They encountered one another on a major-league field for the first time this past weekend — the first two picks of the 2009 draft, the Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg and the Mariners’ Dustin Ackley. The two names are forever linked in Mariner lore, as it was their ill-timed winning streak at the end of the 2008 season that landed both players in their eventual homes. Strasburg made the Mariners look silly on Saturday night, but Ackley got in a solid counterpunch, drilling a late homer that cost the Nationals’ righty his shutout, ending his night a bit earlier than expected. Truth be told, the Mariners’ return on their first-round selection has looked better of late, as Ackley’s second-half surge has helped keep his club firmly entrenched in the wild-card race. Which is the real Dustin Ackley? The one that struggled for the better part of the last three seasons, or the guy who has shown up for the last month and a half?
Ackley was considered a pretty obvious second selection back in 2009. I was with the Mariners then, and was heavily involved in the draft process. While revisionists might wonder why Mike Trout wasn’t taken at the very top of the draft, he was pretty raw and untested, though obviously incredibly talented, and while we and I’m sure many other clubs saw him as a viable first-rounder, no one was considering stepping up to take him in the top five overall picks. Who went right behind Ackley? How about the triumvirate of Donavan Tate, Tony Sanchez and Matt Hobgood. Our backup plan to Ackley was likely Reds’ right-hander Mike Leake, who has enjoyed a fine career to date. This was an easy one from the Mariner perspective — if the Nats took Strasburg, we would take Ackley.
Now bear in mind that Ackley had most recently played first base and outfield at North Carolina and on Cape Cod when he was drafted, and that he had recently had Tommy John surgery. He was, pure and simple, a hitter. And hit he did, in the minor leagues. After a bit of an adjustment period at the Double-A level, when he learned the hard way that one cannot get buried in the count waiting for the ideal pitch to hit, he torched the AAA Pacific Coast League, batting .303/.421/.487 in 2011, earning a promotion to the major leagues — as a second baseman. He was such a good hitting prospect that this fairly significant position switch, going the opposite direction on the defensive spectrum, really didn’t faze him.
He continued to make it look easy after being summoned to the majors in June of that season, and woke up on the morning of September 7 batting .304/.378/.477, with just 53 K’s in 289 plate appearances. Then the wheels fell off, as he stumbled down the stretch, batting .182/.264/.247 with 26 K’s in 87 plate appearances the rest of the way. Did the league adjust to him? Sure, that was part of the reason. A cursory review of the film of his at-bats from September 2011 compared to the immediately preceding months told the tale. He had lost his swing — he was dramatically opening his front side and pulling his head off of the ball, rendering him unable to handle the outer third to half of the plate. So — of course — he was pounded out there by opposing hurlers. Now it was up to the young second baseman to make the adjustment. For a very long time, he was unable to do so.
As a collegian, a minor leaguer and early in his rookie season, Ackley would often hit the ball hard to the opposite field. That ability now eluded him. If he was able to make contact on a pitch in his trouble zone, he would either spin it off the end of the bat for a popup or soft fly to the opposite field, or weakly roll over a ground ball to the pull side. His trademark plate discipline waned as he began to press at the plate, and in 2013 he was moved to left field to make room for Nick Franklin. In a relatively short period of time, he had gone from an above-average offensive second baseman who held his own defensively, to an awful offensive left fielder attempting to re-acclimate himself to the outfield. This is basically where things stood, until roughly the All-Star break of this season.
To get a better sense of where Ackley has come from, and where he is now presently as a hitter, let’s examine his 2013-14 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data. First, the frequency data:
|FREQ – 2013|
|FREQ – 2014|
Truth be told, there aren’t a lot of positive developments in the frequency profile. Once a very strong positive, Ackley’s BB rate projects to be below league-average for the first time, and by a fairly considerable margin, with a percentile rank of 25 to date. He remains a solid contact hitter, with a K rate percentile rank of 35 thus far in 2014. Discouragingly, he has struggled to square up the baseball in both 2013 and 2014, with line-drive-rate percentile ranks of 27 and 24, respectively. The lone strong positive in the frequency profile is his increased ability to elevate the baseball, with his fly ball rate percentile rank increasing from 11 in 2013 to 48 in 2014. We’re getting mixed messages from the frequency profile, so analysis of his production by batted-ball type data will be needed to provide further insight.
|PROD – 2013|
|Ackley||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
|PROD – 2014|
|Ackley||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
Ackley’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.
The obvious biggest difference between his 2013 and 2014 profiles is the large increase in his production on fly balls. In 2013, Ackley batted a paltry .209 AVG/.478 SLG on fly balls, for only a 46 REL PRD, adjusted slightly upward for context to a 52 ADJ PRD. In 2014, his fly-ball production has been much more respectable at .253 AVG/.695 SLG, for a 87 REL PRD figure, also adjusted slightly upward for context to 92. He actually hit the ball harder on the ground in 2013, with an ADJ PRD figure of 129, which has dropped to 95 thus far in 2014. All things considered, just about any hitter would trade some grounder authority for a substantial jump in fly-ball authority any day of the week.
