No other player (with the possible exception of Andy Dirks) on the Tigers’ roster projects as a leadoff hitter. Dirks is hoping to win the left field job and bat 8th in the lineup on most days.
The gig is Jackson’s alone. He will get a ton of rope. What he does with it will largely depend on cutting down on the leg kick and becoming a pitch-recognizer, rather than a guess-hitter. At just 25 years old, the jury has yet to render a verdict on which way Jackson’s career will head.