PEORIA, Ariz. -- Braves power-hitting prospect Alex Jackson is back where his pro career began, playing in the Arizona Fall League for Peoria in the same stadium where he was once a high first-round draft pick playing rookie ball in the Mariners organization. Not only that, he’s playing on a fall-league team, the Peoria Javelinas, that also has some of his former Mariners minor-league teammates.
Those Mariners hopefuls could be excused if they didn’t initially recognize Jackson. He’s added considerable muscle since his days in the Mariners organization and is now positioned behind the plate rather than in the outfield, having made the position switch after a November trade to the Braves.
“Most of the guys aren’t used to seeing me play a different position on the diamond, let alone being the guy who’s catching them and calling their pitches,” Jackson said one morning last week, smiling as he sat in the shade, the Arizona sun having already raised the temperature to 86 degrees at 10 a.m. “But we all have a good relationship and we’re out here enjoying it together as one team.”
The Braves and Mariners have four pitchers and the maximum eight total players apiece on the Peoria roster. Several Braves have excelled including premier prospect Ronald Acuna, third-base prospect Austin Riley and left-hander Max Fried. But none has shone any brighter than Jackson, a 6-foot-2, nearly 240-pound slugger who’s hit for average and head-turning power while displaying behind-the-plate skills that have improved dramatically since spring after three years away from catching.
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He leads the AFL with five home runs in 48 at-bats while batting .333 with a 1.105 OPS that ranks fourth in the league. “Between Austin and Alex in batting practice, it’s fun to watch,” Fried said of daily power displays from the Braves.
Still, it’s Jackson’s work behind the plate – blocking balls, making strong throws, calling games -- that’s most impressed Peoria pitchers and others.
“He looks like a natural catcher; he’s a great athlete,” said Javelinas pitching coach Yoel Monzon, who was a pitching coach for the Mariners’ rookie-league team in Peoria the past two seasons. “He’s really good calling the game, blocking the ball, and he looks like he has a lot of confidence behind the plate. He has some tools and he’s doing what he loves to do. I’m very happy and very excited that he’s been able to do the things he’s doing right now.”
Peoria manager Luis Salazar is the Braves’ Double-A Mississippi manager and had Jackson on his team for the last five weeks of the minor league season after a promotion from high-A Florida. He also saw Jackson plenty at spring training in his initial weeks back behind the plate.
“His game-calling is getting better and his blocking is outstanding,” Salazar said. “I’ve been shocked at the way he’s blocking here. Yesterday (a game last week) he was 9-for-9 (blocking balls) with three tough blocks. He’s been outstanding. Game calling, he gets together with a pitcher and has a good idea now. Lot of times with pitch sequence, I’ll explain to him in the dugout, to let him know about situational hitting, like with runners in scoring position, to let him know that’s the most important thing for him – know the situation, who’s pitching, what’s the strength of the pitcher in that particular situation.
“But he’s been good. He’s been working and he wants to get better.”
Jackson caught Fried’s last Double-A start Aug. 1 before the lefty was promoted to the majors, and has caught all four of his starts in the fall league.
“Tremendous,” Fried said. “I mean, for a guy that hasn’t caught in a couple of years, to come back and just – obviously his bat is unbelievable; he hits the ball farther than almost anyone out here. These home runs have been pretty impressive. But he caught my last outing in Mississippi and he’s caught me every time here. I trust him back there. I have no reservations about throwing a curveball in the dirt, knowing that he’s going to block it. It’s really comforting knowing that I can put one in the dirt and he’s going to keep it in front or he’s going to try to do his best job to frame a pitch and try to get us out of the inning.”
Fried also likes how Jackson works with a pitcher to better understand what makes him tick and what are his strengths.
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“We talk a lot about sequencing and what we like to do and how we want to attack guys,” Fried said. “So I’ve been really impressed with his understanding of catching and managing the game, and I think that’s also kind of helped him on the hitting side, too. Kind of gives him a different perspective.”
Monzon said, “I like that when Max Fried pitches, they look like they’re on the same page a lot. I like that (Jackson) goes to the mound, talks to him, gets him back on track again. That’s something really good for a catcher, to be able to have that leadership and help the pitchers. It’s really important.”
