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Can Conor Jackson Turn it Around?

February 24, 2011

Jane Lee over at oaklandas.com had a story about Conor Jackson and how after suffering through valley fever he has now put weight back on and while he stops short of saying he’s in the best shape of his life, he clearly feels a lot better about things than he has previously. So can Conor turn it all around in his backup role?

There was a time when Conor Jackson was really a budding star in this league. A first round pick out of Cal he was in 2005 the Diamondbacks’ 2nd best prospect according to Baseball America ahead of Carlos Quentin and Carlos Gonzalez. He was considered their best average hitter and their base plate discipline player as well. At the end of 2008, Jackson looked good, his career marks were a .287/.367/.443 slash line and he had 44 home runs in his first 454 games, not a power hitter but solid and ready to break out. He had put up 4.6 WAR for the D-backs and seemed a centerpiece of their rebuilding effort. Then he got valley fever.

WebMD describes valley fever as,

“a disease also called coccidioidomycosis (CM) due to a fungus called Coccidioides immitis. About 40% of people infected with this fungus develop symptoms. Most often they have an influenza-like illness with fever, cough, headaches, rash, and myalgias (muscle pains).”

The odds of making the majors are staggering but the likelihood of getting valley fever are too (15 in 100,000 in Arizona) and for Jackson lightening struck twice. The muscle aches, took their toll as in 2009 Jackson had an awful campaign with a .182/.264/.253 slash line and was responsible for -1.0 WAR. So when he was off to a relatively slow start again in 2010, Arizona dealt him to the A’s figuring their prospects in Reno were more apt to succeed than Jackson. The A’s made the deal of course in the hopes that Jackson would return to the form of his first three full major league seasons.

Well for the remainder of 2010 he didn’t, and eventually found himself on the DL. Namely his power seemed to be sapped, as his line drives were now turning more often into outs, and his wOBA dropped precipitously.

So as the chart shows it appears that despite 2010 featuring a mere two home runs, he was regaining some of his strength. Before the valley fever, Bill James projected Jackson to put up 17 home runs and hit .300 in 2009. With two years to recover from valley fever and last year’s injury (which very well may be related) hopefully we see Jackson continue his upward march and return to form.

I like Conor Jackson, he has always been above league average in taking walks and not striking out. I think this bodes well for him rebounding. First off, despite immense struggles he didn’t suddenly start swinging at everything. Compare below, Jackson (top) in 2010 with Kevin Kouzmanoff (bottom) in 2010.

While the sample size is quite different, we still see Kouz chasing pitches in the dirt like he’s golfing in a sand trap whereas Jackson keeps it a little closer. This says that he hasn’t changed his approach at the plate which is important as often guys start chasing once in a funk. So what’s been different? Most hits come from line-drives and his BABIP has fallen from a .722 pre-Valley Fever mark to a .674 post-Valley Fever mark on line-drives afterwards. It seems safe to assume these line outs are just looping ones as opposed to the scorchers of his earlier career. More muscle, stamina and strength should mean more of these fall for hits. Likewise his BABIP fell on grounders too, as hard ground balls through holes, clearly turned into weak ground-outs (.248 pre-VF versus .082 post-VF). This alone could be a big jumpstart for Conor’s numbers. This theory also explains his diminished power, as 8.0% of his fly balls resulted in home runs before acquiring Valley Fever whereas that number slumped to 3.0% in the two years since.

If Jackson really is healthier and feels better, his numbers should naturally begin to return. Unlike other guys he doesn’t have to do anything different really at the plate. He was hitting ground balls and line drives at a comparable level to before his illness and now with added power these should have more oomph behind them. I think Jackson is out for a breakout, and with the discussion I had regarding concern about Oakland’s 2012 and beyond outfield, Jackson could just be the right guy to plug in there, as a starter.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2011 5:28 pm

    As executive director of Arizona Victims of Valley Fever, I’m not surprised that Conor Jackson may still be suffering from the effects of valley fever. I’ve heard enough stories about the disease to know that the equal denominator of symptoms is chronic fatigue. Some people never get all their energy back despite current antifungal drugs, which remit, but do not cure, the disease.

    Conor fell victim not only to valley fever, but to Arizona’s ho-hum attitude about valley fever. That attitude has prevented them from taking valley fever seriously enough to put their money where their mouth is. They claim it’s “Arizona’s disease,” since more than 70 percent of all cases in the United States occur in Arizona, but they don’t appropriate a dime to research a drug or vaccine. Sure, Arizona loves its sports teams–they bring in the crowds and the money–but if you get sick, you’re on your own. In fact, we keep the disease so secret that we hardly ever talk about it, many of our doctors can’t diagnose it and just about everyone denies it’s any worse than a cold. Yup, it’s Arizona’s best-kept secret. Too bad Conor didn’t know about before he came to Arizona.
    Janice Arenofsky, http://www.arizonavictimsofvalley.fever.org

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