The strikeouts are well-documented. Statistical projections are pessimistic. Should we just give up on Brett Jackson?
In a word, no.
We also know that the Cubs certainly aren't giving up on their once top prospect.
The reality here, though, is that the inability to make contact will almost certainly limit Brett Jackson's upside, simply because it means he will put less balls in play. If he's to hit for an acceptable average, he's either going to have to get extraordinarily lucky on balls in play, in other words, consistently put up a high BABIP, or he's simply going to have to put more balls in play...in other words, make more contact and strikeout less.
We certainly can't count on luck, so Jackson is going to have to make more contact.
That's certainly possible, but it's certainly not easy.
Jackson's swing has long produced high strikeout rates, back to his days as an outfielder with the University of California. But Jackson was producing back then, and he's continued to be productive all the way into this season, where he had an OPS of .817, a .360 wOBA, and 111 RC+, all above average numbers especially considering he plays above average defense at a premium position. But those numbers are a drop-off from his previous level. There's also the concern that, while he put up solid overall numbers, he did it in a hitter's league.
And then there's that problematic strikeout rate of 33.8%.
Can he even come close to matching those numbers at the MLB level?
Frankly, if nothing changes in his swing and/or approach then the answer is almost certainly no.
The good news is that Jackson isn't a Strat-o-matic card or an image on OOTP baseball. His skill set almost certainly won't remain static. It might, but he could also get better or, god forbid, he could get even worse.
Jackson has never had a swing that was tailor-made for making contact but there was never a whole lot of concern because, up until this season, he's been a productive offensive player who has managed to keep his strikeout rate under 25%. Not great, but acceptable given the overall production on offense and defense. There was no real need or burning desire to tinker with what was working.
So what happened in AAA? Is it that much harder than AA?
As far as the pitchers individual talent level goes, it really isn't. The difference has been that the pitchers are more experienced and have been able to exploit the holes in his swing. There is no question at this point that they are there. The only real question is can those holes be filled.
The first task is to identify the problem and the Cubs believe they have done that. Watch Jackson enough and you'll see that his isn't always the most fluid of swings. He sometimes opens his shoulder a bit, causing his head to move, which in turn results in Jackson temporarily losing sight of the ball. As fast as a baseball comes in, and as late as some pitchers can make the ball break, that smallest split second is everything.
The next step is this: Now that they believe they've identified the issue, can they fix it? It's going to depend on good coaching and on Jackson himself. As far as hitting coaches go, Jackson is in good hands with Dale Sveum and James Rowson, two of the most respected teachers in the Cubs system, if not all of baseball. That was part of their reasoning when they unexpectedly decided to call Jackson up in August rather than waiting until rosters expand in September.
As far as Jackson himself goes, there's no problem. His mental makeup, particularly his work ethic, as well as his aptitude for the game is excellent. If there is something to be fixed, I really believe Jackson can and will fix it. If it doesn't happen, it certainly won't be for lack of effort.
An interesting thing to note is that Jackson has actually hit pretty well against LHP this season: .279/.364/.577. It made me think of what a former Cubs talented lefty hitter, Leon Durham, once said about hitting LHP. He said that he didn't mind hitting against lefties because it helped him focus on keeping his shoulder in. As I watched Jackson bat against lefty Randy Choate last night, I thought of the old Cubs bespectacled first baseman. Jackson kept that shoulder in, his head still, and lined a beautiful line drive single the other way. To me, it was the best swing he took all game.
It remains to be seen whether the Cubs have pinpointed the problem or whether Jackson will be able to make the adjustment -- if, in fact, the Cubs are correct in their assessment in the first place. And make no mistake. Baseball is a tough game. Even if Jackson improves his skills at the plate, MLB pitchers will be adapting and figuring out how to get him out again. It's a never ending process and Jackson is trying to make the biggest adjustment of his young career.
Whether he does or not will help determine whether he'll be able to succeed and become a big part of the Cubs future.