Jackson finds new home in middle of Tigers’ batting order

Austin Jackson knocks in a run with a single in the Tigers' 4-3 victory over the White Sox on Tuesday.

Jerry Lai

Austin Jackson has gone from setting tables to cleaning tables.

The Detroit Tigers’ center fielder batted leadoff the first four years of his career, but is hitting either fifth or sixth this season.

It’s a change that came after he hit eighth in the last three games of the 2013 ALCS to shake an awful slump. That move was born out of desperation, but it was the beginning of Jackson finding a new home in the middle of the batting order.

His two-out single in the sixth inning Tuesday night tied a game with the Chicago White Sox that the Tigers pulled out, 4-3. Jackson also scored the winning run on a bunt single by catcher Bryan Holaday.

Jackson is back to being a central cog for the Tigers after the struggles in the 2013 playoffs, where he batted .091 with three hits and 18 strikeouts in 33 at-bats.

For the first time in his four seasons in Detroit, the boo-birds chirped at the popular Jackson last October. And former Tigers manager Jim Leyland, knowing he had to try something to get Jackson going, decided to drop him to eighth.

Holaday's bunt gives Tigers 4-3 win over White Sox

It worked. With the pressure off, Jackson went 6-for-9 to bat .667 and didn’t strike out in the final three games of the ALCS.

During spring training, new Tigers manager Brad Ausmus decided to keep Jackson out of the leadoff spot. Ausmus experimented with batting him in the middle of the order and found something that worked.

Now, after getting 542 of 544 regular season starts atop the batting order, Jackson hits fifth or sometimes sixth. He’s batting .311 with six doubles, two triples, two homers, 10 RBIs and 13 runs scored after 21 games this season. He also has a quality .375 on-base percentage and 10 walks.

"He’s been swinging the bat well all year," Ausmus said. "Knock on wood, we’ll keep him going."

Jackson really had no time to prepare for his new run-producing spot in the order. He never had the opportunity to focus on upper-body lifting and putting on weight.

So what has he done to adjust his approach to hitting in the meat of the batting order?

"I feel like I haven’t changed much in my approach," Jackson said. "I’m not trying to do too much differently. If I start to do what I’m not capable of, it’s when you go into slumps. I stick to what I know.

"Yeah, that’s pretty much it. I’m trying to make it that simple."

That’s where new Tigers hitting coach Wally Joyner’s approach comes into play.

"We keep things pretty simple and do not go into too much detail on mechanics," Jackson said. "What we do work on is quick fixes, pointing to one thing that needs adjusting. And I’m able to fix things quicker on my own now, too, than I was earlier in my career."

Jackson hit .293 and finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2010. In 2012, he had career-highs in batting average (.300), homers (16) and RBIs (66). He led the league in triples in 2011 (11) and 2012 (10), and has scored between 90 and 103 runs in each of his four seasons.

Jackson’s 406 runs scored since coming into the league are second only to the 441 notched by teammate Miguel Cabrera. So Jackson had fulfilled the primary role of a leadoff hitter — scoring runs at an impressive pace.

But he also struck out between 129 and 170 times every year, which isn’t ideal for a leadoff hitter. Jackson didn’t walk that much, either, and his .272 batting average and .337 on-base percentage in 2013 were mediocre for a top-of-the-order hitter.

This season, his walks are up (one every 8.8 plate appearances after one every 11.8 in 2013) and his strikeouts are down (one every 6.3 plate appearances after one every 4.8 last year), and Jackson’s shown signs of becoming a more effective batter.

"I’ve been real pleased with what he’s done," Joyner said. "He’s been very receptive and wants to get better and try new things. We’re getting him comfortable and confident, and hitting from a very strong position."

Jackson’s also improved his batting average against left-handed pitchers. He had been an anomaly because he was a right-handed hitter who had always hit better against right-handed pitchers than lefties.

After batting an anemic .213 against southpaws in 2013, Jackson is .412 (7-for-17) against them after the first month of this season.

"I think timing was a big thing with me hitting lefties," Jackson said. "I watched a lot of video and my timing against them was late. I focused on having the same timing as I’ve had against righties, and it’s worked."

Sacrifice flies are another example of an improved focus and balanced swing, according to Jackson. He’s never had more than three in one season, but already has four and ranks second in the league in that category.

"I’m trying to bear down on at-bats with less than two outs," Jackson said, "and get the job done any way possible."

Spoken like a true middle-of-the-order hitter.