Go for the Gold: Jackson's defense award-worthy

Go for the Gold: Jackson's defense award-worthy

Go for the Gold: Jackson's defense award-worthy
DETROIT -- Torii Hunter has nine Gold Glove Awards on his resume. He knows a great defensive outfielder when he sees one. Hunter also knows what it's like to try to play center field in spacious Comerica Park.

Not only has Hunter watched outfielders come and go in a Tigers uniform, he has gotten to know more than a few of them. He got to know a young Curtis Granderson when he was coming up, and he used to train in the offseason with Craig Monroe. Hunter was a division rival as a player with the Twins for so many years, but he was also an observer and sometimes even a mentor.

Hunter hasn't seen or talked with Tigers as much since he signed with the Angels five years ago, but he still watches highlights and sees them whenever they play each other. He doesn't know Austin Jackson all that well, but he knows what he sees.

"He has it figured out, out there," Hunter said Saturday. "There's no doubt about it."

Like Jackson, Hunter was a two-sport athlete in high school who grew into the game after going into professional baseball. Like Jackson, Hunter had growing pains when he first reached the big leagues, but made an immediate impression with his defense, running down fly balls with seemingly ordinary effort.

Hunter was a 25-year-old in his third Major League season when he won his first Gold Glove Award. Once he broke through, he won nine in a row.

Jackson is heading into the closing month of his third big league season at age 25. Despite two outstanding seasons in center field, he has yet to win a Gold Glove Award. Time will tell whether this is Jackson's year; managers and coaches will vote in September, and the awards will be announced in November.

Whether or not Jackson wins, he's at last receiving some well-deserved recognition among the game's great defensive players. Hunter can be counted among them.

"I think he's really getting comfortable in the Major Leagues and starting to figure this game out," Hunter said. "He's probably one of the best center fielders in the game. He could [win one], easily, because of what he does, his speed. He could easily get a Gold Glove, no doubt about it."

Hunter and Ichiro Suzuki dominated Gold Gloves for AL outfielders for a decade, the other spot rotating among the AL's best remaining candidates. The establishment was buried last year, when Ichiro and the AL's other reigning Gold Glove Award-winning outfielders were passed up for three first-time winners.

Jackson wasn't among them, despite leading the league in defensive Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a formula from baseball-reference.com based on defensive runs saved and zone rating. Jackson and Gold Glove Award winner Jacoby Ellsbury finished first and second among center fielders in most of the defensive metrics, but Ellsbury won out on Ultimate Zone Rating, a category that has become more popular in recent years.

Ellsbury has missed most of this season with injuries. Jackson spent a few weeks on the disabled list early in the season, but he has put up the kind of all-around campaign that earned Ellsbury AL MVP Award consideration -- and, let's face it, didn't hurt Gold Glove Award consideration -- a year ago.

Defensively, Jackson's past two seasons haven't left much room for him to improve. He had a 174-game errorless streak that ended Saturday on his arching route and misplay on Kendrys Morales' drive to straightaway center, but errors are a small part of the story. The streak demonstrated consistency more than anything.

Jackson's ultimate zone rating is actually down this year compared to last, but it still ranks second among AL center fielders to Minnesota's Denard Span. Jackson's pace on outfield assists is also down, though that has more to do with other factors.

Hunter was among the many who watched highlights of Jackson's diving catch Thursday against the Blue Jays and realized how rare it is for Jackson to dive for a ball. If there was anything left for Jackson to do defensively, that might have been it.

"I didn't think he left his feet a lot in the past," Hunter said.

Nearly everyone in Detroit thought the same thing.

"He does not dive all that much," Tigers coach and outfield instructor Tom Brookens said, "but it was kind of do-or-die."

It's not always a liability not to dive. Jackson doesn't do it very often in part because his speed allows him to run down so many plays. He also doesn't risk the extra bases from a missed diving attempt.

What stood out to Anthony Gose, the man whose drive Jackson caught on that play, wasn't the dive, but the mad dash he made to get there.

"I didn't think he was anywhere near it," Gose said. "He came out of nowhere. He's a great center fielder, plays shallow, takes away those hits."

As good as Jackson has been on that throughout his career, he might be better at it now.

Both Hunter and Brookens said they've seen Jackson run in on balls better than years past, though most of his highlight catches have been on drives over his head. Brookens said they've put in a lot of work on improving his throwing arm, though it hasn't necessarily shown much this year with three assists and one double play.

Dive or shoestring catch, it'll be balls like that in the gap, or running catches deep, that will earn Jackson his due credit. Because Comerica Park is so big, with so few true outfield fences, the only chance he has at robbing home runs at home are the depths of left-center, where he reach over the bullpen fence.

Those are the plays that test center fielders in Detroit, and those are where Jackson shines. When Brookens shifts the outfield defense for certain hitters, he usually doesn't do much with Jackson. If anything, he said, he'll move Jackson in and out more than side to side.

"You play the percentages," Brookens said, "and if a ball hangs up, he'll go get it, just like that ball that Gose hit. When you watch A.J. day in and day out, it seems like he always gets to everything."

No Tigers outfielder has won a Gold Glove Award in the Comerica Park era; Gary Pettis was the last winner in 1989. The last real candidate, Granderson, coincidentally has an errorless season going in New York.

Yet if Hunter is any example, this could be Jackson's time.

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.