Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon smiles at the thought. It’s not a smile of humor but of satisfaction and pride. He sees Austin Jackson and the player he has become and takes pride in knowing he helped that process.
Jackson was a rookie when he was traded to the Tigers as part of a huge three-team deal that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees before 2010 season.
Jackson, a raw package of athleticism and talent, was tasked to replace Granderson in the outfield without having played in a major-league game.
McClendon was the Tigers’ hitting coach at the time and his job was to make the free-swinging Jackson into a competent and productive big-league hitter.
That first year was typical of most rookie seasons – impressive highs and frustrating lows. Jackson, 23, hit .293 for the season with a .745 on-base plus slugging and stole 27 bases. But he also struck out 170 times in 151 games – the most in baseball.
The second year the league adjusted to Jackson and he struck out 181 times in 153 games and his batting average sunk to .249 and his OPS to .690
“I saw it every day and lived it every night,” McClendon said. “He struck out an alarming rate his first couple of years.”
McClendon was there through the good and the bad, nurturing, teaching and working. He wouldn’t give up on Jackson. He told Tigers manager Jim Leyland and general manager Dave Dombrowski to remain patient with the talented Jackson.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” McClendon said. “That maturation process takes place. The confidence level builds and the guy gets better if he’s talented and he’s athletic. In Jackson’s case, I think that’s what happened.”
It started to click for Jackson. Each year since 2011, his overall strikeouts decreased. He credits much of it to McClendon’s work with him.
“When the strikeouts started adding up, he was patient with me,” Jackson said. “He taught me a lot. He taught me how to be a big-league hitter. He was the first big-league coach I had, so I learned a lot from him and was able to transition over to a better hitter.”
But that transition isn’t finished in McClendon’s eyes. He said he believes Jackson can do more, after hitting .272 with a .754 OPS and 12 homers and 49 RBI last season.
“I think he’s at a point now where he’s close to being that complete two-way player that is going to hit .300, 15 home runs, score 100 runs and drive in 70 out of the leadoff spot,” McClendon said. “And that’s a pretty good leadoff hitter. It’s just a matter of doing it consistently. That’s the next step for him, just to be that consistent player every year.”
The Mariners are back at Safeco Field for a homestand, featuring series with the Braves, White Sox and Blue Jays. This year, the Mariners have been below optimal at home with a 26-31 record.
“I don’t know,” McClendon said. “Everything has been backward for us. We’ve played like (expletive) at home, we’ve played well on the road. I don’t get it. I’m just rolling with it.”
The Mariners still don’t hit well in reconfigured Safeco. They are hitting .235 at home with a .650 on-base plus slugging percentage. They’ve scored just 188 runs in 57 games (3.29 runs a game). Meanwhile on the road, they’ve hit .251 with a .683 OPS, while scoring 233 runs in 54 games (4.31 runs a game).
“I think it’s going to even out. I think we will play well at home. We’ve got some games left and I like where we are now. I think our pitching has been as healthy as it’s been all year, and that’s going to give us an opportunity to win more games at home. So we’ll see.”