Austin Jackson and the September-October Cubs

The Cubs acquired Austin Jackson from the Mariners Monday night, and while the impact of any given move over five weeks is impossible to forecast, this is the best and most interesting external addition the front office has made since the beginning of the season. Jackson is 28 and headed for free agency, but while he’s here, he can provide the Cubs with value the team’s in-house options had little chance of matching.

Consider Jackson, first, as a simple replacement for whichever of Chris Denorfia and Matt Szczur happens to be the worse player in a given situation. Jackson is an average-plus center fielder; neither of the other two can claim that defensive competence. Jackson is also a better hitter than either of those two, even now, chest-deep in his second straight season of diminished performance. Denorfia and Szczur rarely play against any right-handed starter anyway, but against lefties, one of them is now pushed to the bench, where they belong. (Szczur might not even survive the manipulations of the 40-man roster necessary to accommodate the team’s September call-ups; we’ll talk more about those shortly.)

Jackson also might play against some right-handers, though. Both Kyle Schwarber and Chris Coghlan are markedly better hitters than Jackson, particularly against righties, but Jackson is a much, much better fielder than either of them. It might well be that, when Dan Haren starts a game, for instance, Joe Maddon will elect to use a ‘nothing gets down’ outfield alignment that includes Jackson in a corner spot. Maddon’s willingness to do so could be informed by either his confidence in Coghlan as a defensive second baseman, or his confidence in Javier Baez as a viable hitter against righties. If he buys into either of those things, Jackson becomes much more valuable, because he becomes part of a regular defense of a higher caliber than any the Cubs have fielded to this point this season.

At the plate, Jackson is a bit of an unknown quantity. He has a track record; it just tells a conflicting story. Early on, Jackson was a borderline star. He demonstrated a high true-talent level for BABIP, by hitting a lot of ground balls for singles and line drives for doubles. He showed solid pop, and while he struck out quite often, he also walked his share of the time.

Since being dealt to the Mariners, Jackson has been a mess. The trouble started early last season, while he was still with the Tigers. He was taking a solid approach and getting on base enough to stay relevant, but he experienced the worst power outage of his career. The Mariners landed him in their leg of the trade that sent David Price to Detroit, and whether it was the ballpark, the seeming hack-and-whack offensive philosophy the Mariners reinforce, or a simple failure of adjustment, Jackson fell to pieces thereafter. He was abysmal throughout the stretch run in 2014, so bad, in fact, that his previous track record (three above-average offensive seasons in four years) seemed to wash away. He has been better this season, but his walk rate remains very low, and he strikes out a lot.

The idea that something about Safeco Field or the coaching he received there might have derailed Jackson isn’t crazy. It is, however, tough to posit that removing him from that situation might instantaneously, reliably fix him. For now, the safe bet is that Jackson will hit for the rest of the year roughly the way he’s hit for the first 80 percent of it, at something just under a league-average level for all hitters, and just above the water line for center fielders.

There’s one thing about Jackson on which you can comfortably bet, though, and it might well be the reason the Cubs’ front office initially targeted him. He consistently takes a methodical, grinding approach at the plate.

2015 Pitches Per PA First-Pitch Swing Rate
Austin Jackson 4.18 15.8%
League Average 3.81 28.9%

Of 157 qualifying hitters, Jackson ranks 11th in pitches seen per plate appearances, and swings at the first pitch less often than all but 13 of the 157. One good reason to think Jackson can stick in the lineup against right-handers sometimes is that, even if he doesn’t produce great numbers in those games, he might lengthen the lineup and make the opposing pitcher’s job harder just by going to bat.

It’s worth taking a moment to talk about one of the peculiarities of Jackson’s early career, a phenomenon now in his past. He used to have a reverse platoon split. (Or at least, he had better numbers against right-handers than against lefties for longer than is usually explainable by random fluctuation.)

Here are his year-by-year numbers against pitchers of each handedness.

Austin Jackson, Platoon Splits by Season, 2010-15

Season TAv v. RHP TAv v. LHP
2010 .278 .217
2011 .243 .245
2012 .300 .306
2013 .283 .265
2014 .229 .267
2015 .240 .281

In other words, back when Jackson was running one of the highest multi-season BABIPs ever, hitting lasers or swinging and missing altogether, taking walks and all of that, he was a reverse platoon guy. Nowadays, though, he’s a bit more typical, and in this case, that’s not at all a bad thing. Even if one regresses his small-sample TAv against lefties this year (it’s come in 150 plate appearances), the numbers say Jackson is probably a .270 TAv guy against them. Here are Chris Denorfia’s splits for the last three years.

Chris Denorfia, Platoon Splits by Season, 2013-15

Season TAv v. RHP TAv v. LHP
2013 .253 .302
2014 .229 .214
2015 .247 .209

Denorfia was a fine, low-risk offseason stab at shoring up the bench, but he’s failed to do so. At 35, he stands virtually no chance of magically rediscovering his former skill level at the plate. Jackson is an enormous step up from Denorfia, even without accounting for his superior defensive chops. Jackson’s old platoon splits are no cause for equivocation about that fact.

