Dustin Ackley: Player Of Not No Consequence
They say the key to good writing is to give away the ending immediately and insult your audience, so, listen up, idiots: in this post, Dustin Ackley is not figured out. This post is not the last word on Dustin Ackley; this post cannot tell his future. No baseball post can ever tell anyone’s future, no matter the evidence presented, but here I’ll admit it up front. Lower all of your expectations. This is, essentially, commentary, dressed up as freshman analysis.
I told myself I wouldn’t write about post-recall Ackley until he hit a home run. I wasn’t actually going to hold myself to that, at least in the event Ackley never homered again, but just yesterday afternoon, Ackley went deep off Jered Weaver with what I’ll lovingly refer to as a puddlejumper. I think that word conveys the right impression, even if it doesn’t make any sense on its own in a baseball context. Yesterday might’ve been the best game yet for Ackley since he returned from Tacoma, and though none of his teammates thought to contribute themselves, this was a game between the Mariners and the Angels, and the wins and losses didn’t matter. At this point we’re in it for the individual storylines, and Ackley’s been busy writing one. One of success, one of redemption.
The most popularly-cited split these days: Ackley’s performance since the All-Star break. Over just short of 100 plate appearances, Ackley has hit a spectacular .330, with an encouraging .833 OPS. That’s more like the Dustin Ackley we expected to play for the Mariners, and less like the decent-hitting pitcher Ackley used to hit like. Whenever a pitcher bats, and an announcer says “for a pitcher, he can swing the bat,” what the announcer leaves off is, “he still sucks though.” Ackley was hitting like a pitcher when he went down. Now he’s back! Look at those numbers since the All-Star break!
You might immediately see one problem. Well, really, two. One, it’s not even a hundred plate appearances. Two, Ackley wasn’t brought back from Tacoma during the All-Star break. Ackley returned to the Mariners in time to play on June 26, and between then and the break, he went 9-for-44. Just because there are pre- and post-break splits doesn’t mean they make sense to use, since that’s just a widely accepted arbitrary endpoint. Since his recall, over nearly 150 plate appearances, Ackley has hit a solid .289, with an acceptable .738 OPS. Those initial numbers can’t just be discarded.
But, all right. Two things: that’s certainly an improvement over Ackley’s .516 OPS when he went down. Tuberculosis would be an improvement over a .516 OPS. And, maybe Ackley is just getting more and more comfortable. So maybe what he’s done after the break means more than what he did just before the break. If I recall, the Mariners didn’t want to bring Ackley back quite as soon as they did. And last year, after working on his swing in Tacoma, Justin Smoak came back and had a lousy August before a five-alarm September. Everything is a process, and why wouldn’t players be able to get better and better?
The important thing is that Dustin Ackley has been hitting. He’s been spraying line drives and hitting balls to gaps, and yesterday he finally sent a ball over a fence. People who know about this stuff have pointed out some improved swings, and Ackley himself says he’s feeling more confident. Subjectively, he’s been making better and more consistent contact, and that’s what’s been driving the improved results. The good version of Dustin Ackley looks a lot more like this guy than this same guy in April, or last summer. There’s no question we’re seeing improvement.
What’s maybe most interesting is how the improvement is mostly psychological. Ackley has admitted he wasn’t ready to hit before, and now he’s feeling more like himself. This season, we don’t observe big changes in his swing rates. Ackley hasn’t gone from being passive to being aggressive, not outwardly, not in the numbers. Though he’s swung more in the second half, he’s also seen more pitches in the zone than any other Mariner in the second half, and that’ll lift a guy’s swing rate. You’re not going to figure out Dustin Ackley by examining his plate-discipline statistics.
Because in there, it’s all subtle. In there, too much is lost or left out. Let’s look at some numbers from 2011 to the present. One of these players is Dustin Ackley since his debut.
- Player A: 25%
- Player B: 25%
- Player A: 54%
- Player B: 54%
- Player A: 39%
- Player B: 39%
- Player A: 51%
- Player B: 50%
- Player A: 19%
- Player B: 20%
The other of those players is Mike Trout, by the way. It doesn’t matter which is which, because everything’s basically the same, and we all know that Dustin Ackley has slumped and Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball. By the plate-discipline numbers, Ackley and Trout have a whole lot in common. By the more important numbers, they don’t, so we know there’s nothing crippling about Ackley’s plate-discipline profile. Probably, a good version of Ackley would profile very similarly, because he’s not the type to turn into an over-aggressive hacker.
Ackley’s always going to be a little more patient than average, and he’s always going to make more contact than average. This was the case when he was bad, and this remains the case now that he’s been pretty all right. The changes are somewhat to his swing but mostly in his head, and so it’s hard to find those changes in the sabermetric details. We’re left more settling with observation of his in-game performance and his wOBA or OPS or whatever you like to like.
Ackley’s been seeing a lot of strikes, and lately he’s been hitting them pretty hard. Finally, he hit a home run, and we’ll see if pitchers start nibbling a little more. Then there could be an opportunity for Ackley to draw a few more walks, since he hasn’t been walking, since he hasn’t really been getting the chances. As Ackley has wanted to be more aggressive, pitchers have cooperated by also being more aggressive. Now we’ll see if someone responds to the other someone.
For Ackley, the problem’s never been as simple as the lefty strike. Somehow that idea took off, but it’s always been more complicated, and earlier this season Ackley’s confidence hit a professional low. His confidence pretty much mirrored Tom Wilhelmsen’s, and as difficult a concept as that is to analyze, confidence is one of the most fundamental components of on-field success. Enough smart players have said as much, to smart people. Now Ackley’s confidence is returning, and with a tweaked swing, he’s generating numbers that aren’t pathetic. Ackley, in short, is making himself worth paying attention to again. He got dangerously close to going the way of Jesus Montero.
Don’t know if he’s going to keep hitting. Don’t know if he’s actually going to hit for any real power. Don’t know what position he’s going to play, or for which team. So, don’t know Dustin Ackley’s realistic career WAR ceiling. There’s lots I don’t know about Dustin Ackley these days. But one thing I do know is that Dustin Ackley made me want to look at his recent statistics. And I don’t mean hate-look, the way I look at Aaron Harang’s statistics. There might still be a future with Dustin Ackley in it. Along the Jeremy Reed career path, Ackley might have found a spur.