Our next stop on the 2014 MLB Draft train brings a look at Alex Jackson, a C/OF prospect from Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, California. There is still plenty of debate about Jackson's ultimate position, but you won't find that here. This is to break him down as a hitter; what he does well and what does he need to work on. You know, the good stuff.
If nothing else, at least you've got a nice Sportsbook Review to bide your time while you mull over Jackson's future defensive home.
What jumps out is the present size and strength on Jackson. Listed at 6'2'' and 210 pounds, he has the frame to work toward 225-230 pounds without losing much athleticism or quickness. What also jumps out is the present raw bat speed and raw power, two things that are part of Jackson's allure as a possible high pick.
Of course, every high school player has things to work on before they are ready to play at the highest levels; that part is well known. What isn't known, and can be the fun/maddening part of the journey (depending on your perspective), is what and how the adjustments are and need to be. Some have a laundry list of things to iron out, and some are as simple as a stance and posture adjustment. What are the adjustments needed for Jackson to reach his ceiling? Well let's begin then.
Starting with Jackson's weight distribution in his stance, we can see it slightly on his front side before rocking back to build some steam into footplant. As I covered with Jacob Gatewood, simply moving your weight back and forth doesn't mean you are properly loading it and transferring it. With Jackson, upon moving into footplant, his weight is already committed to his front side. It's still behind his front knee on a consistent basis, so he's technically 'back', but is he in an optimal position to hammer the straight one yet still have enough back to cover off speed? Not quite.
With his weight committed, though not yet transferred, Jackson still has enough left in the tank to provide plenty of power, plus level if you want a level defined. This is an impressive feat and speaks well of his strength and bat speed. Now, as I said, he's not falling over himself committed forward, but he never gets fully loaded either. On an action principle, Jackson does a pretty good job of coiling his hips, but doesn't coil to move with weight. This is simply the action by itself.
A rhythm hitter in one of it's purest forms, Jackson sways his weight back behind his centerline to gather, but it never creates a 'load point' within his rear hip joint. Getting his weight into his hip joint, among other things, would allow him to better ride out in a loaded position into footplant, something important for every hitter, but extremely important for hitters with less than active hands and a heavy top arm push through the zone....like Jackson does.
Pushing the barrel is a symptom of there being a weak link within the sequence. Whether the hitter is 10 years old and his body is looking for every bit of strength it can muster to move the bat or a man-child sized draft prospect who doesn't use his lower half as efficiently as he could, a push with the hands/arms is a scourge that plagues many-a-hitter in today's amateur game. (Personally, I blame this on hyper-light bats and coaching cues like 'hands to the ball', but that's another issue, for another day.)
One of the 'good' things of pushing the barrel is that you'll have a 'quick' swing. Of course that means you'll also be very 'quick' in and out of the hitting zone, and the slow change of direction will leave one succeptible to getting beat by good velocity if they trigger late. So yeah, there's not much 'good' about it. Unless you really have a desire to get your hands from A to B as quickly as you can. If so, you're probably playing fast pitch softball and have well-meaning but uninformed coaches. (Pro-tip: they're the same swing.)
As a means to prime his hands before launch, Jackson will raise his right elbow and apply pressure forward with his top hand to the handle of the bat. This action not only doesn't put his hands in a position to turn the barrel, but it also pins the barrel closer to his helmet, creating a longer arc for the bat head to travel. While 'loading' his hands, Jackson also buries them behind his front shoulder, which turns his front shoulder toward the plate. This creates a natural 'slightly out' move away from the core as the hands start their ascent toward the hitting zone, further adding unneeded length and time within his swing sequence.
Jackson's naturally quick hands have helped him overcome these sequence issues thus far, when his timing is right. When his timing is off, he ties himself up on the inner half and waves over offspeed pitches on the outer half more often than he should. If 'Hitting is timing, and pitching is upsetting timing', as Warren Spahn famously said, then Jackson might be in for a steeper adjustment period in professional baseball than some are projecting.
While these are more than simple style adjustments and you can't just say 'well he'll adjust' like so many like to say on Twitter, it's way too early to think Jackson can't adjust or that he has actions that are sure to make him out to be a 'bust'. No, my friends, just no.
What is needed? I'd start with the lower half. Getting Jackson to coil into his hip instead of toward it would be a great start. As I listed earlier, this would create a better gather portion before moving forward, but it would also work upward within his body and lessen his body's need to create power with his top arm. This would immediately allow his hands to just worry about getting the barrel to the ball, not about generating force so he doesn't get beat.
Continuing from his lower half, I'd have him work on a different trigger. Instead of 'sloooow andexplode' like he does now, I'd work on creating some life in his barrel instead of loading just his hands. Remember, you don't make contact with your hands, you make contact with your barrel; so you want to load the barrel. A simple wrist flick trigger? A Matt Holliday-like hitch? Many other options, whatever works for him. It's about principles, not exact moves, we're not creating robots. The goal is to find something that engages his hands and puts them in a position to work up and back as the hips open underneath. How we get there is up to the hitter.
Overall, Jackson has the raw tools to turn into a star. How much overall value he'll have will be slightly determined by his position, but when your offensive ceiling begins with '30 + home run potential', that profile will play anywhere. Though he doesn't have the hands to be a Batting Crown contender, he has enough to cover the driveable part of the zone. When Jackson is on time, his bat speed/raw power combination is on par with any high school prospect in the 2014 draft. How he develops his actions over the coming years will determine if he's a star level player, or a tooled up Matt LaPorta.