COMMENTARY | If all goes to plan, Detroit Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson will return to the lineup June 14 after missing more than a month with a hamstring injury. While Jackson's presence means a return to stability at the top of manager Jim Leyland's lineup card, Jackson will also benefit Torii Hunter.
The Tigers signed Hunter to a two-year, $26 million contract in the offseason with hopes that he would solve their past problems concerning a lack of production in the No. 2 spot. With a third of the season complete, Hunter has, at times, filled that void but without Jackson in the lineup, Hunter hasn't been the productive player he was earlier this season.
Since Jackson came up limping during a May 11 game against the Cleveland Indians, Hunter has seen a dramatic drop in his effectiveness. Prior to Jackson's injury, Hunter was hitting .333 with 46 hits and a .374 on-base percentage through 31 games. In his 25 games since Jackson's injury, Hunter is hitting .247 with 26 hits and a .288 OBP.
On the basepaths, Hunter has scored all of 11 runs since May 11, less than half the amount he scored prior to Jackson hitting the DL.
In Jackson's absence, Leyland has used Andy Dirks and Omar Infante at the top of the lineup, which on paper have proved to be a suitable replacements. Combined, the two men have a higher average at the leadoff spot than Jackson, but their combined OBP is nearly 20 points lower than the missing Jackson.
What doesn't show on paper is the affect Jackson has on opposing defenses when he is on base. Jackson will never lead the league is stolen bases, but he is the Tigers' best base stealer and he forces opposing defenses to pay attention to him. The outfield has to play a bit deeper and middle infielders have to cheat toward second base, opening up holes on both sides of the infield.
Even with Dirks and Infante staying close to Jackson's numbers, their lack of speed allows defenses to play Hunter in a more traditional manner. Not surprisingly, Hunter's batting average on balls in play over the last month is 50 points less than his season average with Jackson in front of him.
It's worth noting that with Jackson assuming the leadoff spot again, Infante will now return the back end of the lineup where he was the most productive No. 9 hitter in baseball. Infante is hitting .333 this season from the ninth spot in 118 at-bats.
Hunter started the season on a torrid pace and there was no doubt that some regression had to happen at some point. It's rare that 37-year-old players can sustain a .333 average for an entire season, but there is no doubt that Jackson's absence intensified that regression.
While it's not likely he'll return to the early-season form that had him hitting .370 through April, with both Infante and Jackson in front of him and Miguel Cabrera behind him, Hunter has all the help he needs to live up to his contract and the expectations that came along with it.
Matt Durr is a reporter from Michigan and has followed the Detroit Tigers his entire life. Prior to his current job, he covered University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University athletics for Annarbor.com.
- Sports & Recreation
- Torii Hunter
- Detroit Tigers
- Omar Infante
- Austin Jackson