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On Non-Literal Terror


It'd been a while since I last scrolled through the Baseball-Reference list of the day's birthdays. I don't know what prodded me to do it today for the first time in several todays, but the tour didn't disappoint. Peek-A-Boo Veach, June 15, 1862. Heinie Beckendorf, June 15, 1884. "Heinie" used to be a very popular name or nickname, which today is unimaginable. Mem Lovett, June 15, 1912. Champ Summers, June 15, 1946. I was about to close out of the window when I noticed a name near the top: Jeremy Reed. June 15, 1981.

Today, for the first time in his life, Jeremy Reed can tell the people around him that he's 31. I'm sure his friends and family have already sent him thoughtful messages. I don't know if his teammates will do anything to recognize the occasion, because I don't know if he has teammates. It doesn't appear to me that Jeremy Reed has been playing with a professional baseball team in 2012. He just today turned 31.

Some time ago, I made a passing reference to Reed at the end of a post about Dustin Ackley. I didn't intend to make the reference, but sometimes my writing takes me in directions I didn't expect to go, and ever since then I've been spooked. I remember the disappointment of Jeremy Reed all too well. Reed was acquired by the Mariners in my first season of blogging, along with Mike Morse and Miguel Olivo, and that was supposed to be a fantastic trade on the Mariners' end. I really believe it was a fantastic trade, because Morse was talented and Olivo was talented and Reed was a virtual guarantee. Nobody talks about it like it was a fantastic trade anymore, though. And Reed's a huge part of why.

Reed batted nearly 1,400 times in the Major Leagues. I use the past tense because it doesn't look like Reed's going to be adding to that total. That's the equivalent of two full seasons, and over those two full seasons as an outfielder, he hit .252. He struck out twice for every walk, and he hit 12 home runs. To further the disappointment, he stole 20 bases and was caught stealing 21 times, which barely means anything but which makes the statistical record look that much worse. Reed never blossomed. No part of Reed's game lived up to its promise.

Which you remember, because you're a Mariners fan, and baseball fans remember their busts. But maybe you don't remember quite how good Reed had been in the minors, before all the disappointment. In his first full professional season in 2003, Reed split time between single-A and double-A. He walked 70 times, he struck out 36 times, and he batted .373. He was better against the better competition. Reed turned 22 in June of that year. He vaulted up prospect lists, and while he was worse in triple-A the next season, he still walked more than he struck out, and he hit .289. He was a center fielder.

Reed was left-handed, and when he was an established top prospect, the scouting reports mostly read the same. His defense was questionable, but his bat wasn't questionable at all. He was one of the "fall out of bed and hit .300" guys, with a quick swing, good contact skills, gap power, and excellent discipline. Reed could spray the ball to all fields, and with footspeed to boot, he had the skills to excel, even if he were to fall short of being a star. A popular comparison was Mark Kotsay, which seemed modest, but Kotsay was very good for a while. And Reed could've been more than that, too.

He wasn't. Reed is presumably finished with a 78 OPS+. Kotsay's still going, with a 98 OPS+. The season Kotsay had last year with the Brewers, as a 35-year-old, was better than any big league season Reed ever had, and Kotsay slugged .373.

Which brings us to Dustin Ackley. Right now, Ackley's batting .243, and it's not because his BABIP is down. He's got two strikeouts for every walk, which he also did a year ago after debuting. Ackley was drafted as a better prospect than Reed, and indeed he probably was a better prospect than Reed, but they were close, and the scouting reports were similar. Fall out of bed, hit .300, as if both Reed and Ackley have a tendency to oversleep. Contact, gap power. Fantastic odds, relatively high floor.

Just as it isn't fair to be pessimistic about Mike Zunino because of Jeff Clement, it isn't fair to be pessimistic about Dustin Ackley because of Jeremy Reed. The only thing the two share is that they've both occupied a place in our hearts as promising young Mariners, and outside of that, they're completely independent. But the Reed memories can't be shaken, not this soon, and people are beginning to wonder why Ackley isn't hitting. I'm beginning to wonder why Ackley isn't hitting. And there's Jeremy Reed, whispering from the next room over because God knows he's got nothing better to do these days.

"Ackley hit well early on," you say. And he did. Through his first 20 games, he had a .900 OPS. Through his first 41 games, he had a .921 OPS. In Reed's debut 2004, he played in 18 games and posted a .935 OPS. Contact. More walks than strikeouts. It was all there. It wasn't a fluke, like Willie Bloomquist's 2002, until it turned out it was.

There are some adjustments that Ackley needs to make, and he recently discussed them in the press. He needs to stop swinging when pitchers challenge him with high heat, and he needs to do a better job of learning the outer half. Ackley lays off too many outer-half pitches, when he should be able to slap them the other way. It's encouraging that Ackley is aware of his deficiencies, and it gives us hope that he'll sort them out and become the hitter we expected. All young hitters have to make adjustments, right? Few people come up as finished products. Patience.

But, exactly. All young hitters have to make adjustments, and many of them don't. At least, not enough to excel. As with Reed, one of Ackley's strengths was his polish. He wasn't supposed to need to make major adjustments. He was supposed to have a big-league approach, even against minor-league competition.

We can't just assume that Ackley will sort it out. I mean, we can, but then that leaves us open to disappointment. Assuming that Ackley can fix his issues is like assuming that, I don't know, Hector Noesi can fix his issues, or Steve Delabar can fix his issues. Maybe, and maybe not. Michael Saunders fixed his issues after struggling for a while, and now he looks to be terrific. That gives us hope. We must also recognize that Saunders isn't the rule.

I'm not trying to say that everybody should jump off the Dustin Ackley bandwagon. I still believe that Ackley is more likely to get going than the alternative, and I'm aware that my thoughts are darker right now as a consequence of the Mariners' recent slump. When the Mariners are in a rough patch, everything seems more dim. But I'm being haunted by Jeremy Reed, and I'm troubled by the idea of people just assuming that Ackley will be fine. Since when can we make those sorts of assumptions about baseball players? Especially young, relatively unproven baseball players. Haven't we learned our lesson by now?

If asked, my quick answer would be that I think Dustin Ackley will be pretty good in the long run. He's not terrible now, and there's obvious room to grow. He's demonstrated his ability in the Major Leagues before. But I have more questions than I used to, in that I used to have just about zero questions. At one point I assumed that Dustin Ackley would be good, or very good, or great. I can't in good conscience bring myself to make that assumption now.

A few months ago, I thought about polling the audience on whether they'd prefer to have Stephen Strasburg or Dustin Ackley. I'm happy to have Dustin Ackley, but I'm pretty glad I didn't run that poll.