We've said it here before many times. Brett Jackson has almost everything the Cubs want in a player. He's athletic, he can run, he can defend, he's willing to grind out ABs, and he can hit with some occasional power. He showed he could do all of those things in his brief call up last season.
Jackson showed range and fearlessness in CF last year, grading out as slightly above average in a small sample (2.5 UZR/150) and infamously crashing into the wall in Pittsburgh. He stole 27 bases at Iowa and showed good speed and instincts on the bases as a Cub, walked at a 15.5% rate, and put up a solid .167 ISO.
But there were those strikeouts, something he did in astonishing 41.5% of his plate appearances. Despite an MLB average BABIP of .298, Jackson hit just .175 -- simply because he didn't put the ball in play often enough to make it matter. The inability to make enough contact threatened to undermine Jackson, negating everything else he can do on a baseball diamond.
But Jackson has one other thing the Cubs value highly -- a strong mental makeup. He didn't make excuses. He went right to work this offseason with hitting coach James Rowson and manager Dale Sveum, who was once a hitting coach himself. They decided to make some adjustments, lower his hands and shortening his swing.
"It has to do with using more of my top hand," Jackson said of the changes. "I'm a right-hand dominant athlete, and I have a tendency to try to overdo it a little bit with my bottom hand. If you watch swings from last year, you know my back elbow was getting really high and causing kind of like a teetering effect and making me slightly late on everything.
You can see the difference in the pictures above. The left is a picture taken this spring. On the right are a couple of different views of the stance that Jackson has had since college. The difference in the height of his elbow is significant and keeping it low should help keep his swing shorter to the baseball.
"Now, I'm working on just keeping my back elbow down and being shorter to the ball, amongst other things, but that's the biggest adjustment," he said.
Here's a couple of pictures of Jackson starting his load, notice how high he brings his elbows up.
The expectation is that a lower starting point for his elbow in his stance will help him keep it down as he loads. It's hard to imagine that he could catch up from his current starting point to the level he's raised it to in the past. The hope is that it will force him to be shorter, more efficient to the ball. Jackson should have enough strength and bat speed to maintain his power.
Sveum is cautiously optimistic.
"I think it's going to benefit him a lot," Sveum said of the changes. "A lot of these things, you're optimistic about change and making adjustments and stuff, and as a player, you really want the games to get going because it all feels great, but how's it going to work in a game? That's the final piece of the puzzle."
We can only hope. Right now Jackson and Szczur are the only true CF's on the roster. Sczcur is at least 2 years away and the Cubs are going to start with David DeJesus in CF, possibly platooning him with either Dave Sappelt or Scott Hairston. All are considered corner outfielders.
What's more, top prospect Albert Almora is also a CF and may someday bump Jackson to a corner. That is going to put even more burden on that bat. For his part, Jackson seems confident that he'll hit in the majors.
"It's become natural at this point and it's something I have to stay on top of, but every hitter will tell you that," he said. "I think the learning process is you learn what works and what doesn't and what adjustments you need to make. That's what the end of last year allowed me to discover about myself as a hitter, so I was able to make those adjustments in the offseason. I can be a force at the plate instead of battling as I did."
With all his physical skills and mental makeup, if he can be a force at the plate, then we should be talking about Jackson as another core piece by this time next season.