Curtis Granderson is having the kind of 2011 season that garners MVP consideration. The Yankee center fielder is second in the American League in home runs (38) and triples (10), while leading the league in RBI (107) and runs (blowing away the field with 125). Granderson has even figured out left-handed pitching, knocking southpaws around at a .280 clip (a career .215 hitter against lefties prior to this year). He is strong in the outfield, ranking second in the league in zone rating, and has a .991 fielding percentage.
The funny thing is no one in Detroit, where Granderson spent the first six years of his career, seems to have noticed. The reason is simple: Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson. Jackson was acquired by the Tigers in the trade that sent Granderson to New York before the 2010 season (the Yankees also gave the Arizona Diamondbacks Cy Young candidate Ian Kennedy in the deal). Sure, Justin Verlander is having an MVP season and Miguel Cabrera is headed for another 30-homer, 100-RBI campaign, but Jackson is one of the unsung heroes of Detroit’s current playoff surge.
Jackson is only 24 years old playing in only his second major league season. After a stellar rookie year in which he finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, Jackson fell victim to the “Sophomore Slump” to begin 2011. He spent the better part of April and May batting below the Mendoza Line, perked up a little in June and then regressed again as he managed only one RBI the entire month of July.
While Detroit manager Jim Leyland never publicly gave up on Jackson, he did give utility outfielder Andy Dirks a few chances to bat leadoff for the Tigers while Jackson worked out the kinks. Meanwhile, the team was locked in a division battle with the Indians and White Sox.
On Aug. 18, the Tigers were 65-58 and led Cleveland by two games in the AL Central. Jackson was batting .245/.311/.356 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 128 strikeouts in 115 games. Offensively speaking, you could say Detroit was winning in spite of its leadoff hitter and not because of him.
However, in the last 17 games Jackson is batting .362 and slugging .667. He has four home runs, 13 RBI, three triples and 22 runs over that span. Non-coincidentally, the Tigers are 13-4 since then and have pushed their division lead to 6.5 games. Jackson reportedly has been working with Cabrera on his swing, and the All-Star first baseman has shown the center fielder how to shorten up with two strikes to reduce strikeouts.
Jackson, who was striking out 1.11 times a game prior to Aug. 18, has reduced that number to 0.88 a game since.
Jackson is also having a Gold Glove-caliber season, covering every inch of Comerica Park’s spacious outfield and making extraordinary catches look routine. In addition to his highlight-reel catches, Jackson has been extremely consistent in center field, posting the highest range factor rating in the AL (putouts plus assists per nine innings). Furthermore, he covers extra ground in the Tigers outfield, making up for slower corner outfields like Delmon Young and Magglio Ordonez, something that does not show up in the box score.
Two weeks ago, with the Tigers leading the Indians 8-7 with one out in the ninth, Jackson caught a fly ball off the bat of Matt LaPorta and then threw out Shin-Soo Choo at the plate to end the game. He preserved the win (not to mention Jose Valverde’s consecutive save streak) and kept Cleveland in the rear-view mirror.
After Detroit crushed the Chicago White Sox 18-2 on Sunday, it’s hard to believe the Tigers will not reach the postseason. While Verlander and Cabrera are justifiably receiving the lion’s share of the praise, it is Austin Jackson who holds the keys to this Motor City stretch-run surge.