Subtleties

fans of John Lackey are often confused

Hello friends, I am currently in a place not worth naming for a wedding between two people you don't know or care about. I am wildly distracted, I will be otherwise occupied pretty much all weekend, and today I only have time for short little nothings. This is one of those short little nothings, about Dustin Ackley.

We had big dreams for Ackley when he first came up, and to be honest, he was a dream when he first came up. In Tacoma, Ackley had drawn 55 walks and struck out just 38 times. In his first 38 games with the Mariners, he posted a .942 OPS. Remember that the big question mark with Ackley was his defense at second base. People took his bat and his strike-zone discipline for granted. Even non-Mariners fans. Plenty of people wondered how much power Ackley would have, but nobody really questioned his ability to walk or hit for a high average.

Since starting out so well, Ackley's been ... not a catastrophe, but underwhelming. Disappointing, considering how easily he was supposed to make the transition to the bigs. He's answered any and all questions about his second-base defense, but he's raised questions about his bat, questions that weren't there before, or at least that weren't asked very often.

Now for what I've been building toward. (It's always important to announce this.) The dream was that Ackley would more or less end up hitting like Joe Mauer. Right? Maybe he wouldn't hit quite so well, but Mauer has hit for a high average, walked as often as he's struck out, and featured some power while infrequently featuring a lot of it. We thought that Ackley could be something like a second-base Mauer. A second-base, much smaller Mauer.

It's funny what happens when you put Ackley and Mauer's plate-discipline statistics side by side. From FanGraphs:

O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing%
Mauer 22.9% 50.8% 36.4%
Ackley 22.9% 52.0% 37.6%

Mauer's made more contact, but Ackley's still made a lot of contact. Ackley's seen more pitches in the strike zone, but not by a landslide. And when you look at their general understandings of the strike zone, they couldn't be much more similar. If one were given just these numbers and nothing else, he might think that Ackley and Mauer have performed similarly. The rest of the numbers tell a very different story.

The point here isn't that Dustin Ackley isn't Joe Mauer -- that much is obvious. If Ackley were Mauer, we wouldn't be wondering whether he should go back to triple-A to learn a lesson or three. The point is that the problem isn't so much Ackley's understanding of the zone. He does have his vulnerabilities, but so does everyone, and Ackley and Mauer have very similar swing maps. The bigger problem is Ackley's swing itself. What Ackley does after he recognizes a pitch he wants to attack. I don't consider myself qualified to analyze a pitcher's mechanics, so I definitely don't consider myself qualified to analyze a hitter's mechanics, but I suspect there's something wrong with Ackley that either wasn't there before, or that scouts and the like missed. Anecdotally, it feels like he's been flying open, but to tell the truth I barely know what that means. I just wanted to sound like an expert.

Let's forget about Joe Mauer. Ackley's plate-discipline numbers are also very similar to those posted by John Jaso. They're also very similar to those posted by Chone Figgins. There's recognizing pitches and there's punishing pitches, and those are separate processes. When Ackley's going right, he's supposed to spray line drives everywhere and knock the occasional dinger while walking enough to elevate his OBP. Ackley hasn't been going right all season long. This is why there are hitting instructors. I hope they know what to instruct.

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