Through the first eight games of the 2013 Major League Baseball playoffs, there was only one word to describe the play of Detroit Tigers centerfielder Austin Jackson: terrible. The Tigers’ lead-off hitter was 3-for-33 at the plate with 18 strikeouts, and his struggles were affecting the rest of the team too. Jackson isn’t the most important piece of Detroit’s lineup, but he’s still vital: when Jackson scores, the Tigers win 74 percent of the time, according to the folks over at Bless You Boys.
So with Detroit down two games to one in the American League Championship Series, manager Jim Leyland shook up the lineup. He moved Jackson from the top spot to the eight hole, hoping it would rejuvenate his much-needed table-setter and his offense as a whole, which had wasted two amazing pitching performances already. What happened next made Leyland look like a genius: Jackson drew a bases loaded walk in his first plate appearance, singled home a run in his second, singled again in his third, and walked again in his final trip to the plate. The guy who couldn’t get on base all the sudden couldn’t make an out.
Before the game even ended, analysts like Fox’s Tim McCarver were hailing the decision. “It does take pressure off a hitter when he’s moved down in the order,” McCarver said during Jackson’s eighth-inning at-bat. Jackson was a believer too: “It helped me relax. I wanted to go up there and be patient and get a good pitch to hit,” he said in a post-game interview. The common wisdom was set: Jackson was more patient at the plate, saw better pitches to hit, relaxed without the pressure of hitting lead-off, and snapped out of his funk.
But did moving Jackson down actually help him, or did Leyland’s decision payoff out of sheer dumb luck? Probably the latter, because there’s a decent statistical explanation of Jackson’s struggles, which makes it likely that he was eventually going to bust out of his slump no matter where he hit. For evidence of that, let’s look at some numbers.
Jackson swings a relatively average number of pitches both inside and outside the strike zone, and he’s maintained those numbers pretty consistently through the postseason. He swings at an average number of pitches overall, and that has remained consistent too. He also makes contact at a roughly average rate both overall and inside the strike zone. Where he drops off is when he swings at pitches outside the strike zone, where he made contact on just 61 percent of the pitches he swung at (below the rough 68 percent estimated average). Virtually all hitters are more likely to make contact and get hits when swinging at strikes, but for Jackson, a below-average contact guy on pitches outside the zone, that’s even more important.
But Jackson hasn’t been flailing at pitches outside the strike zone in the postseason — he’s doing so at nearly the same rate as normal. The major difference between regular season Austin Jackson and postseason Austin Jackson is what he’s doing when he’s swinging at pitches inside the strike zone. He’s missing. A lot. Take a look at these two charts, courtesy of Brooks Baseball’s Pitch F/X numbers. The first tracks Jackson’s whiffs per swing (the percentage of swings on which he misses) from the regular season:
Jackson’s whiffs per swing rate was roughly 0.23 overall, and it was much worse outside the strike zone (0.36) than it was inside of it (0.14). Now, take a look at this chart, which shows Jackson’s whiffs per swing in nine playoff games, last night’s included:
Punch those numbers, and you’ll find that Jackson’s whiffs per swing in the post season has risen to 0.30 overall. But the culprit wasn’t the conventional wisdom, because his whiffs per swing rose only slightly on pitches outside the strike zone, from 0.36 in the regular season to 0.39 in the postseason. Inside the zone, though, Jackson’s whiffs per swing rate rose from 0.13 in the regular season to 0.25 in the post season. That means that on pitches where Jackson is usually pretty good — pitches inside the strike zone — he’s now swinging and missing at nearly double the rate he normally does.
A deeper statistical analysis into what pitches Jackson is swinging at and his rate of success on those types of pitches (say, inside fastballs) or in certain situations (say, ahead in the count with less than two strikes) might paint an even clearer picture of Jackson’s problems. But this makes it seem that Jackson’s problem is simple: he’s not making contact with the pitches he normally hits, and since those pitches are the same ones that give him a better chance to succeed, it stands to reason that would lead to fewer hits and especially more strikeouts, since whiffs per swing is the most reliable indicator of strike out percentage.
There’s a chance that moving Jackson down in the lineup had some qualitative effects on him: he felt less pressure and was more relaxed, or something like that. A better explanation, though, is that baseball’s postseason is a total crapshoot. Jackson was mired in a slump caused at least in part by a statistical anomaly — maybe mechanics were to blame, or maybe it’s just a funk. During the regular season, we wouldn’t give much weight to that sort of slump if we noticed it at all, and Jackson would work his way out of it without much fret. But during the postseason, a 3-for-33 stretch with 18 strikeouts can make a guy look foolish, earn him the choker label, and cause everyone around him, from fans to his manager, to search for solutions to the problem.
Give Jackson a full sampling of plate appearances in this postseason, and he’d almost surely progress back to the mean over time. But that’s why statistics like a doubled whiffs per swing rate on pitches inside the strike zone are worrisome in the postseason: Jackson doesn’t have a full sampling of time to progress back to his normal self. That doesn’t mean he’s a choker any more than someone like Derek Jeter is clutch (a concept that still probably doesn’t exist). And it doesn’t mean that moving him all around the lineup was going to bust him out of his slump or is mostly responsible for his good night at the plate last night, since lineup protection and other ideas about position in the batting order are probably statistically irrelevant too. Rather, it means Jackson picked a bad time to have a slump, and it is evidence that we can’t predict many aspects of postseason baseball, not when a game made of millions of statistical probabilities is reduced to an impossibly small sample size. So when a gut feeling decision like moving Austin Jackson down the order works, it can make managers look like geniuses even when it probably had little effect at all.