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Should we be concerned about Brett Jackson's strikeouts?

Matt Swain

Illinois engineering student, way too emotionally invested in the Cubs.

I made a statement in yesterday's post on Baseball America's top 10 Cubs prospects to the effect of "Brett Jackson's plate discipline will be a problem going forward", and made a comment that Baseball America has overlooked similar issues in the past, specifically with Corey Patterson.

I'd like to clarify a little bit, because I think I was unclear. The problem is not with Jackson's plate discipline, which actually looked pretty good this year as he posted some surprising walk rates, it's with his strikeouts. And the Corey Patterson comment was not a comparison to Jackson, but an example of BA ignoring strikeout problems.

I'd also like to dig a little bit deeper into Jackson's contact woes, to see how much of a problem they actually are.

Brett Jackson was selected 31st overall in June's draft out of the University of California-Berkeley, where he had starred in centerfield for the past three years. Despite his obvious athleticism, which is his main asset, he went 31st overall as the second to last pick of the first round.

If anything, prospect evaluators were surprised he went that high, with many of them calling it a reach for the Cubs. The reason for that were huge concerns about his strikeouts. Leading up to the draft, Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein said of Jackson:

There are way too many swings and misses in his game, generating far too many questions about his bat to justify moving him into the first round.
In fact Jackson did show signs of being strikeout prone in college, finishing his Junior year with 61 Ks in 253 PAs, or 24.1%, while walking 29 times for a rate of 11.5%. The strikeouts weren't so high his sophomore year, but neither was his slugging percentage, indicating he hadn't been swinging as hard.

For comparison, fellow first round outfielder Allen Pollock (Notre Dame) had just 24 Ks in more than 270 PAs while hitting for similar power, and White Sox first rounder Jared Mitchell (LSU) accumulated nearly twice as many walks as Jackson while having a very similar K%.

After signing quickly and becoming a professional, Jackson started things off with a bang, assuaging a lot of the concerns voiced prior to the draft.

He played a few games in the Rookie League in Arizona, walking 3 times to 4 strikeouts. He moved on to Boise, where his walk rate sat at an impressive 16.0% and his strikeout rate plunged to 18.9%.

While it looked like Jackson's plate discipline was better than advertised, it's important to note that the two league he had played in were composed mostly of young players or those who's careers had stalled in the low minors. The level of competition was not much better than the Pac-10 conference he'd played in in college.

Upon moving to Peoria, he found things more challenging and went back to rates closer to his college numbers, with an 8.6% walk rate and a 25% strikeout rate. For a comparison, that's similar to the rates Alfonso Soriano produced this past season (7.7, 22.6).

Before I go any further, I'd like to point out that striking out a lot does not mean you are a bad hitter. Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard, Alfonso Soriano from 2002-08 and Justin Upton are examples of players who having high strikeout rates while still being extremely valuable at the plate.

It will however lead to a low batting average (for whatever that's worth), and does reduce significantly the likelihood of Jackson being a star. Many a minor league dream has been dashed by contact problems, including countless highly ranked prospects.

Having seen Jackson in person, it's clear that he will probably never fix those problems against lefty pitching. He compiled a 3-19 BB-K ratio this year against southpaws, and had a lot of trouble with a lefty curveball when I saw him.

He did however, walk 28 times against right handed pitchers, while striking out 36 times,  in about three times as many at bats as he had against lefties.

My conclusion from all this is that Jackson definitely does have contact issues that need to be worked out. Striking out in a quarter of your plate appearances in low A ball is not a good sign for your future. I am offered hope by his better performances against right-handers, but if he can't figure out how to make contact against left-handed pitching it's hard to see him as an everyday starter in the major leagues.

He actually could be something like Curtis Granderson (but not as fast) down the road. He should hit for some good power (20+ HR) and a decent average that may be held down by his K's, but if he can improve those walks slightly he should be able to make up for it with a good on-base percentage.

What will really be telling is how his plate discipline looks this year as he hits the higher levels of the organization and faces more advanced pitching. If he struggles, it will bode very badly for his prospect status. If he continues to flourish, we have a future centerfielder on our hands.



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scooby said:

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I know you were trying making a good strong point against Jackson as a top whatever. I just think you failed to be balance in the criticism or didn't do enough research (link below is all I did!) Look at HR's to AB vs his jump in K's at Peoria. In scrubbing the numbers more deeply he had a higher BA against LHP then RHP (more K's to your point). His HR's were nearly equal vs LHP/RHP. His OBP AND OPS were very very good and not commented on. Take a look at 2 other over sights: Bret's run scores in total games and stolen bases. Runs win games and look at the record of Peoria when he led off. They went on a tear! And short him in playoffs (injury) they went 0-2. Now, I know you are making a great point on his K's but try to expand the article to show us everything. Otherwise I guess I have to agree that he shouldn't be in the top 10! Thanks and keep it coming.. http://web.minorleaguebaseball.com/milb/stats/stats.jsp?pos=LF&sid=milb&t=p_pbp&pid=571804

Matt Swain said:


I see you moved your comment over to the right post...so I'll move mine in case you don't see it at the other one:

Thanks for the comment, scooby.