For all batted balls, Ackley’s 2013 ADJ PRD figure of 84 was quite poor, especially for a corner outfielder. His 98 ADJ PRD on all BIP thus far in 2014 still isn’t great, but it represents a substantial improvement. Once the K’s and BB’s are added back, Ackley’s overall performance gets an upward bounce, thanks to his low K rate — his 2013 overall ADJ PRD goes from 84 to 92, and his 2014 mark goes from 98 to 104.
Just comparing 2013 to 2014 only gets us so far, however. The big change in Ackley happened at some point during the current season. In fact, the dividing line appears to be the All-Star break. Let’s undertake the same exercise as above, but this time compare the first half of 2014 to the second.
|FREQ – 2014|
|Ackley – 1st||%||REL||PCT|
|Ackley – 2nd||%||REL||PCT|
Both Ackley’s K and BB rates are sharply down in the second half, with both of their percentile ranks at 15 in the second half. Anytime your liner-rate-percentile rank spikes from 6 in the first half to 77 in the second half, one has to expect a surge in production. One has to take such a leap with a grain of salt, however, as liner rates fluctuate more than that of any other batted-ball type, and are ripe for regression. That said, the “old” Dustin Ackley had a liner percentile rank of 82 in 2011, so there is a precedent for this level of performance. Once again, the really important stuff can be found in the production by batted-ball type data:
|PROD – 2014|
|Ackley – 1st||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
|Ackley – 2nd||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
The explosion in fly-ball production is again the most noticeable development. The good news for Mariner fans is that he hit .207 AVG/.517 SLG on fly balls in the first half — 52 REL PRD, exactly his 2013 level — and .324 AVG/.973 SLG thus far in the second half, for a 160 REL PRD figure. The bad news is that there’s a whole lot of context in that second-half number — the sample size is small, and Ackley has hit a handful of cheap homers within that sample. Still, a jump from a 78 ADJ PRD on fly balls in the first half to 115 in the second half shouldn’t be sneezed at.
Ackley has also hit his line drives hard throughout 2014 — a 122 ADJ PRD in the first half, and 116 in the second. How hard is a 119 liner ADJ PRD? Well, Paul Goldschmidt’s 2013 mark was 118. This is well above Ackley’s 2013 mark of 107 — this is a very good sign, and a very real development that suggests his recent power spike is potentially sustainable.
Overall, Ackley’s ADJ PRD on all BIP is up from 92 in the first half to 108 in the second half. This isn’t nearly as stark as the jump in his unadjusted-for-context REL PRD — from 73 to 139 — but is significant nonetheless. Ackley was quite unlucky in the first half, particularly on grounders, as evidenced by his .194 AVG/.194 SLG over that span. He’s also been quite lucky in the second half, due to those previously mentioned relatively cheap homers, as well as the regression on his grounder performance — he’s batting .345 AVG/.362 SLG on the ground in the second half.
What is he doing differently in the second half? First, let’s look at his pulled fly balls. If you split the field into five regions — LF, LCF, CF, RCF and RF — Ackley has hit all of 11 fly balls to RF this season. This isn’t necessarily a problem. Pulling too many fly balls often leads to an unacceptably high pulled grounder rate, and the deadly overshifting it brings. Two of those 11 pulled fly balls occurred before the All-Star break, and the other nine in the much shorter period afterward. What has Ackley done on those 11 fly balls? Well, he’s 9 for 11 with 7 homers and 2 doubles — how does .818 AVG/2.909 SLG grab you?
If you split the population of fly balls between “high” fly balls and “low” fly balls — at the midpoint between the popup and line-drive boundaries — there is a stark difference in production. In 2013, MLB hitters batted .093 AVG/.223 SLG on high fly balls (about 35% of the total) and .385 AVG/1.019 SLG on low fly balls (the other 65%). All 11 of Ackley’s pulled fly balls this season are low fly balls. Now while that is partially due to random chance, it is clearly also partially due to talent. Ackley is learning to selectively pull for power, and that is something that he was unable to do with his “broken” swing, complete with the pulled head and the wide open front side.
Ackley has also dramatically cut the number of weakly hit roll-over grounders in the second half. He hit 22 grounders to the RCF and RF sectors at 55 MPH or less in the first half, but only six thus far in the second half. Many of the weak first-half grounders were on changeups from right-handed pitchers. Ackley is keeping his front side more closed and keeping his hands back on offspeed pitches more often in the second half, contributing to his positive results.
Is Dustin Ackley going to be the star he was once projected to be? I wouldn’t go that far. His lofty BB rate was a big part of his game and his future projection back then, and that continues to slip away from him. Even with some regression from his 2014 second-half liner rate, the “new” Ackley looks like a .275-.280 hitter with a .310-.315 OBP and a .425ish SLG, with a bit of upside above that. Combined with adequate to solid left-field defense, that makes him an asset, a solid complementary player on a winning ballclub. Compared to what he seemed to be a couple months back, Mariner fans will certainly take it.