Conor Jackson has been making a name for himself in March. He is hitting a home run every eight at bats, just a shade behind Jake Fox's amazing 2011 run. His slash line has been 333/385/792, which gives some bittersweet hope. Sweet because he is crushing the ball. Bitter because it is quite contact oriented. That said, it is difficult to assess how meaningful spring statistics are due to player motivation and the wide range of pitching talent one faces (particularly with Jackson playing some of the 'B' games). However, a few years back John Dewan found that players who had over 40 plate appearances and produced a slugging percentage over 200 points better than their career mark stood a 60% chance of having a break out season that year. Jackson has another 15 plate appearances to go and is currently 385 points over his career slugging mark.
Beyond the numbers, much of the hope in Jackson lies in his past as a well respected prospect. He was a notable 3B talent coming out of California in 2003. He was one of the top power bats and showed incredible plate discipline. However, his senior year was interrupted by injuries and there was some concern how well his line drive power would translate with a wood bat. The Diamondbacks were able to pick him up with the 19th pick and immediately removed him from the infield to see how his arm would play in right field.
In the minors, Jackson's power did decrease, but only slightly. Buoying that knock in value was that his plate discipline remained. It no longer was outlandish as his 3:1 BB:K split in college, but a 1:1 in rookie ball to AA and 2:1 in AAA. His AAA slash line was 354/457/553 and gave hope that his line drive swing would work in the Majors. The Diamondbacks decided that with Shawn Green entrenched in Right Field and Chad Tracy capable of playing third base that the best move was to deal Troy Glaus to shore up the pitching rotation (Miguel Batista) and the middle infield (Orlando Hudson) while handing 1B to Jackson.
In his first three full seasons in the Majors, Jackson continued to show a high contact rate (batting average ranged between .284 and .300), plate discipline (~10% BB rate and ~10% K rate), and acceptable power (ISO ranged between .146 to .183). That is not an exceptional first baseman, but one that is a quite serviceable role player on a first division team (though not a true first division first baseman). The problem with him though was that his defense at first was quite poor and made him essentially a replacement level player during two of those three seasons.
In 2009, something happened to Jackson that happens to 3% of the population around their Spring Training facilities. He contracted coccidioidomycosis (valley fever). It is a mold that produces spores, lying dormant attached to particles like fine sand or dirt. Once inhaled, the mold starts to grow and induces an adverse effect on roughly half of those who contract it. For most, the illness feels like the flu with sore muscles, joint pain, fever, head aches, and fatigue. Due to the similarities to the flu, it can often be misdiagnosed. Some, like Jackson or Ike Davis, develop a more chronic pulmonary infection that can take months, sometimes years, to fully recover from. Valley Fever can be a particularly devastating illness. So much so,
that it was once considered for weaponization by the U.S. military. Although I am completely unfamiliar with either Jackson or Davis' cases, I assume their issues were months long infections that resulted in general whole body weakness.
From 2009-2011, Jackson's numbers (when he was well enough to try playing on the field) were similar to his first three seasons except that his power evaporated. He was still able to make contact and look for his pitch, but he simply could not do much with those pitches. His groundball rates increased about ten percent and his infield fly rate increased about 50%. For a player with less than marginal defensive worth, a power outage simply could not be shouldered by the rest of his game and teams found fewer reasons to hope that he could reclaim the promise he showed before the illness.
Last year, Jackson spent the entire season in the minors at the Chicago White Sox' AAA affiliate, Charlotte. Again, misfortune struck him as he missed a few dozen games due to injury, but he put up a respectable 277/363/434 line. Those are not amazing numbers. A player of his age and caliber should be expected to perform that well (24% better than league average). However, it was a level of performance that was not seen in years past.
The hope is that Jackson will be able to find himself as the 25th man on this team and provide a useful bat off the bench. As long as he can hit with infrequent opportunity and perform well enough in the field, he could be a quite useful addition to the team. However, Spring Training heroics have not been a great indicator of success for the Orioles in the past. The following is a list of the best hitters over the past four Spring Trainings.
40 PA, 444/500/556
Endy Chavez was brought in as a fourth outfielder who could provide some power to go along with an excellent glove. However, his bat completely disappeared when the season began and his defense left much to be desired.
76 PA, 297/325/797 10 HR
Fox gave many a fan and writer much to be happy about. Including us. Based on historical data, it appeared that his rate of 7.2 AB per home run in Spring Training would decrease to 16.4. It decreased to 30.5 in only 61 AB. He lack of a defensive home sent him packing. Last year, he flourished in independent ball and struggled in the minors for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He has resigned with Somerset in the Atlantic League.
42 PA, 342/419/658
Felix Pie was once a top prospect. He also was once a promising left fielder for the Orioles. A promising 2009 campaign saw him hit 266/326/437 with a few flashes of a promising defensive glove. In Spring Training in 2010, his bat jumped and led many to believe that Pie was about to break out as a first division left fielder. However, he put up a similar performance as the year before and was put down with injuries at several points during the season. In 2011, Pie was horrible in the field. He spent last year in independent ball as well as with the Braves AAA affiliate, Gwinnett. This year he is in camp with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Jolbert Cabrera SS
48 PA, 457/469/609
At 36 years old, some thought Jolbert Cabrera was in for a renaissance as he pounded Spring Training pitching. The Orioles quite rightly decided to go with defensive wizard Cesar Izturis instead, which proved to be the best move as Cabrera proceeded to struggle against AAA pitching in Norfolk, going 262/298/401. In 2010 and 2011, he tore up the Mexican Leagues as a super utility player. In 2012 (at the age of 39), he played in only 10 games. For 2013, he will be a manager for the Nogales Desert Ghosts in the independent American West Baseball League.