When Brian McCann went down with an injury, it necessitated the Braves to bring up a catcher to fill his void. With Alex Jackson being the only other catcher on the 40 man roster, he received his first call up to the major leagues as a result. While this may only be a temporary call up and the Braves are likely scanning for other options, they certainly hope this won’t be the final time we get to Jackson in a Braves uniform.
Jackson was the 6th overall pick by the Mariners out of high school in 2014, and he struggled to meet early expectations. The Mariners had moved Jackson to the outfield to allow him to focus on developing his bat, but that development never came and he was swapped to the Braves in the 2016-2017 offseason for Max Povse and Rob Whalen. Jackson was an immediate hit in the system after being moved back to catcher, hitting .301/.359/.575 with High-A Florida in his first 39 games. An injury then put him on the disabled list, and he never really got back to that level in 2017. Jackson had a career high in home runs (19) and OPS (.808) and there had been enough improvement with the glove to give the Braves hope he was the catcher of the future. 2018, however, was a complete disaster for almost the entire season.
Jackson’s swing mechanics seemed to break down and he struggled to turn on pitches and drive them and almost every major statistical category took a negative turn. His strikeout rate rocketed over 30%, by far the highest of his career, his ISO dipped below .200 again, and he almost looked lost at the plate at times. Jackson saw his power take off a bit after his promotion to Gwinnett, but he still wasn’t great and is not a good enough defender behind the plate to make up for his struggles with the bat. Jackson did have a stellar spring training, hitting .250/.333/.542 in 27 PA, and his walk rates have taken a step forward and for now it seems he’s covered that flaw in his game.
In the grand scheme of his career so far, his 2017 season seems to be his outlier, but I would be surprised if he remains as bad as he was in 2018. He’s a better player than that, and he had a bad season overall but he did show signs of breaking out of the slump towards the end of the season. From a deeper statistical standpoint, he went back to pulling the ball a bit less in 2018 and his HR/FB took a significant hit compared to his career numbers. This is something that should not regress at this stage of his career and the expectations should be for him to return to a roughly 15% HR/FB rate. That significantly impacts his profile, effectively doubling his home run production from last season, and with Jackson there is even more in the tank if he’s able to continue his maturation at the plate. It’s safe to expect a bounce back season from Jackson this season, but at Gwinnett - not in Atlanta.
Jackson did improve last season in throwing out runners, which is far from a surprise given his arm strength, and one would expect that as he becomes more accustomed to his mechanics (and gets pitchers that are better at holding runners) he should see an above average caught stealing rate.
It doesn’t seem like Jackson is ever going to be an average pure hitter at the big league level, as he just has too much swing and miss to be a big batting average guy. However, if he can continue to bump up his walk rates, he could see himself getting on base at a decent rate. The key to his offensive profile will be his ability to tap into his power, and thus far we’ve seen mere flashes of potential rather than any sort of long term success. He has double plus raw power, but his inability to make contact is holding him back. If he is able to start driving the ball more consistently, there is a profile for him in the major leagues. His ceiling is somewhere between that of Evan Gattis or Carlos Santana, depending on his walk rate, as low average guys and below average defenders who rely on hitting the ball out of the park to accrue value. Jackson certainly has a higher defensive potential than those two and could see himself as an average defender one day, but right now his athleticism and general actions/receiving behind the plate leave something to be desired and there’s no way around the fact that missing those two years of defensive maturation after high school significantly stunted his growth. Catchers are typically slow to develop defensively as it is, so not having that necessary experience puts him behind others his age. More realistically he’s akin to guys like Devin Mesoraco or Rod Barajas - decent major league players and valuable backups, but not a guy to build a team around.
Alex Jackson is being brought in as an emergency backup to cover Tyler Flowers. He shouldn’t be seen as any more than that and expecting him to be a revelation to this team behind the plate is unfair. Could he be that player one day? Absolutely. As of right now he is just not that player and expecting him to have a significant run of success is outlandish. He can certainly fill in and is the best option right now, but if the Braves aren’t looking outside of the organization for a different option to back up Flowers they aren’t serving themselves well. One interesting note to take us home is that Jackson has come up with and received all of these star prospect pitchers the last few seasons, so he should be a comfortable face behind the plate receiving for a lot of these guys.