==Not What We Hoped, but Better Than We Feared?==
First we thought he might be George Brett, a No. 3 hitter with power (.182 ISO), tough to strike out (7.8% K-rate), and drawing walks (9.4% BB-rate) while stinging the ball around the yard.
Then we thought of another Dustin (Pedroia, that is), a No. 2 hitter with less power (.151 ISO), tough to strike out (8.9% K-rate), and drawing walks (9.3% BB-rate) while stinging the ball around the yard.
Then we thought maybe Rod Carew, a leadoff hitter with even less power (.101 ISO), tough to strike out (9.7% K-rate), and drawing walks (9.7% BB-rate) while dinging a bit more than stinging the ball.
Were we nuts? And are we done furiously backpedaling yet?
Not only has Dustin Ackley not lived up to those benchmarks, he’s actually looked a lot more like his new competition for Mariner scrub time: Willie Bloomquist. [As in: Ackley career OPS .669; Bloomquist career OPS .666. [Yes, that’s Willie’s career OPS. Insert conspiracy theory of your choice.]
But wait! Ackley got demoted in mid-2013, and, upon return, put up some pretty nice numbers, didn’t he? How about second-half figures of .304/.374/.405? Doesn’t that indicate “all systems go”? The “real” Ackley is ready to finally emerge?
Sure. The Mariners believed in Ackley’s rebirth so strongly that they awarded a massive contract to another guy to play his position.
So where are we with Dustin Ackley … really?
Let’s start by going back to what made us love Ackley in the first place.
Of course, he had the the glossy college resume and the high draft status. Those aren’t guarantees, but they aren’t meaningless (high draft picks work out a lot more often than lower picks).
Then he reported to work, and he looked an awful lot like just what we’d envisioned:
The doubles, the walks, the OBP, the low K%, .908 OPS … it was all there in living color. Everyday MLB stardom, here we come!
But reality bites. Here’s what we got:
A little tease of interesting, and then a laborious 2012 and an even worse start to 2013. Then a renewed taste of the Pacific Coast League before that apparently promising second half of 2013.
Let’s zero in on each stage of the Ack Attack and see what we get:
Phase I: Minors & 2011
Maybe the worst thing that happened to Ackley — both for his mental approach and our ability to evaluate him — was his 2011 first half in Tacoma: that tantalizing .908 OPS while simultaneously converting to a “glove” position in the field.
That’s when George Brett crept into the conversation. Well, we have a lot more data now. George, take a seat — you are officially out of the conversation.
It’s clear now that Ackley’s Tacoma romp (9 HR in 66 games) was pretty much a run of good fortune, and the .184 ISO that came with it was not something likely to repeat itself anytime soon. Minor-league HR-per-fly-ball figures aren’t too reliable, but it appears that Ackley ran a very high rate during that streak (probably over 10%), and he hasn’t approached that kind of success before or since (more like 5% seems like Ackley’s “natural” rate of HR/FB).
But even setting aside the unusual power, there was a lot to like: a bunch of walks, a low K%, a good approach. That other Dustin, the perennial all-star playing second and hitting second, still seemed like a solid prototype.
Phase II: 2012 & pre-demotion 2013
It seems that maybe we analysts weren’t the only ones getting carried away with Ackley as a potential power source. It seems that Ackley himself did, too.
In 2012, the Mariners were in desperate need of ISO (team ISO .135, 20 points below league average), and Ackley seemed determined to provide some. His strikeout rate crept up and walk rate dropped, but he didn’t deliver the extra-base hits he was trying to get. He also had a negative variation in BABIP (.265, when his “natural” rate seems to be over .300), so he ended up being a non-contributor (77 OPS+) despite continuing to flash some above-average abilities at drawing walks and avoiding strikeouts.
But even that went away at the start of 2013. Ackley stopped hitting the ball hard at all (.045 ISO) while simultaneously losing his above-average walk rate. And his BABIP slipped even further (.250). He had to be sent down because he had become a major negative at the plate.
Phase III: post-demotion 2013
Tacoma was the right tonic, plus Ackley got an immediate reversal in BABIP (.409 Tacoma), which also carried over back to the big club (.335 MLB post-demotion). As noted, that above-.300 BABIP does not look out of the ordinary for Ackley (many good hitters can consistently run over .300).
But the main positive sign was Ackley rediscovering his ability to draw walks, which is crucial to his game. Let’s zero in on that progression:
2013 pre-demotion: 7.0%
2013 post-demotion: 9.8%
Ackley is going to need that 9+% walk rate to be a productive player, and there’s good reason to think he can sustain it.
The other happy result was an XBH% back up over 7% (7.4%), after dropping to 5.4% in 2012 and an abysmal 2.9% pre-demotion. The 10-year MLB average is 7.8%, so Ackley needs at least that much extra-base production.
Where do we go from here?
If you want to drill down into all the stats on the Ackley annotated stat analysis page, you can do so here.
1) Although he hasn’t shown it (much) in the majors, it is reasonable (from his minor-league track record) to expect Ackley to run an above-average BABIP in the manner of other left-handed hitters of his stripe (e.g., Jacoby Ellsbury .326; Brett Gardner .325). That should give him a shot at a BA quite a bit higher than his career-to-date .245. The post-demotion .305 (based on .335 BABIP) might be high, but it doesn’t look to be absurdly high.
2) Yes, we throw out the .184 ISO from Tacoma in 2011, but those .140-ish ISOs (2010 minors; 2011 majors; 2013 Tacoma stopover) are still there in the record book. Ellsbury has a career .141 ISO with a 7.8% XBH-rate and 6.0% HR/FB-rate (it was 12% in his fluke-y 2011). Gardner had a .143 ISO in 2013 with an 8.4% XBH-rate and 4.0% HR/FB-rate (8 HR).
Those kind of rates are not out of the question for Ackley, assuming he’s out of his death-spiral.
3) The best thing about Ackley is that even when he’s been awful, his walk rate stayed decent, and his minor-league record shows that it may still have more upside if he ever gets things really figured out. Gardner ran a 13.6% BB-rate in the minors, and has a 10.3% career mark in the majors. Ackley’s minors career rate was 14.3%, and his MLB mark is 9.3%.
.265/.340/.375? maybe … .270/.350/.400?
That’s not unreasonable at all, if Ackley has it figured out, keeps the walk rate up, and gets decent BABIP results. That’s above-average for OBP and at or below-average for SLG, but overall about league-average or a bit above at the plate. Ackley ought to be able to do that, which is pretty much Gardner with fewer steals, or bit below Ellsbury if you exclude his fluke year.
Good for a center fielder or second baseman. Not so good for a corner outfielder, except as a placeholder.