CLEVELAND – Few veterans enjoy earning a minor league contract with a non-roster invitation heading to spring training.
Austin Jackson accepted this challenge and now finds himself reaping the benefits of his relentless work ethic both on and off the diamond.
With a .254/.318/.343 slash line and eventually a season-ending left knee surgery defining his 2016 campaign, the veteran outfielder had to work his way back up the ladder to regain the form that placed him second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2010.
A gradual recovery from the devastating medial meniscus tear was encouraging, but .333/.378/.606 averages in the Cactus League coupled with Lonnie Chisenhall’s right shoulder strain helped cement a platoon role right out of the gate for Jackson.
Although Edwin Encarnacion headlined the Indians’ off-season haul of free agents, Jackson flew under the radar as a player that could step in for Rajai Davis and provide an experienced presence in a clubhouse without Mike Napoli.
Consider the signing a success.
Five months after he inked the MiLB deal, the 30-year-old bat now finds himself in the middle of all the action, going 3-for-5 with one triple and three RBIs in a 6-3 win over the Orioles. Jackson is batting .317/.440/.488 in June, a month where the team is finding its stride without the services of All-Star Michael Brantley (right ankle sprain).
“Everybody stepped up,” said Jackson. “I think I mentioned it earlier about just the tone. From the first game, it was set. I think everybody just kind of follows suit and everybody was on the same page.”
Aside from the increase in playing time, Jackson has been able to plug the gaps of the outfield with ease. In looking at his spray charts entering play on Thursday, he seems to be balancing his approach to all fields – 34.3% to left field, 30% to center field and 35.7% to right field.
When examining his game-changing performance vs. Baltimore, the unpredictable nature of his batted balls came into play with each of his quality at-bats…
Not only does this make it tough on a defense, but it also shows he has found the stroke that made him more than just a center field specialist capable of running down every ball in sight.
“Austin’s had such a good road trip,” manager Terry Francona said. “Not just hits, but driving in runs, hitting the balls in the gap. You can see how much fun he’s having.”
Another noticeable difference in Jackson’s hitting this year has been his career-highs in fly ball rate (43.5%), hard-hit rate (37.1%), isolated power (.205) and slugging percentage (.489). In other words, Jackson is spraying the ball to all fields with more distance, exit velocity and overall production.
“I’ve just been trying to do my job and that’s just get a pitch to hit, try not to do too much with it,” said Jackson. “It’s been finding some holes and some grass out there.”
In taking a closer look at his recent performance, it is also clear to see his elite level of discipline as a hitter willing to lay off and wait for an offering in his wheelhouse…
To further this point, Jackson is swinging at a career-low 20.3% of the pitches outside the strike zone while swinging at 64.3% of the pitches inside the strike zone, his largest percentage since that memorable rookie season in 2010. This elite level of plate discipline indicates Jackson is becoming a more mature hitter with the patience and power to make a noticeable difference.
“He’s staying in the middle of the field so well,” Francona said. “When hitters do that, they generally cover more pitches.”
Between staying healthy and developing into the offensive weapon many thought he was destined to be, Jackson has certainly made an impact as a player that may have been a bit of an afterthought in March.
“When he came back (from rehab), he was pretty good,” said Francona. “We’ve seen Austin for a long time. When you’re trying to make a decision on a non-roster and a guy’s had knee surgery, we didn’t get a long look. I think our biggest thing was trying to make sure he was healthy. When a guy has played six or whatever how many years, he’s been pretty consistent. It’s nice to see a guy though when – I think he only had three rehab games – to come back and swing the bat like he has. It gives you a lift.”
John Alfes has covered the Indians for IBI since August of 2016. Follow him on Twitter @JohnAlfes for breaking news and in-depth coverage all season long.