Jim Leyland knows one of the keys to Detroit's season is a leadoff hitter who struck out 181 times last season.
His second straight high strikeout year in a season during which his ability to get on base decreased is what made Austin Jackson so receptive to a change in his hitting technique.
Jackson was among the players reporting to camp early and impressed some of his teammates with a new, shorter swing, featuring a leg kick that was nearly gone.
"I see him getting more and more comfortable with what we're doing," said hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, who worked intensely with Jackson during a series of January sessions in Comerica Park's cages.
"In fact, I'm quite amazed by how fast he's picking it up. It's the same thing we did with Curtis Granderson and that worked out OK. Austin knows he needs to make some changes to be a consistent contact type of hitter."
Jackson had some stretches last season during which he resembled the rookie who nearly hit .300 two years ago, with a batting average of close to .400 on balls put in play. He struck out 170 times that season.
Getting a leadoff hitter was a back-burner issue for Detroit until the need came up to replace injured designated hitter Victor Martinez.
The Tigers will enter the season with no alternative but Jackson at leadoff and on a team chock full of runners who are average or below, Jackson's ability to score from first on long hits by Brennan Boesch, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder becomes even more important.
Jackson is the Tigers' only legitimate base stealing threat, but he probably will be below 30 stolen bases again simply because Leyland won't want to open first base so the three hitters behind him can be walked intentionally.
His batting average last season on 0-1, 0-2 or 1-2 counts was well below .200 and Jackson faced a lot of two-strike counts because pitchers knew they could get him on either a breaking ball away or a fastball inside once they had him in a hole.
"It's OK for him to bring back the kick every now and then if it's against the type of pitcher you can do it with," McClendon said. "His problem was having a kick against pitchers you shouldn't have a kick with, guys who are quick to the plate. What we've done is create a shorter swing. I'm excited about it."
Said Jackson: "I haven't made that big of a change, other than to quiet down the leg kick. It's still there, just not as high.
"But I did it so much in the offseason that I knew down here it's what I wanted to work on and what I wanted to do. So it's come pretty easily. It's kind of easy to do in batting practice when someone isn't throwing hard. Live pitching will be the test for it."
Jackson tried making the adjustment during the middle of last season, but with the day-to-day grind of playing it's difficult to make radical changes.
That's what spring training is for.
--1B Prince Fielder, who lives a half-hour drive away, was one of the first position players to report to Detroit's spring home in Lakeland, Fla. "I just wanted to get here," Fielder said. "I had nothing else to do. I figured I'd come out here and work out a little bit and get things started." He also wanted an early jump at how he'd fit into the Detroit lineup, so he brought out his MLB11 baseball video game and traded himself from Milwaukee to Detroit. "I just did that at home," he said. "Me and my boys, we just traded me over. It's MLB11, but I was on the Brewers, so we just had to make a trade. Yeah, it was pretty cool."
--RHP Justin Verlander celebrated his last birthday in his 20s the day Detroit pitchers and catchers held their first formal workout, Feb. 20. He hopes the season ends with another celebration. "I think every year we come out here expecting a World Series title, at least since I've been here," Verlander said. "Every year I've been here we've had the talent to do it, and it just hasn't happened. We've come close a couple of times. Hopefully, this is the year." Coming off a Cy Young/MVP season, Verlander has impressed teammates with a work ethic that has not seemed to change. "I think his attitude is just tremendous, because he wants it really bad," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "And it seems to me, just being around him a couple times this spring so far, that he wants it as bad or worse this year than he did last year. And there's something to be said for that, after the year he had. Last year, his focus was tremendous, and I see the same thing already this year." Verlander is an avowed seeker of Hall of Fame status and is beginning to think of how other workhorse pitchers lasted into their 40s. "There was a point this off-season where I thought about trying to get in touch with Roger (Clemens), maybe a couple of weeks ago, to see what he did throughout his career, especially as he started to get a little bit older, just to get himself back in spring-training shape and throwing shape," Verlander said. "But I started to feel pretty good, so I didn't call him. But that's a conversation I would still like to have."
