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More on Dustin Ackley and the strikezone

Jeff touched on this a while ago, but I thought I might share this bit. I was looking for more evidence of Ackley's passive approach at the plate and how it may relate to his struggles offensively.

If you're like me and have been watching Ackley's approach at the plate, both this season and last, you'll often see Ackley get into 2-strike counts and strikeout looking on low or low-away pitches. Ackley will kinda awkwardly stand there, like he thinks he's been punched out on a ball, even though the ROOT Tracer and Gameday both have the pitch as an obvious strike. Until recently, however, it was merely anecdotal evidence, and I admit my memory is not flawless. Maybe I've been remembering incorrectly, and it's all in my head.

One of the more recent tools I've seen both LL and USSM use is baseballheatmaps.com. Having never heard about it until a while ago, I decided to browse around and satiate my curiosity. I like having new toys to play with, and cool baseball graphics are no exception. I then found the "Batter Swinging or Looking Strike Zone" tool, and I immediately jumped to Dustin Ackley.

Below are Dustin Ackley's swing maps against left-handed pitchers (top map) and right-handed pitchers (bottom map) from 2011-2012. The strikezone is from the catcher's perspective, so Dustin Ackley would theoretically be standing to the right of the boxes. The actual strikezone isn't necessarily a 100% accurate representation, but it's the colors you should be interested in. Focus on the pretty colors.

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vs. Left-Handed pitchers

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vs. Right-Handed pitchers

Note that the colors represent Ackley's swing frequency relative to league average left-handed hitters. The areas in blue and purple represent a below-average swing rate, while the areas in green represent an average swing rate and the areas in yellow represent an above-average swing rate. Look at his heat map against lefties. Nearly the entire outer half of the strikezone is covered in blue. It's similar for right-handed pitchers, where Ackley appears to ignore pitches on the outer third of the zone, low and away.

Okay, so let's compare him with another lefty hitting teammate to see if his approach really is that different. Here's Kyle Seager's approach from 2011-2012, again, relative to league average:

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vs. Left-Handed pitchers

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vs. Right-Handed pitchers

The difference is pretty staggering. Kyle Seager has complete strikezone coverage, and against lefties Seager even appears to be aggressive in the zone. And that matches with what we've seen. Seager is a pretty aggressive swinger, but only somewhat above-average, and he's done a great job of making a lot of hard contact this season. Seager isn't shy about covering the outer half of the zone.

I'm not sure what the issue is with Ackley. It could be that his swing is geared more towards punishing inside pitches. When I see Dustin Ackley swing, it seems like a short, level swing that he doesn't get much extension on. When I see Kyle Seager swing, he covers the zone in the way I see Josh Hamilton cover the zone with his swings. Or maybe Ackley just doesn't like swinging at outside pitches. I find it hard to believe he could be an effective hitter through college and the minors by completely ignoring that area, but maybe those opposing pitchers didn't have this information on Ackley.

I'm not saying Ackley is a bust, or anything like that. I still believe in Ackley's talent and that eventually he'll figure this problem out. But now that he's at the major league level, teams are going to look to take advantage. I saw Kuroda throw nearly every pitch away from Dustin in tonight's game, so pitchers have probably figured him out. The good news is that he managed to hit an opposite field HR tonight, on an outside pitch (albeit in Yankee Stadium). Maybe he needs to get a longer bat or train himself to hit to the opposite field. Until then, I can't imagine Ackley having consistent success with an approach that eliminates one half of the strikezone.

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