The End of the Ackley Era
The Mariners announced their line-up today in their series-opener against the Twins. Dustin Ackley was slated to bat 6th and start in LF. Some time after that went public, Jack Curry of the YES Network in New York broke the news that Ackley had been traded to the Yankees instead. In exchange, the M’s get two players who’ve had cups of coffee in the Bronx, but spent much of 2015 in AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre: OF Ramon Flores and RP Jose Ramirez.
Of the two, Ramirez has been the most highly regarded. He’s a righty reliever with very good pure stuff, headlined by a fastball that sits in the mid-90s and touches 97-98. In the low minors, he was a fairly successful starter, but nagging injuries and the allure of closer-level stuff led to a role change. Since then (between the 2012 and 2013 seasons), Ramirez’s control has become a serious problem. Never a command pitcher, Ramirez’s walk rate has been above 10% since his first taste of AAA, back in 2015. To make matters worse, he’s yielding a very high BABIP. Ultimately, he became the perfect change of scenery candidate – whatever happened in 2013, the Yankees weren’t able to find it and correct it. He’d dropped out of the Yankees’ top 10 prospect lists at BA and MLB this year after peaking at #2 before the 2013 season.
Flores is a corner OF without much power, and a guy who’s been orbiting around the edge of the Yankees’ top 20 prospects for several years. Still just 23, Flores has shown advanced plate judgment for a while, and that’s obviously something the M’s have lacked. In his age-20 season, he put up a .370 OBP and 126 wRC+ in the pitching-friendly Florida State League, and putting him safely inside the Yankees top 20. Since then, though, the hoped-for power simply hasn’t materialized, and he’s seen as a tweener or 4th OF by many. He got 12 games this season with the Yankees, and while he maintained very good contact skills, he never walked as pitchers were content to throw him strikes and watch him make weak contact. The plate discipline is great, and the contact+walks template is pleasingly distinct from the “right handed power” fixation the M’s had developed. But a corner OF without pop or a whole lot of usable speed is tough to make work. Clearly, the Yanks were able to do it with Brett Gardner, a player whose own MiLB stats were worse than Flores’, but the M’s haven’t fared a whole lot better with players like this than they have with bat-first sluggers.
All in all, it’s not exactly a prospect haul, but what could the M’s expect? Ackley, for all his promise, had played his way out of a job, and commonly sat on the bench while Seth Smith started in LF. Always a streaky player, another of his confounding bad streaks sucked up a few critical months, and tanked his already-low value. As with Flores, Ackley had become a corner OF without power – a skillset that works only with the kind of elite plate discipline and ability to barrel up a variety of pitches that Ackley was *supposed* to have. He showed it briefly in the minors, and then showed it in his first call-up in 2011, but it was gone for good by 2012. Coming through the minors, Ackley displayed a very keen eye for the strike zone, racking up walks even while his slugging percentage (and average) were frustratingly low. After bottoming out in 2013, Ackley appears to have traded a bit of patience for increased power. His ISO is up substantially since that nadir, and a .150 or so ISO would be fantastic if Ackley could consistently hit .300. Coming out of UNC, Ackley’s pure bat-to-ball ability made a .300 average sound like his big league floor. Oops.
We’ll never know if the multiple position changes had anything to do with his stagnation. In college, he’d played CF, but after TJ surgery spent his junior year at 1B. After drafting him, the M’s had him play the Arizona Fall League as a CF, but almost immediately changed their minds and moved him to 2B by the time he hit the affiliated minors. After playing the position in the majors reasonably effectively, the M’s again moved him back to CF during a stint in AAA Tacoma, and then called him up to play center in 2013. Later that year, they decided he might benefit from a move back down the defensive spectrum, and thus they settled on LF. There’s certainly no clear link between his position and his batting line. You can argue he’s been walking less and hitting the ball harder (albeit less often) since moving to LF, but the move off of the IF (or CF) hasn’t made him a better hitter overall.
The flashes we’ve seen of the “old” (hoped-for?) Ackley fade by the time anyone’s analyzed what he was doing. There was the bizarre batting stance of 2013, an experiment he ended after a disastrous start. He focused more on his mental approach in 2014, but the swing was always in flux. That’s not a criticism – pitchers are seen as intelligent and crafty if they’re always tinkering, and hitters are constantly told to make adjustments. Well, he’s done plenty of that. He’ll now have the freedom to make a critical adjustment he was never able to make here: the ability to work without sky-high expectations. Without being labeled a bust, or compared to others from his draft class (OMG MIKE TROUT WENT 25th), and without being saddled with the burden of saving a franchise that had been mired in mediocrity for years. Enjoy being a complementary player instead some kind of emblem or avatar of a team that couldn’t develop elite talent. Maybe the 15th swing-tweak will be The One. Best of luck to you, Dustin.