--CF Austin Jackson is trying to get his kicks out of spring training, or more precisely, his leg kicks. Jackson, who has struck out 170 and 181 times his first two seasons, had some serious January workouts at Comerica Park with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, trying to shorten his stroke and quiet that exaggerated leg kick down. "I've been watching him in the cage," INF Ramon Santiago said. "I like what he's doing. His swing is a lot shorter, and that big step he used to take? It's a lot smaller now. You can hardly notice it." Jackson was testing his new swing against Detroit's pitchers in batting practice before putting it to practice in exhibition games and grooving it in batting cages. "I see him getting more and more comfortable with what we're doing," McClendon said. "In fact, I'm quite amazed by how fast he's picking it up. It's the same thing we did with Curtis Granderson, and that worked out OK."
--RHP Max Scherzer wants to add a reliable two-seam fastball to his arsenal this spring. Scherzer's problems might lie more with that violent ending to his delivery than to his pitch assortment but one more weapon can't hurt. He has a four-seam fastball, slider and changeup. A two-seamer would be a nice complement to use against right-handed hitters. "I've just never had control over it or a feel for where it would end up," he said. "I knew I needed to dedicate a whole offseason and just throw it every single day. If I can hit you in the chest, I'm getting a feel for it. I'll find a lot more success, I think, if I can get more chances for ground balls." When it comes off my fingertips, I want to have a good feel for where it's going to go."
--LF Delmon Young believes he will have plenty of opportunities for RBI even batting behind 3B Miguel Cabrera and 1B Prince Fielder. "When you combine guys back-to-back who are righty-lefty who are capable of at least 35 homers and at least 100 RBIs and 100 walks, it makes it good for the guys in front of them and the guys in back of them," Young said. He drove in 112 runs for Minnesota in 2010. He had 32 RBI in his quarter-season with the Tigers last year, then hit five home runs in the postseason. "That's the goal, to win games, you need guys on base," Young said. "With all the pitching we have, we have an opportunity to keep guys off base. With the offense we have, we have a chance to have guys on base."
--3B Nick Castellanos, Detroit's top position-playing prospect, isn't threatened by the move of 3B Miguel Cabrera to his position. Instead, the third-year pro is awed by the fact he got to work out with Cabrera this winter and now in spring training. Cabrera in turn is impressed with a 20-year-old many feel will nudge him off the position in a couple of years. "Got great hands, got a very good idea of hitting," Cabrera said of the youngster. "He's got a great feel. He's got a chance to be a very good player." Said Castellanos: "I don't take it for granted when I'm getting help from him. Sometimes you forget for a moment what a stud he is. And then I'm reminded every time he takes batting practice. He got me to understand that turning on that inside pitch is more of a reaction. It's more a case of trust." Al Kaline, who won an AL batting title when he was Castellanos' age, 20, also alos been helping the kid. "He's another of those guys who's not too big, or too famous, to make time for someone like me," Castellanos said.
--DH Victor Martinez is still on crutches, facing ACL surgery next month, but has told teammates he hopes to be able to drop into camp a couple of times. Martinez is rehabbing in Orlando, Fla., after a first knee surgery to repair bone and cargilage damage. "Mostly, it depends on his rehab schedule," C Alex Avila said after a visit to Martinez. "He has a pretty strenuous rehab schedule going on right now and his son has a lot of baseball tournaments on the weekends that he likes to watch." Avila said Martinez will join Detroit catchers when the veterans treat the non-roster rookies to dinner once the early part of camp is over and they return to the minor league base. "He's getting over the initial shock of having been hurt and not being a part of the team," Avila said. "He's in as good of spirits as he can be, knowing you're not going to be able to do much. He's excited to do what he can and get as healthy as soon as he can."
--OF Clete Thomas should not be dismissed as an outfield candidate. Thomas returned last year from microfracture knee surgery in 2010. His numbers were as good as before the injury but he picked it up toward the end of the season. Thomas made a good impression in parts of two seasons as a spare outfielder with the Tigers. "This guy is a pretty good player," manager Jim Leyland said. "What's he going to look like coming back healthy? I think he's a real exciting player. He's going to get a full look. I've always liked what he can do." Thomas is out of options, which could give him an edge over OF Andy Dirks if both perform well this spring.
BY THE NUMBERS: 49 -- Spring trainings experienced by Tigers' manager Jim Leyland. "Forty-nine years, and I'm still loving it," Leyland said.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I tell you what, I think our defense is pretty good. I think we'll catch what we're supposed to, and I think we'll throw it accurately. And I think there's a lot to be said for that. I think we're better defensively than what people think." -- Manager Jim Leyland, countering the knocks his team's slow defenders are getting this spring.