The Second Dustin Ackley Lesson
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:
- not all attempted changes will be successfully, sustainably implemented
- 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.