Tigers’ Jackson getting into his comfort zone at plate

Tigers outfielder Austin Jackson is hitting the ball in the air more this season.

Rick Osentoski/Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

"Sometimes, you can just do everything right and the results aren’t coming," Tigers outfielder Austin Jackson said before a late-May game against the Athletics. And if you look at what Jackson is doing at the plate, he’s right.

Big changes in parts of his process all seem positive, but the results aren’t quite there yet. Could good times be around the corner?

The most stark change Jackson is demonstrating comes when we look at the numbers that evaluate his swing decisions. At FanGraphs, we track how often a player reaches at pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%) and inside the zone (Z-Swing%). Jackson has incrementally improved this skill with every year in the bigs, but this year he has taken a large step forward. His contact rate has enjoyed it:

When asked about it, Jackson said most of it had to do with "figuring out more about yourself as a hitter and your strike zone, and each year getting a little more experience at the plate."

We know that hitters generally take more pitches with age, but there’s something more to it. Jackson feels like he’s finally getting to know what pitchers are trying to do to him, and he’s seeing it quicker. Using FanGraphs’ new heat maps, we can see this in action. Right-handed pitchers are throwing Jackson low and away as much as they can this year:

JacksonPitch14

So Jackson is swinging at those pitches less often this year. Take particular note of the bottom quadrants off the outside corner. First comes 2013, and then below is 2014.

JAcksonSwing13JacksonSwing14

Perhaps that’s what he meant when he said: "It’s a little tougher at this level because they have more information about what kind of hitter you are, your weaknesses, so you constantly have to keep making adjustments."

Now he knows "what kind of hitter" he is (he likes it in) and how they are trying to pitch him (out over the plate), and he’s made the adjustment (not swinging at stuff off the outside corner).

The other major change in Jackson’s game has to do with fly balls. He’s hitting significantly more fly balls than he ever has before:

 

This isn’t the result of moving down in the order — to Jackson, "the objective is still to get on base," even if he’s not at the top of the order any more.

But maybe this new loft is the result of a change he’s made to this swing. Austin Jackson once dropped a pronounced leg kick after he struggled his rookie season. Now it’s back. The swing in 2010:

Without the kick in 2013:

The kick is back in 2014:

He’s not sure of the link between his leg kick and added fly balls. He said it might help him use his legs a little bit more by "having leverage, getting up to come down." But largely, the new kick is about comfort.

"I didn’t really think, ‘I want to do a leg kick.’ I just wanted to do something this offseason that felt natural and didn’t feel like a forced movement," Jackson said about going back to his old swing.

Comfort and timing. And timing is the reason he didn’t do this before.

"When your timing is screwed up a bit, any extra movement can be detrimental, really, because you have to do a lot before you hit," Jackson said. "It’s kind of hard to hit the pitch if your foot is in the air."

But Jackson is more mature these days, and so comfort trumped any timing issues the kick might bring to the table.

One last thing Jackson has going for him this year is his health. He’s attempting more steals (one every seven games, up from a career low of one every 11 games last year), and his defensive numbers are up (1.3 defensive range runs this year, up from a career low of -4.4 last year), and it’s mostly because of a healthy leg.

"That’s such an aggressive movement, a burst, I was a little more cautious taking off on the basepaths last year because I hurt my hamstring," Jackson said.

Now he can finally "let it rip and not feel any soreness," and his game appreciates it.

With his health in place, his approach at the plate locked in and his swing producing the fly balls that could boost his power, Austin Jackson has set the table for great results. And as the player said: "If you can concentrate on the process and making sure that you’re doing everything that you can mechanically, eventually the results are going to come around."