Since most of the hope for our team to not suck, lies in the hands of a 23 year old, Dustin Ackley, I wanted to take a closer look at Ackley’s performance thus far, and perhaps his future performance by examining his swing, defense, and what his holes may be at the major league level.
Over the past few months, Dustin Ackley has been given the label "overrated" by many. Just less than two years ago, he was widely considered as the best bat available in the 2009 draft, with a sweet swing from the left side, amazing hand-eye coordination, superb plate approach for his age, but questions about his future defensive position. Most assumed that the Mariners would put him in Center Field, but the presence of Franklin Gutierrez, and the North Carolina coaches’ suggestions, landed Ackley at second base, the only position he has never played in his career. Ackley started receiving comparisons to one of the greatest second baseman of the last decade, Chase Utley, and most thought he was on the path to stardom. Baseball America rated him as the 11th best prospect in the game, without a professional season under his belt, in the 2010 top 100 prospect list.
One month into the season at AA, and Dustin Ackley was hitting .147/.289/.227. He was getting really bad luck on balls in play, and it was only a matter of time before balls started finding their way into the grass. While Ackley’s hitting was concerning some, one month was certainly too small of a sample size to have legitimate worries, especially when he still was walking as much as advertised (14.4%). In the two months that followed, Ackley hit .301, while maintaining a strong walk rate, hitting balls harder, and getting better luck on balls in play.
After the season, Baseball America said this about Dustin Ackley, while ranking him #12 in their top 100 prospect list:
"He’s extremely patient at the plate, recognizes pitches well and isn’t afraid to wait for the pitch he wants or to hit with two strikes. He can sometimes pull off pitches, but he gets his bat on plane with the ball extremely quickly and his barrel stays in the hitting zone for a long time. His picturesque swing and uncanny hand-eye coordination produce excellent plate coverage. Ackley is mostly a gap hitter now, but he can drive the ball to all fields and occasionally shows nice loft."
"Ackley’s numbers haven’t been quite as good as expected from a former top draft pick, but the organization has pushed him aggressively through the minors. The ’09 draft pick spent the 2010 season in double-A and triple-A with modest results. After a slow start to the year Ackley rebounded to hit .260/.386/.381 at double-A before moving up to triple-A and hitting .274/.338/.439 in 212 at-bats. He currently has gap power, but he could develop 15-homer pop in the Majors. He also has the speed to steal 15-20 bases. He hits with a slightly-open stance and does a nice job of keeping his bat level through the strike zone. He hits well to all fields. Ackley has yet to find a definitive defensive home, although he’s expected to end up at second base. As a hard worker, he should become an average defensive player."
In the offseason, Ackley was sent to the Arizona Fall League to work more on his defense, because he needed all the help he could get. AFL stats mean next-to-nothing, but nonetheless, his performance was encouraging. Ackley drew 26 walks vs. just 11 strikeouts in 66 at bats. He also showed some pop, hitting 4 dingers, in the hitter-friendly Arizona air.
After a good spring with the Mariners, he was sent to AAA Tacoma, for service time reasons and also to work more on his defense.
Basics of loading:
-Closing the front shoulder and hip pocket
-Moving your body-weight on the back foot, by bending your back knee, or sinking it down.
Most hitters have a much more exaggerated load than Ackley does. For example, Bret Boone used an extravagant bat pump and back knee bend. Ichiro’s shoulder rotation is his load, as the ball comes in. Jay Buhner front foot lunged forward a good 2 and half feet as the ball came in. However, Ackley’s load works perfectly for his type of swing.
You want a comfortable weight-balance at the top of your body, as you should be able to load, wait for the pitch, and still be stable enough to hit it.
Ackley's load is as ideal as you will ever see. Not only is he balanced and comfortable at the top, but also notice the angle of his bat cock as he begins his rotation, which will create excellent torque for hitting a baseball hard.
All in all, Ackley's load is enough to give you a hard-on. It's compact, powerful, balanced, and graceful all at the same time.
The step begins the swing, and timing is key for the hitters’ weight-release. During the step, the hitter begins to adjust his swing based on pitch movement, speed, and location.
Basics of stepping:
-Plant the front foot lightly, maintaining your weight on the back leg
-Don’t be late with your step, as you can adjust if you’re early, but not if you’re late
Dustin Ackley keeps his weight back, and does not jerk his head at all during the motion of his swing.
Basics of pivoting:
-Square your belt buckle up with direction of the pitcher, and where you want to hit the ball.
As you watch his pivot, notice how calm his hands are, how smoothly his hips rotate, and how fast his wrists whip the bat around. Those are all good signs.
WHAT ALL THIS TELLS US
The extreme cock of his bat is released effortlessly and with tremendous leverage.
In this specific swing, notice how Ackley's right forearm is way out in front, creating the potential for some power down the road.
Also notice how long the barrel of the bat stays in the strike zone. That’s a good 3-4 feet. This shows us that he probably won’t whiff on many pitches, and combined with his magnificent knowledge of the strike zone, he will have one of the best plate-coverage in the game.
Ackley's swing plane is almost exactly parallel to the ground, like he is trying to break glass plates that are on a table. This is why Ackley is projected to be a "line drive hitter" instead of a "Home Run hitter", because you will see power hitters have more of an upward arc in their swing, causing the ball to fly in the air.
This is the only flaw of Ackley’s swing. It's capable of hitting .300 with gap shots, but not enough to hit 30, maybe even 20 dingers. Safeco’s short left field fence will certainly help Ackley to hit a few into the stands, but he will never be the type of hitter that will hit moon shots that bounce off the top of "Hit It Here Café."
We all assume that Ackley will hit well in the big leagues, but the main teller of his success will be his defense. While he could probably be a solid Major League center fielder, the Mariners have Franklin Gutierrez holding down that position for the next three years (If they can figure out what the hell is wrong with his goddamn tummy.) While moving Ackley to a corner outfield would pretty much destroy all of his value, so it is vital for Ackley to learn second base.
Reports thus far of Ackley’s defense have been very undesirable. Then again, which I don’t think enough people take in account is that this is his first year of playing second base ever, and of course he is going to have his ups-and-downs. From what I have read, Ackley has enough speed and reaction to have above average range at second, but errors and mental mistakes might be a problem.
Dustin Ackley is known for his strong work-ethic, and with enough reps at second, I think he will stay at second and be at least an acceptable defender over there. I doubt it will be pretty at first, though.
Although the skeptics of Dustin Ackley have certainly been rising, I don’t think he will disappoint. His ability to foul off tough pitches, and the amount of time his bat is lined up with the baseball, screams high average for me. Along with his phenomenal discipline, and ability to lay off pitches he knows he can’t hit, should put his OBP near the .400’s, which this team certainly needs. I doubt Ackley will ever hit 25-30 homeruns like some said he would out of college, but I see him coming close to 15 annually. Safeco is built for a hitter like him, and I expect Ackley to take full advantage of that. May not be Chase Utley, but Dustin Ackley looks a player that has the potential to turn a shitty team into a good team. I can’t wait to see him up here.