Dustin Ackley is a man of many hats. Not only in referring to his gnome lookalike.
His versatility has drawn comparisons to that of Tampa Bay's Ben Zobrist and further allowed his club to acquire the most productive positional player in this year's free-agent market in Robinson Cano, taking his own talents to the outfield in 2014. So, what hat will Ackley wear next?
Lead-off hitter has a nice ring to it.
Baseball is rhythm. On the pitchers mound, in the batters box, on-deck and in the dug-out, rhythm produces that leg-kicking, cleat-tapping, unique trait that stays with a ball game throughout. It can lead a team to victory, or vanish in collapse.
No player has a more sound opportunity in disrupting the rhythm of opposing clubs than a lead-off hitter. With legs, plus contact and the greatest number of plate appearances in any given outing, he can disrupt in a number of ways, to include pitch count.
Ackley, the second youngest player cited above, sits 11th across the American League in P/PA (Pitches/Plate Appearance) dating back to his rookie campaign, joined in the top-15 by lead-off threats Desmond Jennings, Austin Jackson and Mike Trout.
While Brad Miller is the rollover selection to retain Seattle's pole position, such designation may see more competition than in recent, similar seasons due to the multitude of player and managerial changes that have taken place dating to seasons end. While newly minted skipper Lloyd McClendon and regime have not commented on such, Ackley's second-half surge may have come at the most opportune time to sneak his name into the running.
I would be remiss in continuing this piece without mentioning the up and down -- sometimes head-slapping -- bat of Dustin Ackley. In remaining grounded, the recently converted center fielder quietly posted his most successful half-season over the waning months of 2013.
The key to his success? Pitch recognition.
**Each graphic represents 45 games played (2013) -- the initial on the left, concluding on the right.
Over the latter graphic, Ackley halved the number of pitches offered at on/off the outside of the strike zone, improving 8.8% in total, from 19.2% to 10.4%. Rather than back himself into a corner, Ackley pressured pitchers to stay over the plate, increasing first-pitch fastballs seen by 15% (33% to 48%) from left-handed arms and 9% (40% to 49%) from right-handed pitchers. This new found discipline rewarded Ackley an increase of .110 points in BABIP (.250 to .360) from graphic-to-graphic, raising his LD/BIP (Line Drives/Balls In Play) by 8.2% over the same period.
While his bat cooled towards the conclusion of September, Ackley carried away the distinction of joining nine other American League hitters (min. 200 PAs) in hitting better than .300 over the second half of 2013.
In a post-season revelation with Greg Johns of MLB.com, Ackley let us in on his late-season surge, saying, "If your mental side is there, odds are the physical is going to be there," later continuing, "If you have any thoughts other than going up there and crushing the ball or seeing the ball or whatever, then you're in trouble."
Alike to other Spring Training 'battles', the former second baseman likely would not receive a formal endorsement until mid-to-late March. However, one thing is certain. Ackley will be prepared for whatever challenge awaits him. In speaking further with Greg Johns regarding this off-season, Ackley identified areas of his game in which he views room for improvement, stating, "I would like to get a lot stronger going into next year, just physically as far as running and having more power in the box," Ackley said. "Just little things. It'll be a good off-season to get after it."