January is a safe time to talk about baseball. There are no games on the schedule, no performances to track. The dead of winter makes a very comfortable backdrop against which to make declarations, bold predictions and lofty promises.
Few are the wintertime bon mots that get remembered much past spring training. Even fewer are those that actually come true.
The Tigers winter caravan was about to get into full swing last January. The annual tour through the state, designed to warm the hearts of the baseball fans and to attempt to break up winter’s cold and doldrums with an opportunity to wax about the National Pastime.
Nothing better than some baseball talk in mid-January to put the cold temps and chilled bones on hold, or at least in the background, if even momentarily.
As the caravan was about to rev up, there came a news item from Tiger Land.
Austin Jackson, the center fielder who just completed his pockmarked sophomore season, was the center of the news item.
Jackson was a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. He was the Churchill’s Russia of the Tigers. After two seasons, most followers of the team were scratching their heads.
He belonged on To Tell the Truth, playing the two impostors and the real guy, all by himself.
In 2010, his rookie year, Jackson batted .293. Even though he struck out a lot, he wasn’t out of place in a big league batter’s box. His fielding was exemplary, loping around in the majors’ vast center fields like a gazelle with a mitt.
In 2011, Jackson still patrolled center field like an Irish cop does the Bowery, but his hitting tailed off dramatically. The average sunk to .249 and the strikeouts became more viral—and less tolerable, thanks to the 44-point drop in his BA.
In the playoffs, Jackson batting leadoff seemed to help torpedo the Tigers more than helping them win. He seemed to be regressing as a big-league hitter, especially when the spotlight’s glare was brightest.
So that was the situation with Jackson when the January announcement came that hitting coach Lloyd McClendon was working with Jackson on the young hitter’s batting stance.
You could almost see the collective eyes of Tigers fans rolling.
If you’d like to get into a business where the adulation is rare and the bitching from the populace is constant, you might want to consider becoming a big league team’s hitting coach—that is, if you can’t make it to manager.
The slumps are all yours. And the success stories?
Don’t hold your breath waiting for the credit.
McClendon, we were told, had seen something he didn’t like with Jackson’s stance. Something caught on that new standby, videotape. Of course, it’s not even tape anymore—it’s all digital.
McClendon didn’t like Jackson’s high kick before the swing. There were other things, stuff that only hitting coaches see, and McClendon went to work on those, too.
Some of it, McClendon said he had tried to correct on the fly during the 2011 season. Clearly those fixes didn’t take; Jackson was a shell of the offensive player he displayed in 2010.
Last offseason, brilliant bloggers such as the one you’re reading right now suggested that Jackson was no longer suited for the Tigers’ leadoff role. We keyboard bangers declared Jackson and his .249 batting average were No. 9 material in the batting order, not No. 1.
I showed my genius by pushing for the Tigers to use Brennan Boesch at leadoff in 2012.
Of all the things that can make you smarter, a keyboard isn’t necessarily one of them.
So McClendon did his thing with Jackson’s mechanics, whether the fan base or the media or the wretched bloggers bought into it or not.
It’s been one of the most shameful parts of this rollercoaster 2012 season that McClendon has been given no credit—zero, zilch, nada—for the resurgence of Austin Jackson.
Jackson is even better than he was in 2010, when he burst onto the scene as the kid from the Yankees organization who would replace Curtis Granderson in center field for the Tigers, and who put together a season worthy of Rookie of the Year status.
This year, whatever McClendon did with Jackson has been Midas in nature.
Jackson still strikes out more than the average, but he is doing so less frequently, mainly because he’s cut down on swinging at pitches that aren’t strikes.
Sounds simple, but if hitting were simple, everyone would be Ted Williams.
The biggest improvement has been Jackson’s laying off the pitches high in the zone—pitches which ate him up nightly last year. Gone is the high leg kick, which McClendon suspected was throwing everything off in Jackson’s swing.
A baseball swing is not unlike a golf swing. The hitter moves more parts of his body than an exotic dancer during a businessman’s lunch.
Just like in golf, the baseball swing is a precision instrument of hips that either open or close too much, hands that either stay in or fly out, shoulders that are balanced or not, and eyes that either stay on the ball or don’t.
And that’s before the bat even makes contact with the baseball—if it does at all.
The result of McClendon’s tutoring of Jackson is that the Tigers have one of the premier center fielders in all of baseball. They have a triple threat at leadoff: a guy who can hit, hit for power and run. Jackson can take you deep or take you shallow. He can pull you down the line or shoot you up the gap.
Jackson is, simply, a complete hitter who is light years ahead of where most thought he’d be in 2012 after last year’s struggles.
Austin Jackson is the poster boy for the phrase, “Sometimes you have to take one step backward to take two steps forward.”
Think of that the next time a TV shot of Lloyd McClendon in the Tigers dugout causes you to hurl invectives.
But don’t worry—I’m not holding my breath.