The Second Dustin Ackley Lesson

Jeff Sullivan · April 17, 2013 at 2:38 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

The first Dustin Ackley lesson, I think, is pretty obvious. Don’t ever take any baseball player for granted. Especially a baseball player who hasn’t yet proven himself in the major leagues. Remember, Ackley wasn’t just supposed to hit — he was going to hit, and there wasn’t any question. His defense, sure, there were questions, but his bat? Ackley could wake up and bat .300 while hitting the snooze button. It wasn’t long ago some people wondered whether the Mariners were better off with Ackley or Stephen Strasburg. People talked about Chase Utley upside. It isn’t that I don’t think Ackley is ever going to hit, or that it looks like his entire big-league career is a bust. It’s that we’ve been rudely introduced to the possibility, which previously very few of us considered, or considered enough. Dustin Ackley might not ever hit. Dustin Ackley might not ever be good. Dustin Ackley might end up with a worse career than Jose Lopez. These aren’t untrue statements. The old guarantees that Ackley would produce — those were untrue statements.

Now we have a second Dustin Ackley lesson. Or, if there have been other Dustin Ackley lessons in between, we have another, unnumbered Dustin Ackley lesson. Not long ago, Dustin Ackley made a change to his swing. Not long before that, Dustin Ackley made a change to his swing. This latest change eliminates some of the parts of that older change, with which he showed up to spring training. Ackley hasn’t fully reverted to the way he hit in 2012, but he’s given up on a tweak, as he just never felt comfortable. The results, most certainly, beared that out.

Here’s Ackley on changing his change:

“What I was doing (Saturday), it felt like the same thing without having to do a bunch of the timing before it,” Ackley said. “It’s still trying to accomplish the same things. It’s really not that big of a difference. It might be 6 inches from where I started before. It’s not like I’m changing my swing. It’s still the same swing, but I just don’t have the timing of getting it started.”

Okay, hey, great. Now here’s Ackley from February, when he came to camp and faced the pitcher in the box, rather than having his shoulders parallel with the plate:

“It just puts me in good hitting position,” he said. “Last year, with the old stance I had, there was no separation, my hands, and everything. I worked on it a lot this offseason just to get that feel of maybe what it used to feel like, as opposed to last year when I didn’t really know what was going on. I think that was important for me this offseason.”

This lesson is less about Dustin Ackley specifically, and more about baseball players in general. Baseball players are constantly changing things around, especially when their performances start to slip. Particularly in spring training, you’ll hear about adjustments that have been made, or that are in the process of being made. If a player under-performed in Year X, the next year he’ll probably talk about tweaks that he hopes will allow him to leave the struggles in the past. The talk will be accompanied by explanations, and it’s the same for both hitters and pitchers.

There are two things that are important to keep in mind, for all players:

  1. not all attempted changes will be successfully, sustainably implemented
  2. not all implemented changes will work

The first one has a lot to do with muscle memory. By the time a player gets to the highest levels of professional baseball, he’s put in a lot of reps, many of them doing the exact same things with the exact same motions. Adjusting a swing isn’t as easy as identifying a thing to change and then changing it the next day. Pitching mechanics are even more complicated, and you never know what sort of cascading effect a mechanical tweak might have. If a player doesn’t feel comfortable, he doesn’t feel comfortable. There’s also the case where players are initially receptive, then they revert to familiar motions in higher-stress situations where they’re going on autopilot. A particular case where a lot of us slip up is with pitchers learning new pitches. If a guy is trying a cutter in March, that doesn’t mean a cutter is going to be a part of his repertoire going forward. Learning pitches is hard. Even the cutter, which I think is pretty simple and straightforward.

