Why Does Dustin Ackley Strike Out So Much?
In most facets of the game, Dustin Ackley has been exactly as advertised. He was drafted as a disciplined hitter who made a lot of contact, hit the ball into the gaps, and utilized his speed to rack up extra base hits. We expected that he’d draw his fair share of walks and get a bunch of doubles, and because he wouldn’t strike out that much, he’d hit for a high enough average to be a good offensive player even without a ton of power.
Guy who draws walks? Yep, he’s at 10.5% BB% in the big leagues.
Gap power? Yeah, he’s got 28 doubles and six triples in 147 career games.
Good contact rate? He’s at 84.1%, well above the league average of 80%.
Lack of strikeouts leading to high batting average? Uhh, no.
Ackley’s career major league strikeout rate is 21.1%, higher than the 19.1% league average during his time in the big leagues, and his batting average is just .263. Batting average isn’t a great way to evaluate a hitter, but mid-level power guys generally need to hit for a higher average to offset the lack of bombs. Ackley is just not getting as many base hits as was expected, and it’s pretty much entirely due to the fact that he’s striking out far more than he has previously.
In college, Ackley hardly ever struck out. Same thing in the minors, when his strikeout rate was about 13%. In the Majors, though, it’s a different story – for reference, Ackley’s K% this year is essentially the same as Miguel Olivo’s. So, what’s the deal?
First, let’s deal with the fact that this is a bit of an odd phenomenon. Guys who hit for as much contact as Ackley don’t strike out this often.
Remember how we said his career contact rate was 84.1%? To come up with something like an expected K%, I pulled all hitters who have at least 500 PA since the start of the 2009 season, and then filtered for players with contact rates between 83%-85%. This gives us 52 players and nearly 64,000 plate appearances, so we’re dealing with a pretty good sample size here. As a group, these 52 hitters made contact at the same 84.1% rate as Ackley, yet they only struck out in 15.2% of their plate appearances. In fact, Ackley has the highest K% of the entire group, and former Mariner Josh Wilson is the only other guy over 20%.
The relationship between contact rate and strikeout rate is not surprisingly quite high. In fact, the correlation between the two is -0.9, which gives you an r squared of 0.81, meaning that you can explain 81% of the variance in strikeout rate simply through a player’s contact rate. It is, by far, the strongest determinant of how often a player will strikeout. This isn’t news to anyone who has watched baseball very long, of course, but it’s worth a reminder – guys who make contact more often than most strike out less often than most. At least, guys not named Dustin Ackley.
So, the first takeaway from this is that we probably shouldn’t expect Ackley to keep striking out this often. Contact rate is the skill that drives strikeout rate, not the other way around, so Ackley has demonstrated the necessary ability to post an above average K%. That’s the number that’s likely to regress, not the contact rate. Consider that good news – Ackley’s current K% is probably unsustainable given his overall skills at the plate, and will almost certainly improve as time goes on.
That doesn’t really answer the question of why he’s been striking out so much, though, or what he needs to improve upon in order to cut down on the strikeouts. For that, let’s turn back to our trusty friend The Heat Map, which will show us where Ackley is good at hitting the ball and where he’s not.
This plot compares the run value Ackley creates on different pitch locations to the league average hitter, with warmer colors (red, yellow, etc…) being good zones and colder colors (blue, purple) being problem areas.
Ackley is really good against pitches down and in, which is the sweet spot for a lot of left-handed batters. He’s less good against pitches down and away, but that’s pretty common as well, and not a lot of pitchers can consistently locate in that part of the strike zone, so it’s not a huge issue. The real issue, though, is that middle-up area – Dustin Ackley has consistently been beaten with high fastballs, and he knows it. In today’s News Tribune, he tells Larry LaRue:
“Over time, you see the adjustments pitchers are making on you. I see more high fastballs with two strikes. Sometimes they come in hard with two strikes,” Ackley said.
“Not every time, and not every pitcher. That would make it an easier adjustment on my part. Pitchers are smart. They don’t approach you the same way each time.
“I’ve chased their pitches too often.”
The data supports Ackley’s observation – he’s seeing a lot of high hard fastballs with two strikes, and he’s not hitting them all that often. The good news is that he’s aware of this issue, and he’s a talented enough hitter to do something about it. Realistically, he probably just needs to stop swinging at so many pitches up in the zone, because that’s not an area that is consistently called strikes, and it’s an area other hitters generally let pitches go by. Here’s Ackley’s swing plots versus league average, broken out by left-handed and right-handed pitchers.
Ackley hardly ever swings at pitches on the outer half of the plate, especially if they’re coming from a left-handed pitcher. That’s just a zone he leaves alone, because he knows it’s a weak area for him. But look at his swing rates on pitches middle-up and middle-in – he swings at those pitches a lot, and with the exception of the ones on the inner corner, he doesn’t make very good contact with those pitches.
This is the adjustment Ackley needs to make in order to get his strikeout rate and his contact rate to line-up. Once he closes that hole, and stops getting beaten on high fastballs so often, his strikeout rate will go down and his performance will go up. The good news is that he’s shown the discipline, contact skills, and gap power that should make him a quality hitter and a valuable piece to build around. He’s just a weak spot that pitchers are currently exploiting, and it’s undermining his overall performance at the moment. I wouldn’t call this a long term concern, especially given that he has identified the issue on his own and is working to fix it – in fact, I’d be encouraged that this probably won’t last that much longer.
Don’t be disappointed with Dustin Ackley. He’s still the cornerstone player that he looked like a year ago. He just isn’t a finished product quite yet.