Tigers looking to Jackson to kick-start offense

Tigers looking to Jackson to kick-start offense

Tigers looking to Jackson to kick-start offense
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The Tigers' projected starting lineup features four players who hit for an .800 OPS or better last year, and another at .799. It has two players with home run titles, a reigning batting champion, three incumbent All-Stars, two reigning Silver Sluggers and nobody who missed more than a third of last season with injury.

And none of those guys might end up being the biggest key for the Tigers to click better on offense. Austin Jackson, who fit none of those categories, could be.

The Tigers know what they have in a lot of their hitters. But they know they need Jackson on base for the All-Stars after him, especially Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, to get the chance to drive in runs.

"He just kind of makes us go," manager Jim Leyland said, repeating what is almost becoming a catchphrase for him.

"I think that's going to be huge for us, with [Brennan] Boesch hitting behind him, then the real big guys come up. I think he's a real important piece for our offense."

He's important enough that the Tigers tried to get him a leg up on the season -- by not getting his leg up much at all.

Jackson vaulted through the Yankees' farm system with a leg kick as part of a power swing, lost the leg kick in 2009 as Yankees coaches tried to cut down on strikeouts, then brought it back with the Tigers in 2010. It's not completely gone now, but like Jackson's personality at times, it's quiet enough to barely notice it's there. It's almost more a toe tap, and the Tigers think it better fits his game.

It's by far the biggest project of the offseason for hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, and not just because the rest of his hitters look relatively polished. They have a lot riding on Jackson's fast legs and ability to create RBI situations for the guys behind him. Moreover, the Tigers don't have a natural alternative if he can't get it going.

But most importantly, they have a talented center fielder who just turned 25 and who's trying to meet his potential. After 351 strikeouts over his first two Major League seasons -- the second-highest total for a modern Major League player in his first two seasons -- he has a better chance at using his speed if he can put the ball in play.

An out is an out, but a .369 career batting average on balls put in play is a big incentive for contact.

"I want you to be in a position from a hitting standpoint where you're always confident that you can put the ball in play," McClendon explained last week. "And that's what we're trying to accomplish, give him the confidence to let the ball travel [into the hitting zone]."

The basics of it make sense. The quicker Jackson can swing, the longer he can wait before he has to commit to a pitch. The longer he can wait, the better look he can get at a ball to identify and time a pitch, and figure out if it's headed into the strike zone.

The more subtle effect is not only a longer look at a pitch, but a more reliable one. When he uses a big leg kick, it wasn't just his leg going up and down, but his head. His line of sight changed.

"With the high leg kick, I was late a lot," Jackson said, "and I wasn't recognizing pitches as well."

The change began in the offseason, and included cage work between McClendon and Jackson at Comerica Park the week of the Tigers' winter caravan. Jackson took the lessons, went home to Texas and put them into his sessions. Once he arrived in Lakeland in mid-February, he picked up where he left off with McClendon.

"What we did," McClendon said, "we gave him a swing where you know you could repeat it time and time again, and there are some mechanisms to do that."

Jackson has only used it in batting practice and against Detroit's own pitchers in live sessions. His real test won't begin until the Tigers start the Major League portion of their Spring Training schedule this weekend. So far, he senses a difference.

"I'm noticing I'm on time [with the swing] more so than not," Jackson said Thursday. "Some days it feels better than others. That's definitely lessened a lot of the head movement."

The physical aspect, getting to the ball better and seeing the ball better, is the foundation. Leyland doesn't pretend to know the mechanics, but he knows the importance of the results.

"The biggest key in hitting for me is the ability to pick up the ball quickly coming out of the pitcher's hand and recognize the pitch," Leyland said. "The real good hitters recognize the pitch quicker than the not-so-good hitters."

To Leyland, though, there's a mental aspect. Jackson has to know what he wants to do if he can get to the ball better.

Though critics cite Jackson's need to walk more often, his walk rate was actually strong for someone who struggled so much to hit. Out of seven Major League hitters with enough plate appearances at the leadoff spot to qualify for a batting title, only Texas' Ian Kinsler drew more walks than Jackson.

His walk rate rose from 2010 to 2011 and his percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone dropped, according to fangraphs.com. His contact rate on his swings, however, plummeted, and his drop in opposite-field hits has been well-noted.

"I thought last year at times, particularly early in the game, he took too many pitches," Leyland said. "I think in fairness to this guy, I think there was some confusion, [like], 'Am I supposed to start hitting some home runs at some point? Am I supposed to take a bunch of pitches to get on base as a leadoff guy?' I think there was some confusion there."

They have no confusion now, on the mechanics or the importance. They need him.

"I think that's a situation that we really try to need to make work," Leyland said.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.