Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile: Bo Jackson
Per frequent reader request, here is a Career Profile for Bo Jackson.
Bo Jackson was well-known to scouts as an outstanding athlete growing up in high school in Alabama. Drafted in the second round in 1982 by the Yankees, he didn't sign and went to Auburn to play football and baseball. He was an amazing football player, winning the Heisman Trophy in 1985, but he was a very good baseball player too, with a terrific combination of power and speed.
He was the first-overall pick in the 1986 football draft, but refused to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since they wanted him to give up baseball. The Royals drafted him in the fourth round in 1986, though he would certainly have been a first-round pick if not for his desire to play in the NFL. He ended up re-entering the football draft pool in 1987 and was drafted by the Raiders.
In baseball, he was sent directly to Double-A Memphis after signing with the Royals in '86, hitting .277/.368/.473 with seven homers, 22 walks, and 81 strikeouts in 184 at-bats. He stole three bases but was caught six times. His physical tools were obvious, but the strikeout rate was scary, granted the fact that he performed so well despite his flaws, jumping directly to Double-A from college, testified to his talent.
He was promoted to the majors and played 25 games for the Royals that year, hitting .207/.286/.329 with seven walks and 34 strikeouts in 82 at-bats. Jackson was one of the best athletes I ever saw on a baseball diamond, but his skills were very raw. I don't know what grade I would have given him, perhaps something like a Grade B, along the lines of "Grade A tools with Grade C skills averaging out to a Grade B."
Other than injury rehab late in his career, Jackson never returned to the minors, playing 116 games for the Royals in 1987, hitting .235/.296/.455 with 22 homers, 10 steals, 30 walks, and 158 strikeouts in 396 at-bats. He was amazing to watch; he really had no idea what he was doing half the time, especially as a hitter, but he was so strong and so fast that all eyes turned to him when he was on the field.
Over the next few years for the Royals, he gradually improved his baseball skills, becoming a more effective base stealer, tapping into his power more consistently, gradually improving his plate discipline. His best season was 1990 when he hit .272/.342/.523 with 28 homers in 405 at-bats, with 44 walks and 128 strikeouts, WAR 3.3, OPS+142. He was never more than an average defensive outfielder despite his athleticism, but his bat was becoming more dangerous each year.
That all ended on January 13, 1991, when he suffered a serious hip injury in a football game for the Raiders. This ended his football career and led to his release by the Royals. The White Sox signed him as a free agent, and he hit .225/.333/.408 in 23 games for them (along with six minor league rehab outings). He missed all of '92 recovering from hip replacement surgery, then returned to play 85 games for the White Sox in '93 (.232/.289/.433) and 75 more for the California Angels in '94 (.279/.344/.507) before retiring during the big '94 strike.
All told, Jackson hit .250/.309/.474 in 694 major league games, with 141 homers, 200 walks, and 841 strikeouts in 2393 at-bats, WAR 9.2, OPS+ 112. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened without the hip injury. His skills were gradually improving, he was gaining some feel for the strike zone, and he was just 28 years old when he got hurt.
LESSONS LEARNED: Football Sucks. Amazing tools can sometimes compensate for raw skills.