And then there’s the second one, which we’re reminded of from the Ackley example. Dustin Ackley thought his tweak would work, and that’s why he practiced it and took it into the spring. It didn’t work, because he couldn’t find his timing, and the stance tweak has been abandoned by the middle of April. Every single time a player makes a change, and explains it, he’ll explain it positively, he’ll explain it as a solution. If a player didn’t feel like a given change was a solution, he wouldn’t try to make the change in the first place. Everybody is always initially optimistic about tweaks, but then what we find is that struggling players usually continue to struggle, because they aren’t good. Baseball is a complicated, difficult game, and the difference between a good version of a player and a bad version of a player generally isn’t one little part of his mechanics. And even if you feel like an adjustment is the right thing, you can’t know how it’s going to help until you actually take it into competition. You can only guess, and sometimes people guess wrong. They don’t mean to. Baseball’s just hard.

I think this is one of the reasons people tend to be optimistic about their teams come spring training time. The good players are good players, and the bad players mostly made changes to try to make themselves better players. And you believe in those changes, because everybody who talks about them is positive about them. It’s easy to see how a handful of tweaks could make a handful of under-performers better, and presto, just like that, 81 wins. 90 wins. 100 wins! Amazing baseball team!

Players are almost always changing in some way or another. Most of the time, these changes are very, very small, essentially imperceptible. Sometimes the changes are more dramatic, and sometimes the changes are successfully implemented. Sometimes said changes are effective. Other times they’re not. We have to keep in mind the cases where they’re not. It just isn’t easy to get better.


20 Responses to “The Second Dustin Ackley Lesson”

  1. eternal on April 17th, 2013 2:50 pm

    My theory is that Ackley is almost twice as good as he used to be. Unfortunately, all the pitchers are four times better than they were so ya know, there ya go.

  2. fcb on April 17th, 2013 2:55 pm

    This one is really simple for me. If he was good at hitting major league pitching, he’d successfully hit major league pitching. closing in on 1000 career plate appearances, hes hitting .237/.307/.349. By contrast, Brendan Ryan, widely regarded as the worst everyday hitter in the majors, has a career line of .242/.305/.324. He’s basically Ryan with the physical capability to hit the ball over the fence occasionally.

  3. Ralph_Malph on April 17th, 2013 2:55 pm

    Yes, but the writers are 8 times better than they used to be, so we’re in luck. Thanks Jeff.

  4. msfanmike on April 17th, 2013 3:14 pm

    Depressingly real situation, here.

    Almost everything Ackley does results in him hitting the ball 1/2″ too high or 1/2″ too low. It sounds like an easy thing to fix, but he hasn’t been able to fix it. He isn’t squaring anything up.

    Last night he watched strike 2 at the knees and then swung at some bendy shit in the dirt for strike 3. His confidence is probably shot (I certainly know mine is – in him). His approach (and it is all mental at this point) is suffering … and he needs a confidence boost of seeing bat hit ball and ball safely landing on grass in the OF.

    Trying to get “fixed” at the MLB level is a daunting task. It’s not the right place to get “fixed” if you have never really had sustained success at that level – and he hasn’t.

    Currently, he is the Hector Noesi of the every day lineup. Like I said above … depressing!

  5. kenshabby on April 17th, 2013 3:19 pm

    The best way to fix Ackley’s hitting is by trading him to another team, where he’ll no doubt flourish.

  6. Dayve on April 17th, 2013 3:39 pm

    ..that’s the story of this organization.

  7. Slats on April 17th, 2013 3:45 pm

    At least we still have Smoak & Montero.


  8. goalieump413 on April 17th, 2013 4:10 pm

    I understand this article is about mechanics, but what about changing the stuff between the ears? Seems to me, that any player could make whatever mechanical change they want, but if they still try to kill a curveball in the dirt, no manner of mechanical alteration will save a career.

  9. roosevelt on April 17th, 2013 4:11 pm

    [It isn’t that I don’t think Ackley is ever going to hit, or that it looks like his entire big-league career is a bust. It’s that we’ve been rudely introduced to the possibility, which previously very few of us considered, or considered enough. Dustin Ackley might not ever hit.]

