Austin Jackson now one of AL's elite

The game was over, a soon-to-be disappointing defeat in a frustrating season for the Detroit Tigers. Expected by nearly everyone to run away with the American League Central and predicted by many to be the best team in the majors, the Tigers were instead about to fall 2.5 games behind the White Sox.

The Indians led 8-5 in the bottom of the 10th inning. There were two outs, nobody on base. No team had won such a game in its final at-bat all season. But then Chris Perez walked Alex Avila, and Andy Dirks and Austin Jackson doubled in a run. After Omar Infante's flare to center tied the game, Miguel Cabrera belted a 3-1, down-the-middle 94-mph fastball over the left-center wall, sending Tigers fans into a state of frenzied exultation.

"Nobody's heads were hanging," Jackson said. "I think that's the good thing. Everybody had their heads up and anything can happen in those situations."

In the postgame television interview, Cabrera made sure to pull Jackson into the interview with him. Cabrera was the walk-off hero, but Jackson had a monster game for the Tigers, going 4-for-6 with three runs scored. While much of the focus on the Tigers has centered on Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Justin Verlander -- or reasons why they haven't dominated -- Jackson has quietly flown under the national radar despite hitting .322/.409/.518. Jackson ranks third in the AL in batting average and on-base percentage and eighth in OPS. In fact, he has a better OBP and slugging percentage than Fielder.

And last time I checked, Fielder doesn't quite play center field like Jackson.

At 58-50, the Tigers are 1.5 games behind the White Sox and on pace for 87 wins. Despite all the preseason hype surrounding the Tigers, from an analytical standpoint, the 87 wins isn't surprising. When you break down the individual players, most are doing what you would expect: Cabrera and Verlander have been terrific; Fielder is right in the range of projection; Avila and Jhonny Peralta have predictably not hit as well as in 2011; Delmon Young is Delmon Young, which means not very good (Tigers designated hitters rank 13th in the AL in OBP, OPS and runs scored); Brennan Boesch isn't hitting like last year, but last year's season kind of came out of nowhere; Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have almost idential ERAs; and Jose Valverde has not been perfect.

No, there's nothing that reads "fluke" about the Tigers' 87-win pace. The big surprise: Austin Jackson.

While acknowledging his abilities as a fly chaser, Jackson spent his first two seasons being analyzed every which way by the number crunchers. As a rookie in 2010, he hit .293 despite leading the AL with 170 strikeouts. "He's not going to do that again," the crunchers reported, citing his .396 batting on balls in play -- the seventh-highest single-season figure since 1950.

Jackson did exactly what the crunchers expected in 2011, hitting .249 with 181 strikeouts. The criticism focused on Jim Leyland's insistence on hitting Jackson leadoff despite his .317 OBP. In the postseason, Jackson hit .195 and struck out 19 times in 11 games, and Tigers fans wondered if Jackson future was more suited to a lower spot in the batting order.

Here we are in 2012, and Jackson is once again defying the prognosticators with a big season. If he hadn't missed three weeks with an abdominal strain, he'd be right there in the MVP runner-up discussion with his teammate Cabrera and a few others (behind Mike Trout). Jackson is once again producing a high BABIP -- up to .405 after his four-hit day on Sunday.

Maybe that .405 mark is unsustainable, but Jackson has shown growth at the plate in many areas. His strikeout rate, while still high, is down 5 percent from 2011; his walk rate is up more than 4 percent; after chasing after 27 percent of pitches outside the strike zone his first two seasons, that's down to less than 22 percent in 2012; with 11 home runs, he has already topped the 10 he hit in 2011.

There's real growth here. Plus, it's important to point out that it's unusual for a hitter to have multiple seasons with a BABIP around .390. Derek Jeter has had seasons of .386, .391 and .396; Bobby Abreu had two seasons of .391 and .393; Rod Carew had seasons of .381, .391 and .408; Ichiro Suzuki is a bit of a unique hitter, but had seasons of .384, .389 and .399. Like those players, Jackson has good speed; infielders have to respect that and maybe play a step more shallow, which helps a few more grounders to sneak into the outfield. He has enough power that the outfielders have to respect that, so they can't cut off boopers and shallow fly balls.

It's time for number crunchers to admit: Austin Jackson has become one of the best all-around players in the American League. And he looks pretty good as a leadoff hitter.