This post wasn't really intended to be an overview of his game, but rather an examination of one potential concern that could affect him down the road.

If you want to read more of my overall thoughts on his game, which talks about most of the points you hit on, I would suggest you check out the scouting report I wrote of him here:


scooby said:

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Thanks for the link! And that was well balanced. I guess I'm confused why Kyler Burke and Guyer don't get the appreciation as top talent that I think they deserve. I know Guyer struggled in Tennessee but my guess is that won't happen again. And Burke struggled out of high school in the Padres organization and after the trade to us. However, now he is 21 mature and has an absolute cannon for an arm. His weakness against lefties is his black eye. I think the Cubs have a great set of OF's in the system. Thanks for all your work.

Matt Swain said:


Your right on with Guyer, his performance in AA really hurt his prospect status, because not only was he bad, he was really bad (.190/.236/.291), and he's 23, so he should be able to handle it better. He was amazing in Daytona though, so he'll get more chances to establish himself at Tennessee in 2010. I'd like to see him hit for more power, and if he does he could shoot right back up the lists going into next season.

With Burke, people are just not sure if they can buy into him yet. I guarantee he's on everybody's radar, and another good follow up season will put him top 5 on the Cubs list. He just has to prove he wasn't a fluke, which I think he will. He definitely has a great arm, he told me he thinks he could get into the low 90's off the mound.

MB21 said:

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I'm not concerned about the strikeouts. Jackson is always going to be a guy who strikes out a lot. There's nothing that is going to change that. He'll strikeout 170 times per season or more at the big league level if he ever does reach it. That's just what type of hitter he is.

The question isn't so much whether he can reduce the strikeouts (he can, but not by much) as it should be whether or not it has much impact on his potential. As long as his patience remains what it has been (it might improve a little too) then the strikeouts aren't an issue in my opinion. There's a long, long list of players who have struckout a lot who have been really good ballplayers. On the other hand, there's a very, very short list of players who have been good while having awful plate discipline (walks). ideally you'd like a player who strikes out as much as he walks, but if you're going to have a deficiency when it comes to the zone, Jackson has the one that doesn't preclude him from having success at the big league level. Patterson's issues weren't the strikeouts. it was the walks.

This is why Jackson should be rated higher than Vitters. I'm just confused as to why Cashner wasn't rated higher. There's no doubt Vitters will improve a bit as far as patience goes, but it gets more difficult as you move up the system making the improvements hard to spot in the numbers. What we see from him right now is in all likelihood as good as we'll see as far the walks go. That's just not going to cut it. He's got a lot of potential, but he's also in need of a miracle in order to realize that potential. The Cubs would be wise to sell high on him this offseason. His value will only continue to drop from this point forward.

Jeff Buchanan said:


Strikeouts ARE a problem, an offensive players aim should be getting on base and it's extremely rare to get on base after a strikeout, so while you can be a good or even great player with a high K%, it most certainly does limit your ceiling. Also you'll notice that most, if not all, of the great players with a high K% have elite level power, something that Jackson does not have.

The walk rate that Jackson has shown is promising but it's hard to lean on for any sort of projection purposes as 1. The sample size is much too small, and 2. He wasn't facing age relevant competition until he hit Peoria.

MB21 said:

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There's some correlation between ISO and strikeout rate, but not much of one. The r-squared is .40 if we take all the players in the Retrosheet era who had 5000 plate appearances in their career (477 players).

Also, if you arrange those 477 players from highest strikeout rate to lowest strikeout rate you come up with something that is really interesting. I've grouped those players into 25 and calculated the OPS of those 25 hitters.

1-25 (highest strikeout rate retrosheet era): .835
26-50: .827
51-75: .819
76-100: .795
101-125: .805
126-150: .791
151-175: .767
176-200: .798
201-225: .771
226-250: .784
251-275: .732
276-300: .733
301-325: .782
326-350: .779
351-375: .774
376-400: .773
401-425: .727
426-450: .732
451-477: .709

I'm not really sure what your actual argument was, but those are at least some numbers. The point of my earlier comment was that a high K-rate does not preclude a player from having success. In fact, I said exactly that. There have been many players who have had success while striking out a lot. Some of them have had excellent power and some of them have not. I also said that the list of players who had horrible plate discipline was rather small. No player is perfect. What would you rather have? Josh Vitters who literally has no shot of being a good ballplayer or Brett Jackson who at least has a shot? Both of them need to improve in their weak areas, but Jackson's improvements will come with much more gain than Vitters will. Jackson needs to cut his K-rate down about 10-15%, which is manageable. Vitters needs to double his walk rate, which is not.

Jackson will in all likelihood never have any success at the big league and he probably won't even reach it. That's just the reality with prospects. The odds of him succeeding are against him and any prospect. The odds are just more favorable to him than someone who has no idea what a ball and a strike are.

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