    Unfortunately, we seem to being seeing this concept portrayed in a widespread manner in the current M’s lineup. Sigh.

  10. Marinered on April 17th, 2013 4:16 pm

    I am starting to believe that Ackley is not the answer at 2B, especially with Franklin, Miller, and Romero in the minors chomping at the bit.

    I am just dying….. DYING for one of our young hitters to show some upside this season. I’m not real worried about Seager, but as for the other guys (Ackley, Smoak, Montero) time is rapidly running out.

  11. heyoka on April 17th, 2013 4:25 pm

    Jeremy Reed 2.0

  12. on April 17th, 2013 4:32 pm

    As a Giants fan, I was very optimistic about Tim Lincecum this spring when he talked about the mechanical changes he was making. 5 terrible spring starts and 3 terrible regular season starts later, I’m less optimistic suddenly.

  13. Westside guy on April 17th, 2013 4:50 pm

    It’s funny how, with Ackley, I’m willing to give him one more year to come around… while, with Smoak and Montero, I’m pretty much out of patience. Maybe it’s because I think Dustin adds value on the defensive end as well – I’m not sure.

  14. kaleyk on April 17th, 2013 5:20 pm

    Ackley is currently sucking it….but look at our whole starting infield of Montero-Smoak-Ackley-Ryan-Seager…..batting .185 while slugging .225 with ZERO homeruns …. take out Seager and his 7 doubles and the slugging is .189 with a total of two doubles….offensively pathetic and hard to watch!

  15. ck on April 17th, 2013 5:20 pm

    Ackley was told to switch to second base as a fast track way to get to the majors. He arrived quickly, but was not ready. The last place Mariners did not have good players at any position, (except maybe Ichiro) and have hoped that Ackley, Smoak, and Montero et al, would blossom into solid starters. Didn’t happen…of the young guys, Only Seager, and the new Michael Saunders are MLB ready. Ackley has hit at every level before MLB, and hopefully he can find success soon.

  16. bookbook on April 17th, 2013 6:03 pm

    Ackley would have been in the majors faster had he not needed the extra time to switch positions (it’s not like the fearsome M’s outfield and 1b were blocking him.)

    I keep seeing this “Ackley was rushed” meme. It doesn’t match the facts.

  17. wallmoon on April 17th, 2013 7:05 pm

    Makes me wonder if there is such a thing as a good hitting coach, and if the Mariners ever had one.
    most of our hitters never seem to improve (until they are traded).

  18. Kazinski on April 17th, 2013 11:59 pm

    Thing about Ackley now is his BABIP is .132. So you have to say his true talent level is about twice as many hits has he currently has, cause nobody has a true talent babip that low.

    Last season his babip was just .269 which was 13th worst in MLB (Smoak was worst at .242), while in 2011 it was at .339.

    I think he’s going to be ok, and the luck will average out in the next couple of weeks. If not 2nd base is the deepest position in the organization and they’ll make a move if his results don’t start matching his peripherals.

    He did raise his average 30 points today, and his slugging % but 50 points. It won’t take too many days like that to get respectable. Of course it won’t take very many 0-4’s to get back where he was yesterday either.

  19. kinickers77 on April 18th, 2013 8:59 am

    Right now, I’d trade Ackley and Smoak to STL for Matt Adams.

  20. maqman on April 18th, 2013 11:15 am

    Until Ackley, Smoak and Montero start hitting they are not going to return much in a trade. Best to send them down to Tacoma and make them prove they can hit before they have a chance to come back. Put Seager on 2B, Liddi (OPS .928) at 3B and let Shoppach catch as long as he’s hitting like he has been. Bring up Sucre (OPS .979) as a back up catcher until Zunino is ready to replace Shoppach. Shift Morales to 1B, leave Morse in LF or rotate Morse, Raul and Bay through DH and LF.

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