Detroit — Austin Jackson suffers from the occasional baseball failing, but not from amnesia.
He remembers October. The strikeouts. The way playoff pitches whistled past him as if enemy teams were sticking pins in a voodoo doll, seeking dominion over the Tigers center fielder.
At the point Jackson slipped into a 2-for-29 spiral with 17 whiffs spanning the Oakland-Boston series, Jim Leyland acted. The Tigers manager relieved Jackson of his leadoff batter pressures and placed him at a kinder, gentler No. 8 spot.
Jackson’s mind appeared to clear. His swing was more measured. He went 6-for-9 in the next three games, which meant he more resembled the hitter he often had been as the leadoff man.
But what will this season hold for a skilled athlete who in seven days turns 27? Jackson has been an alternate-year kind of player since he arrived four years ago as a rookie who promptly hit .293, all before he slipped to .249 in 2011, after which he soared to .300, only to hit a so-so .272 in 2013.
“I was pressing,” he said Thursday, sitting inside the Tiger Den at Comerica Park and recalling October’s nighmare that only abated in those final three games against the Red Sox. “My timing was way off in the playoffs. And that’s a bad time because everything is so magnified.”
Seeking what's natural
At the heart of Jackson’s occasional issues has been his front foot. As with most hitters, he uses it as a timing device. The problem is consistency. He once incorporated a leg-kick that the Yankees, specifically Reggie Jackson, urged him to forgo during his minor league years with New York.
The abandonment helped less than it confused Jackson. He went back to a leg-kick with the Tigers and hit .300. It became more extreme in 2011 and Jackson hit .249. He and then-hitting coach Lloyd McClendon got busy during the winter of 2012 and Jackson came away with a more refined toe-tap versus the leg kick. He nearly made the American League All-Star team.
Last year, he acknowledges, “I was always in-between.” He could not seem to time the toe-tap. Often, his bat ended up trailing all those mechanical thoughts. Jackson dropped from a high-altitude .856 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in 2012 to .754 in 2013.
Not always are hitters comfortable with new mechanics and tweaked swings introduced during the regular season or postseason. Too much rides on each at-bat. And so hitters revert to what feels natural.
Determining what is natural will be for Jackson and his new guru, Tigers hitting coach Wally Joyner, to decide during spring camp.
“Not so much movement,” Jackson says, offering a preview of what he and Joyner will try to nail down in Florida. “I want to be quieter with my feet.”
Joyner hit .289 during a 16-year career but is careful about details when he talks about blueprints for making Jackson a steadier hitter this season.
“My hope is he can find something he’s comfortable with and he can use it consistently,” Joyner said as he and the Tigers prepared to board buses for this week’s Winter Caravan. “He’s a very excitable player with a lot of talent.”
Joyner has looked at video of Jackson but has no public prescription for the leg-kick/toe-tap limbo in which Jackson last year found himself.
“When you’re hitting .300, you like it,” Joyner said, getting to the heart of Jackson’s past indecision. “When you’re hitting .200, it’s a problem.”
Dave Dombrowski is as non-committal as Joyner when it comes to trouble-shooting Jackson. He was asked about a consensus recommendation from the Tigers experts on how some of that 2010, 2012 prowess might reappear.
“I don’t want to talk mechanics,” said Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager who made Jackson and Max Scherzer the centerpieces of a whopping three-team trade in 2009 that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees.
“What we know is when Austin Jackson makes contact, things happen.”
Making contact, of course, demands a streamlined path to the pitch. Crafting a swing that’s more square to the baseball generally means eliminating extraneous movement.
And so, Jackson’s self-analysis that he needs to be “quieter with my feet” is probably the best window into a strategy he and his bosses share and will follow.
If the process is helped by minding October’s lesson and batting deeper in the lineup, Jackson is on board with any thoughts from new manager Brad Ausmus.
“Everybody in our lineup can hit anywhere in our lineup,” Jackson said, dismissing ideas that position means much to the players involved. “I’d definitely grown accustomed to hitting leadoff, but I know that I’m definitely not a prototypical leadoff batter.”
In fact, his .416 career slugging percentage and 28 home runs during the past two seasons suggest Jackson might be better stationed later in the order. But it’s not relevant, he says. All that matters is becoming the hitter he believes — and knows — he should be.
“I just want to feel comfortable and not go up there doing something I’ve seen someone else do,” he said. “I don’t want to be somebody I’m not.
“I just want to let it flow. Hitting is always a work in progress. And, for me, it always will be.”