This is an important thing to establish, because the Cubs are overwhelmingly likely to find themselves in that Wild Card Game, needing to win it to earn a full playoff series. As things stood before the Jackson acquisition, the Cubs were very vulnerable to the wrong matchup in that game. Specifically, if the Pirates sent Francisco Liriano or if the Cardinals sent Jaime Garcia, the Cubs would have been in trouble. Their team OPS against righties this year is .716, but against lefties, it’s .684. The loss of Jorge Soler, while not a huge deal in the big picture of a six-week sprint to the finish line of the regular season, could have been devastating if it reared its head in a one-game win-or-go-home setting. Soler had a .360 OBP against lefties this year, and while neither his batting average nor his slugging average were as pretty, it was mostly bad batted-ball luck that held them down.

(Note that I’m talking about Soler in the past tense, where this season is concerned. That’s no accident. One thing this trade signals, if only because it was already what we all suspected, is that Soler’s chances of getting his oblique healed and finding somewhere to regain his timing before rejoining the parent club anytime before mid-October are vanishingly small.)

Coghlan, Schwarber, and Montero all are platoon players, right now. So is Tommy La Stella at second base. Their platoon counterparts to this point this season had been Denorfia, Szczur, David Ross, and Starlin Castro. Every player on the left side of those platoons is better than the guy on the right side of it. With Jackson and Baez stepping into half of those roles, that might no longer be true. If it is true, it’s true by a much smaller margin. If Baez proves to have made sustainable adjustments during his sojourn in Iowa, Jackson completes a perfectly competent offense against lefties. Here are the new (hopeful, perhaps) optimal lineups for the Cubs, based on the handedness of the opposing starter.

Against RHSP Against LHSP
Fowler – CF Fowler – CF
Schwarber – LF Russell – SS
Coghlan – RF Rizzo – 1B
Rizzo – 1B Bryant – RF
Bryant – 3B Baez – 3B
Montero – C Castro – 2B
Russell – SS Ross – C
Pitcher Pitcher
La Stella – 2B Jackson – LF

Adding Jackson has contributed to a roster crunch, but also helps alleviate it. The Cubs have to add Trevor Cahill and Quintin Berry to their 40-man roster Tuesday morning to call them up for the month, and in so doing, they’ll have to clear someone off that list. Since Baez and Tsuyoshi Wada are also among those being called up, it could be that Jonathan Herrera or James Russell become totally redundant and are given their walking papers. In the same vein, though, it’s possible that Jackson makes either Denorfia or Szczur superfluous.

To get Jackson onto their roster in time for him to be eligible to play in the Postseason, the Cubs had to designate Mike Olt for assignment. If his addition ends up pushing Olt and one of the incumbent reserve outfielders out, and if (as may be the case, though there hasn’t been a strong indication of it) the player to be named later in this deal turns out to be someone of real value, then Jackson will have cost quite a bit to acquire. He has the real opportunity to be worth it, though. He could be the long- and much-needed depth charge that makes the difference when the playoffs come around.

By the way, though this is an intangible, negligible value that shouldn’t be priced into the decision to acquire a player, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Cubs will want to sign Jackson as a free agent this winter. He’ll be a slightly younger, considerably cheaper alternative to re-signing Fowler, and if they feel confident about their opportunity and their desire to sign him, it would make the decision to make Fowler a qualifying offer that much easier. Jackson could rebuild his (slightly dented) value on a one- or two-year deal, a la Colby Rasmus, and the Cubs could use that year (or two) to evaluate the viability of Albert Almora, Ian Happ, and/or one of their current middle infielders as long-term options in center field. If they’re thinking that way, perhaps they hope that bringing Jackson on board for their playoff run will give them an inside track. The trade is worthwhile, even exciting, without factoring that in, but it may be a secondary consideration worth keeping in mind.

In general, Jackson’s arrival signals a change in the dynamic of this team, a change that will be supported by the contributions of Baez, Berry, and others. The September-October Cubs will be the best defensive unit they’ve fielded all season, because they will finally have a second average or better defensive outfielder, and they’ll sometimes be able to put both of their best defensive middle infielders (Russell and Baez, in some order) at those positions. The club should also regain the element of speed that has deserted them a bit of late. Jackson and Baez are both fast and aggressive, and Berry’s entire role on the team will be to bridge from one side of a platoon to the other by running for someone in a key situation. In this regard, the Cubs are very lucky that the three primary engines of their offense—Rizzo, Bryant, and Fowler—are all good baserunners. Berry will pinch-run most often for catchers and Coghlan, and occasionally for Castro or La Stella.

Much of the Cubs’ success from here onward will hinge on whether they have amassed enough pitching depth to win games not started by Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta. The additions of Wada, Cahill, and Fernando Rodney all help. Des Moines Register reporter Tommy Birch said on Twitter that he believes Carl Edwards, Jr. will eventually be a September call-up, too. Rafael Soriano and Neil Ramirez are each on rehab assignments in the upper minors. Ultimately, though, pitching performance fluctuates so wildly in short stretches like the one between here and Halloween that it’s impossible to tell how that will pan out. The Cubs front office took the most proactive, high-upside action they could to improve the team on the positional side, and they’re much better positioned for it.

Lead photo courtesy of Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Related Articles

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username