Jackson’s defense set him apart from other rookies

In the Year of the Pitcher, I suppose it makes sense that Texas Rangers closer Neftali Feliz was named American League Rookie of the Year Monday by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Feliz beat out Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson 122-98 in points and 20-8 in first-place votes. Twins third baseman Danny Valencia finished a distant third with 12 points.

Feliz, who set a major league record for rookies with 40 saves, is the second straight reliever to win the award, following Oakland’s Andrew Bailey.

The problem this season is that it is difficult to compare apples and oranges. Maybe there should be separate awards for pitchers and position players.

There’s no question that Feliz had an unbelievable rookie season and helped his team reach the World Series.

But Jackson’s accomplishments appear to merit the award as well. The speedy 23-year-old led all rookies with 103 runs scored, 181 hits, 247 total bases, 48 extra-base hits, 34 doubles, 10 triples and 27 stolen bases.

He was only the fourth player since 1901 to score at least 100 runs and collect 180 hits, 30 doubles, 10 triples and 25 stolen bases as a rookie. The other three are Joe Jackson in 1911, Juan Samuel in 1984 and Hanley Ramirez in 2006.

Others have already recognized Jackson. The Sporting News named Jackson American League Rookie of the Year. He was also named American League Outstanding Rookie in the Players Choice Award voting. The Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association — of which I am a member — named him Tigers Rookie of the Year.

As I said earlier in the season, although Jackson was certainly impressive offensively, his defense set him apart from other rookies. Feliz has to play his position but is not called upon to be an everyday force in that area as Jackson is.

Everyone remembers Jackson’s full-speed, all-out, over-the-shoulder catch in what should have been Armando Galarraga’s perfect game.

Interestingly, that wasn’t the catch that Jackson liked the most.

“My favorite catch probably was the one, matter of fact we were playing against the Twins, and Orlando Hudson hit a ball off the end of the bat and I dove and caught it,” Jackson said in July. “He just gave me this look for the rest of the game. It was funny. I don’t dive too much so when I dove and caught it, I was kind of surprised.”

Watching those types of catches, it wasn’t surprising that Jackson’s teammates had nothing but raves for the young outfielder during the season.

“He’s a left fielder’s and right fielder’s dream because he covers so much ground,” catcher Gerald Laird said. “You know how big the outfield is at Comerica, especially the gaps and how deep it is, but he seems to have adapted to it really quick. It’s just fun to watch. He’s made great catch after great catch. You know when a ball’s hit in his vicinity, it’s going to be an out.”

Brandon Inge, who is known for some pretty good defense himself, also weighed in.

“To be honest with you, if not now, he will be one of the best outfielders that I’ve ever seen play the game defensively, ever,” Inge said. “He is unbelievable. I’ve never seen anyone get jumps like he does, run fly balls down like he runs them down.”

While it’s nice that Jackson’s teammates appreciated his performance, it’s telling that opponents also came away impressed.

The Tigers play the Minnesota Twins so often that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is certainly qualified to evaluate Jackson, which he did during a series before the All-Star break. You also have to remember that Gardenhire managed center fielder Torii Hunter, a nine-time Gold Glove winner and four-time All-Star.

“I don’t know if anybody in the outfield covers as much as Jackson does,” Gardenhire said. “We were watching him and he’s just all over the field. Jackson is a speed guy, covers the same amount of ground as Torii and that says a lot because I thought Torii covered a lot. I think his initial burst is unbelievable. Might be, probably as quick as Torii’s was, if not quicker. Just from watching him, as I’ve said before, this guy can play. He can really play. His instincts out in center are as good as I’ve seen in a long, long time.”

It would have been nice for Jackson to join Justin Verlander (2006), Lou Whitaker (1978), Mark Fidrych (1976) and Harvey Kuenn (1953) as Tigers to win the award, but it didn’t happen.

He might be considered the second-best AL rookie nationally, but those of us who got to see him patrol Comerica Park’s center field every day this past season can’t be faulted for thinking there’s no one better than Jackson.

Nov. 15, 2010