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Dustin Ackley And The Relentless Tug Of Hope

Steven Bisig-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

I was on a podcast with Carson Cistulli for FanGraphs the other day, which isn't something I ever thought I'd do multiple of after we had such poor chemistry the first time. Now I love him! Anyway, at one point I started trying to explain something I've brought up in the past with regard to Erik Bedard. What's most important for sports fans isn't success. It's the promise of success, the possibility of success sometime in the near future. There doesn't have to be good, but just the hope for good, and as long as there's reason for hope, most people will be content. There was always reason for hope with Erik Bedard, always the possibility he'd get healthy and pitch like an ace, so Erik Bedard was always exciting until he finally went away.

It works for players and it works for teams, and it probably works for things in life that have nothing at all to do with baseball. Like maybe your current troubled personal relationship! I bring this up because oh hey there Dustin Ackley's bone-spur surgery.

You've already heard about this, but:

Ackley had a bone spur removed from his left ankle, which is his plant leg at the plate as a left-handed hitter.

Brendan Ryan also had a bone spur removed but whatever, this is about Dustin Ackley, and Ackley's the guy you think about more often. You might not realize it, but whenever you first heard about Ackley's bone spur procedure, it probably made you feel a little better about Dustin Ackley.

See, Ackley just had a miserable season. It was a successful season, in that Ackley played almost every single day and didn't visibly wear down, but people used to compare Dustin Ackley to Chase Utley and instead Ackley just went a full season posting the same OBP as Travon Robinson. He posted nearly the same batting average and slugging percentage as Trayvon Robinson. And nobody came away from the season all like "holy shit, that Trayvon Robinson is really something." Ackley had a lower OBP than Jesus Montero. If nothing else, Ackley was supposed to draw walks. Instead, what we have to be happiest about is Ackley's pretty good defense. Who knew that in his first full major-league season, Dustin Ackley would be a glove-first second baseman?

It was frustrating from start to finish, because Ackley was supposed to be as close to a guarantee as you can get. Nobody ever had any questions about whether Ackley could hit; it was only a matter of how much. In 2012, Ackley didn't hit, at home or on the road. His first-half OPS was better than his second-half OPS and his first-half OPS was bad. We've been searching for reasons to believe that Ackley will get his shit together and we haven't been given very many of them.

Now we've been given one. Barely, but it's enough, because now it's the offseason and we can cling to weirdass desperate shit in the offseason. Dustin Ackley played 2012 through a bone spur, and it caused him discomfort. Now the bone spur's been removed. What if that's why Ackley struggled so much? What if now he'll be ready to really hit like himself and turn into a star?

It's easy to imagine how, say, a wrist injury could drain someone's offense. It's more difficult with ankle pain, but then everything is interconnected in the swing mechanics and pain somewhere could have effects somewhere else. If you try hard enough, if you mold this long enough in your hands, you can make this make sense. Dustin Ackley played hurt and now he's not hurt anymore. Of course! Now he'll be good.

It's nuts is what it is. Turns out Ackley's been playing through that bone spur since college, and it didn't stop him from tearing it up in college and in the minors. It probably hasn't gotten a whole lot worse, so it doesn't seem like this should be the explanation. Remember how Chone Figgins missed the last while last year with a hip injury? Remember how he had offseason surgery so he could restore his range of motion? Figgins was supposed to be better and instead he remained terrible. Remember how certain we all were that Justin Smoak's slump was caused by injured thumbs? That one made a lot of sense, and still come 2012 Smoak was shit for months until September finally rolled around.

It doesn't matter that it's desperate and crazy, though. Dustin Ackley struggled to hit through 2012, and we've been given new information about what he was going through. Instantly you hear that and think "maybe that's why he underperformed relative to my expectations." Maybe you don't think those specific words but you think that idea. Not fully, not with your entire brain, but with just enough of your brain. Romantics would say you think it with your heart.

Dustin Ackley was not a good hitter this season, and odds are it wasn't because his ankle kind of hurt some of the time. His ankle has kind of hurt some of the time for years, years in which Ackley has hit well. It doesn't seem like a sufficient explanation. But you can't help but think, "maybe," because Ackley was supposed to be one thing and instead he's been another, and we don't want to deal with that. We don't think that's how things ought to be and we want to know when things will be what we expected.

It's desperate and stupid and human. Before we knew about Ackley's surgery, we figured he had an X% chance of turning into a legitimately good player, just from gaining experience and developing like young players do. Now most of us figure he has an X+Y% chance of turning into a legitimately good player, because we're irrational and we try to be rational about it. I guess we can either try to address what we are or embrace what we are. I'll embrace my irrational rationality, and if Ackley sucks again in 2013, I'll just search for another hidden reason why that might not be the real Dustin Ackley, either.