Salazar gives credit for Jackson’s improvement behind the plate to the player and also to Jeff Datz, the Braves’ minor league catching coordinator.
“Datzy took him under his wing from the get-go in spring training, because he hadn’t caught much,” Salazar said. “We stay in contact, (Datz) gave me some advice on what to work with (Jackson) out here, on blocking and receiving and stuff like that. But man, the kid -- I’ve been impressed with how he’s been out here. Because I had him for almost two months at Mississippi and this is a totally different guy. He just keeps making progress.
“He’s going to hit for power, there’s no doubt about that. And he’s got a strong arm – oh, he’s got a hose.”
And a potent bat. Or, as Chipper Jones put it after checking out Jackson on a backfield at spring training, “That kid has light-tower power.”
The Mariners gave up on Jackson after three unproductive seasons as a miscast outfielder, and the Braves got the still-young former first-rounder for a modest price, sending low-level pitching prospects Rob Whalen and Max Povse to the Mariners.
In his first season in the Braves organization, Jackson hit a combined .267 with an .808 OPS and career-bests in doubles (21), homers (19) and RBIs (65) over 96 games (402 plate appearances) between high-A Florida and Double-A. He made 56 starts at catcher and 39 at designated hitter, after making the position switch from outfield at the beginning of spring training.
“He hadn’t caught in three years since high school, so he was a little rough around the edges to start in spring training,” said Braves assistant farm director Jonathan Schuerholz. “But he wanted to do it. We sat down with him after we traded for him and said, Hey, do you want to do this? This is something we’re thinking about and you have to be all in. And he’s like, ‘I’m all in, I want to do it.’ So he comes in and, it’s about getting your body back used to it, going through a full season of playing professional baseball, catching for a full year in the Florida State League for most of the year, in the heat.
“You look at where he came from, the work that Jeff Datz did with him, the work that (high-A Florida hitting coach) Carlos Mendez did with him, and (Jackson) needs to be credited too – he works his tail off and he really cares, he wants to be a good catcher. And if you took a before-and-after picture from where he was in spring training to where he is now, and if he makes those strides again, then he’s done it, for me.
“The bat plays, we know that, and we’re really encouraged by the future for him.”
As strong a season as he produced at the plate, Jackson has taken his offense to another level in the Arizona Fall League.
“It’s just a combination of everything,” Jackson said. “Trying to be myself. Having fun. Enjoying the time out here. It’s a privilege to be able to participate in the Arizona Fall League, and just going about my business the right way. Having fun, and offensively getting good pitches to hit, putting good swings on it, not trying to do too much, and just enjoying myself.”
He’s facing better pitching on a far more consistent basis in the prospect-laden AFL than during the minor league season, and it’s seemed to suit his approach.
“I would definitely say there’s more of a plan, both from the offensive side and the pitching side of things,” Jackson said. “Pitchers here, they’ve got a plan, they execute their pitches, they throw pitches where they want to throw them. And from a hitter’s perspective, you’ve got to look for your pitch, and once you get that pitch you’ve got to put a good swing on it. Because guys out here, they’ve all got really good stuff. So you look for that pitch and when you get it, you want to put a good swing on it. If you’re able to do that, good things will happen.”
Fried said it’s not one particular pitch that Jackson has feasted upon in the fall league.
“He hit a 3-2 slider out (last week), so it’s kind of a little of everything,” Fried said. “He’s putting really good swings on it. Balls fly here, so he’s definitely taking advantage of that. But he’s putting together really good at-bats. I’m just glad he’s on our team.”
Jackson is still just 21, with a birthday coming on Christmas. And with only 33 games caught above Single-A, the Braves will be careful not to rush him up the ladder before he’s ready. The Braves’ are bringing back Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki, who formed one of the majors’ top offensive catching tandems in 2017, for at least one more season, but both are eligible for free agency after 2018.
By then, Jackson should have more than 1 ½ seasons of experience in the high minors.
“We’ve been very pleased with him,” Schuerholz said. “He’s a great kid, has done everything we’ve asked of him. He handles the staff and it seems like the pitchers really enjoy pitching to him. But we’re just thrilled for what the future has in store for him. Big power. And it’s easy power, it’s not forced power. It’s bat speed, it’s strength, but it’s not muscled.”