(azruavatar note: This post was written on June 3rd and then the draft happened. As we continue to wind down our draft posts, we’re moving back into our more traditional writing of current prospects. Andy takes a look at Ryan Jackson, a superb gloveman, and wonders what our expectations should be for him when he’s wearing his batting gloves rather than fielding. All stats are taken as of June 3rd.)
Combining an already well-regarded glove with league average offensive production (98 wOBA+) in double-A Springfield last season, Ryan Jackson was ranked 12th in Future Redbirds’ 2012 Top 20 Prospect List compiled by Jeff and azruavatar. As far as I can tell, he had been unranked one year earlier. But Jackson didn’t only find himself on our radars this season as John Sickels ranked him 15th and Kevin Goldstein ranked him 11th.
Defense-first shortstops are not unfamiliar to Cardinals fans. Brendan Ryan endeared himself to the fanbase with a quirky personality and – more importantly – stellar defensive profile that justified extensive playing time despite limited offensive potential. B. Ryan has posted league average offensive numbers exactly once in his career (in 2009 with the Cardinals), and he did so with the aid of good fortune on balls in play. He was worth 2.9 fWAR. When his luck regressed in his first season with Seattle, he still managed to be worth 2.6 fWAR thanks to spectacular defense at a premier position.
Of course, my intention here isn’t really to compare Ryan Jackson to Brendan Ryan. It’s impossible to make such an inference based on minor league defensive statistics available to the public at this time. B. Ryan is quite possibly (probably) the superior defender but our hope is that Jackson manages to swing a bat that approaches the league average, which means he wouldn’t have to be quite as impressive with the leather to contribute at the major league level. After all, 2-3 WAR players are valuable commodities, especially for mid-market teams like the Cardinals. These cost-controlled pieces allow for teams to invest more heavily in core players considered indispensable, such as Yadier Molina.
B. Ryan never even accumulated 250 plate appearances in double-A but, altogether, he produced at a league average level, but that number dropped precipitously when he reached triple-A, where he posted a .306 wOBA in 353 plate appearances as a 25-year-old.
Entering this season, we wondered whether Ryan Jackson would be able to replicate his offensive success or if it would become apparent that he benefited from a generous run scoring environment. At first glance, Jackson has passed the test with a .287 batting average and 8% walk rate that has combined to help create a 95 wOBA+, but what else is happening beneath the surface?
In 2011, Jackson displayed unexpected pop in Springfield that featured 11 home runs, 34 doubles, and 3 triples in 599 plate appearances. In 2012 at Memphis, he has 2 home runs, 11 doubles, and 1 triple in 226 plate appearances. So while he averaged an extra base hit in every 12.5 plate appearances before, that number has fallen to 16.1 plate appearances this season. Basically, Jackson’s isolated power has dropped back to pre-Springfield levels meaning that he must depend on more singles falling in for hits which make him much more reliant on batted ball luck, something that has been in his favor this season (.359 BABIP).
Higher BABIPs are easier to accept from players that are unusually fast or hit a higher percentage of line drives, but neither of these attributes apply to Jackson. He’s never been much of a threat on the bases and his line-drive percentage sits at 17%, an unspectacular number (keep in mind minor league batted ball data is presumably even less reliable than it is in the majors). Meanwhile, he has seen a 4% increase in strikeouts (19% in triple-A compared to 15.2% in double-A), a trait atypical of players needing to derive value from mostly singles.
I don’t say all of this to discredit Ryan Jackson’s achievements thus far because I do take some comfort in his ability to tread water at Memphis, but we should also exercise caution in our enthusiasm and view him through the prism of other statistics which paint a broader picture of the prospect. Yes, Ryan Jackson has performed at a near league-average level to date but it hasn’t been without the help of a little luck, and there’s still some reason for us to doubt his ability to keep this up as he nears his eventual promotion to St. Louis.