Jackson puts it all together

Jackson puts it all together

Published Jul. 11, 2012 6:10 p.m. ET

Special to FOXSportsDetroit.com

Austin Jackson is flying high now — even eclipsing the production that nearly won him AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2010.

Last year was another story. His glove still performed magic, but his bat turned to stone. And he heard the whispers that said he’d become pretty ordinary, and how the Tigers weren’t going to be able to live with such dire production in the leadoff spot.

“My lowest point in the season?” said Jackson, repeating the question. “It was really on and off all year, and it got kind of tough at times. I was not doing as well as expected.

“But I’d talk to my teammates a lot. Magglio really helped get me through it.”

Magglio Ordoñez, who played right field and hit balls on the nose for 14 seasons before retiring this year, received plenty of credit for the power and production brought by his sweet swing. But, for whatever reason, not much was made of how much he cared.

Jackson said, “I remember Magglio telling me, 'That second year is always tough, but don’t get discouraged.' He’d say, 'They figured out your holes, and now you’re the one who has to make the adjustments.'"

The adjustments took time, but Jackson, 25, has flourished because of them.

The fleet center fielder is second in the league with a .408 on-base percentage and seventh with a .332 batting average. Jackson is tied for the triples lead with five, and he’s tied with Josh Hamilton and Adam Jones for 10th with 54 runs.

With the second half of the season beginning Friday in Baltimore against the Orioles, Jackson has become one of the most feared weapons in the game -- a leadoff man who gets on and scores.

“They made adjustments to Austin,” said Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “Now he’s made adjustments to them. He’s doing that very well right now.”

What kind of adjustments?

“You learn the pitchers better,” Jackson said, “and you read situations better. You are going to have to make those on an everyday basis. You have an approach to an off-speed pitcher one day and a power pitcher the next day.”

What’s his approach to a fastball pitcher?

“They are going to go into you,” Jackson said. “You have to look to turn on it. You have got to have your foot down on time. Having my high leg kick gone really helps there.”

And what about facing more of a slider-curve hurler?

“I stay back and go the other way with the pitch,” Jackson said. “Or I hit it up the middle. I do not want to pull off it, that’s for sure.”

He smiled and paused, realizing the joy of having put bad habits in the rearview mirror.

Jackson batted .249 with a puny .317 on-base percentage last year and struck out 181 times -- third most in the majors. The shine of his rookie season, when he batted .293 and scored 103 runs, had dulled before the luster was regained this year.

He’s also striking out less this season.

“I’m not chasing as many two-strike pitches,” Jackson said. “It’s about not being afraid to take a third strike if you trust your eyes.”

That trust has resulted in Jackson defusing his most glaring fault. His strikeout ratio has come down considerably from last year, when he fanned in 31 percent of at-bats. That has dropped to 26 percent this season and will result in about 30 fewer whiffs over the entire year.

He’s also walking at a slightly higher rate.

The result of those improvements and a refined hitting approach has Jackson reaching base at a higher percentage than all but five other players in the majors: Joey Votto, David Wright, Joe Mauer, Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Ruiz. No other leadoff man gets on 41 percent of the time, as Jackson has.

“If I get on base,” Jackson said, “everything else will take care of itself.”

He’s also looking forward to returning to his turnaround year. Jackson credited Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon with the adjustment that has made a big difference.

“Mac had hinted about adjusting the leg kick at the end of last season,” Jackson said, “but it was too drastic a change to make on the go.

“But I worked on it in the batting cages back home, and going into spring training, I knew it would work. I could see the ball longer and recognize pitches better as a result. I can make those adjustments because of getting rid of that leg kick.”

There also was an attitude adjustment.

“Instead of trying to crush the ball too often,” Jackson said, “I was just trying to make good contact. Every once in awhile I get one good, and it goes out.”

He’s hit 17 doubles and nine homers with 38 RBI, and could reach the 20 homers his New York Yankees mentor Reggie Jackson once told me he would achieve. But the power is icing on the cake for a hitter whose job is to get on base for 100-RBI regulars Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

Tigers first base coach Tom Brookens, who also teaches base running and outfield defense, said the rookie left fielder hitting behind Jackson, Quintin Berry, could play a big role into turning Jackson into more of a base-stealing threat.

“Austin has a way to go in learning to steal bases,” Brookens said. “He’s learning to peak in and steal the catcher’s sign on breaking balls, and how to read pitchers.

"But there’s no question in my mind that he can steal 30 bases in a season. He can get to 25 this year, if we start running him.”

That’s where Berry, with 12 steals since his late-May call-up, comes in.

“Berry will steal 50 if he plays every day,” Brookens said. “He’s quite good at it, and his read on pitchers already is pretty solid. He has a quicker first step than Jackson, but Jackson has better flat-out speed.

"Berry is fearless, though, and I hope he rubs off on Jackson.”

Jackson stole 27 as a rookie and 22 last year. He has just seven at the All-Star break.

“I talk to Quintin about stealing,” Jackson said. “He’s not afraid of getting thrown out -- he’s fearless. It definitely helps me to see that.

"It’s just confidence in going and putting the pressure on the opposing team to stop you.”

The pieces in his game continue coming together.

As good as Jackson is right now, he still has room to improve.

Back home in Venezuela, his good friend, Magglio, must be smiling.