Dustin Ackley and the opposite field

all that empty space - Otto Greule Jr

With the end of football season comes Spring Training - and the sprouting of the first shoots of hope for the Mariners' struggling young players. Can Dustin Ackley reclaim his long-lost prospect pedigree?

Today is my birthday.

I mention this for a reason: I want you all to send me birthday money. (Kidding. (Not actually kidding.)) Don't worry - your hard-earned cash won't go to anything silly like groceries or a TV or college tuition. No. Your contributions have a much nobler calling. Your contributions are what I want to use to finally buy a Mariners shirsey that doesn't belong to Dustin Ackley.

It's not my fault, you know. I only bought that thing because Dustin Ackley is a second baseman who wears #13, and my birthday is 2/13. I had zero control over the date of my birth. Why should I be made to pay for a newer, better shirsey? Why can't my parents do it? It's not my fault the player most closely associated with my birthday turned out to be a huge disappointment to everyone. Right? ....right?

/crickets

Perhaps I should restructure that last statement a little bit, actually. Not in the way you're probably thinking - Dustin Ackley is definitely not my fault - but perhaps in the way you're hoping: Dustin Ackley isn't a total disappointment. Not yet. He's a project. He's a player without a real position or a real bat. But he's not toast.

One of the best things about spring training is the opportunity it allows fans to dream. On almost every team in almost every season, there's one formerly disappointing player who went home and did some absolutely crazy stuff, and who comes to camp touting a slew of major improvements in his game. Sometimes they stick (Michael Saunders!). Sometimes they don't (every other Mariner ever!). And with a player of Dustin Ackley's pedigree, fans are always going to have hope.

Today, in the spirit of birthdays and giving **ahem**, I'd like to talk about hope. Specifically, hope as regards Dustin Ackley. Double-specifically: hope as regards to Dustin Ackley's batted ball profile.

First, if you haven't read Tony Blengino's fascinating take on the idea that there's a "optimal" batted ball type, go do that. Because unlike 90% of the articles about fixing Dustin Ackley, this one's not about his plate discipline. It's about his power to the opposite field.

Remember the scouting reports from Ackley's early days as a prospect?

His vision and bat control allow him to barrel difficult pitches and his quick hands allow him to hit to the opposite field with precision. He strokes line drives to all fields and keeps the defense honest.

Baseball News Hound

Ackley might be the best pure hitter in the college ranks, if not the entire Draft class. He's got great bat control and plus bat speed that allows him to make consistent contact to all fields.

MLB.com

No one was certain that Ackley was going to become an elite slugger, but people thought he'd line the ball all over the field. People thought he'd hit the other way with authority. In fact, "lefty middle infielders who hit balls hard to all fields" was a bit of a theme in the early days of the Jack Zduriencik front office: Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller...

Only, think about Dustin Ackley for a bit. Can you remember him going the other way with authority? This used to be a core part of his skillset, and nowadays it seems to happen rarely if ever. Actually, let's take a look at some stats.

Using BaseballHeatMaps' batted ball distance tool, it's pretty easy to see how much authority Dustin Ackley had to the opposite field in any given month: set the angle limits to [-50, -15], set a minimum distance of 200 feet, and only look at non-pop-up balls in the air. And doing this produces some pretty interesting numbers.

Months Oppo%
Jun-Jul 2011 7.6%
Aug-Sep 2011 4.7%
Apr-Sep 2012 6.9%
Apr-Jun 2013 6.7%
Jul-Sep 2013 11.6%

Oppo% is a statistic I made up just now. It measures the percentage of a hitter's plate appearances that end in a hard-hit ball in the air to the opposite field. Dustin Ackley's started off fairly high (an excellent 11% in July 2011 was masked by June, in which he hit zero balls hard in the air to left field over only 45 PA), cratered, and didn't recover until... well, until he was promoted back up to the Major Leagues last year.

I'm not saying this is a hard-and-fast answer. Even though I feel most scouts would agree that Dustin Ackley isn't Dustin Ackley unless he's hitting with authority to all fields, resolving offensive difficulties isn't ever as easy as just going the other way more often. And while many have suggested in the past that Ackley's 2012-2013 struggles were caused by an overaggressive desire to pull everything for power that led to his swing flying open, I don't have the scouting background to defend that assertion. All I can do is offer you the numbers.

But I can tell you that I'll be watching Dustin Ackley carefully this spring. Every time he flies out deep to left, I'll cheer. Every time he doubles down the third-base line, I'll perk up. Every time he provides me with just a little bit of hope... well, maybe I'll regret that shirsey purchase just a little bit less.

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