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Jarred Kelenic is not Dustin Ackley

Speak these words to yourself. Then speak them to your friends and family.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

I thought about making this a blank article. The headline is enough, and you’re reading this, you’re liable to understand the truth of it at least to some degree. If you’re prone to seeing baseball history as a teal-hued carousel ride that ends in the same place every time - with disappointment - you’ve got a series of receipts that stretches decades. But this one, well, it’s not the same, so I’ll say it again, listing a few things Jarred Kelenic is not. Jarred Kelenic is not Dustin Ackley. Jarred Kelenic is not Ken Griffey Jr. Jarred Kelenic is not the universal midpoint between those two outcomes. He’s an absolutely exceptional 21 year old baseball player, and I’m all but certain he’s going to be good. But let’s get into specifics on scouting the two players, to hopefully elucidate what makes people willing to say “this time it’s different” when countering the Ackley-Kelenic worryworting.

As best I can, I wanted to get in the headspace of Ackley evaluators at the time, not knowing the ultimate outcome. There are rich, fabulous scouting reports on Ackley, many of which hold up excellently and show the nuance of prospect evaluation, and also one or two showing how much evaluation has changed. Each report, from draft day through his debut season of 2011 and beyond, paints a similar picture. This was a barrel aficionado, someone with bat control that creates good contact across the zone, causing everything else to play up. His physicality wasn’t immense, but his power worked in the gaps, and with his discipline he would be a .300/.400/.450 threat: a dream leadoff hitting table-setter. Repeatedly, Ackley received elite grades for his speed both as an amateur and in his minor league days, aiding him both on the basepaths and in the field. Ackley was an absolute monster at the University of North Carolina, faced good competition, and crushed it.

The knocks were mild, but always present. A weaker arm, the hope that over the fence power would develop over time, and making sure he could handle higher quality left-handed pitching. Even when he struggled to truly WOW in Double-A and Triple-A, he was still doing what he’d always done: hitting for decent-to-good average, walking, not striking out too much. The power wasn’t there, but he’d been pushed aggressively, and he’d always been so good, it was hard to imagine it not working. When he debuted fairly well in Seattle it seemed so easy to envision it all getting better and better.

And then it didn’t. Ackley didn’t flounder completely, and he was a decent defender and good baserunner, but the steals never came, the hits stopped falling, and Ackley learned the lesson (or was the lesson) so many hopeful fans and prospect evaluators must remember: plate discipline (and by extension, walks) only come easily in the majors when hitters make pitchers worried about throwing in the zone. Ackley’s lack of power is not the only way in which his star crashed down, but the absence of sustained oomph from Ackley for the vast majority of his Seattle Mariners career was damning, and by the time injuries chipped away at his other skills, it was too much to overcome.

The knocks on Jarred Kelenic, such that they exist, are vastly different. Kelenic has always been an outfielder, so Seattle won’t be asking him to learn a new position in the upper minors and bigs as they did Ackley. Kelenic has a collection of above-average tools, with good foot speed, decent glovework, and a strong arm that lets him work all three outfield spots. His base-stealing isn’t a dependent facet of his game, but he’s fast enough to threaten extra bags now and again. His plate discipline is excellent and he is aggressive in the zone to drive pitches all over the field. His physicality is borderline laughable, the 21 year old looks like WASPedayo Akinfenwa, Waukeshandy Díaz, Herculenic (or if you prefer the traditional Greek, Jarrecles). That strength has now manifest as significant power, which is going to be vital for the weight placed on his shoulders. The expectations are massive, not only for Kelenic but for his ability to lift the Mariners out of 20 years of ineffectuality, much like Ackley’s heavily hyped debut was expected to be the start of a rejuvenation following the disappointing late 2000s.

And yet at each stage of their developments we can see points of promise for why Kelenic has become more highly ranked than Ackley from prospect evaluators on this, the day of Kelenic’s debut. At the risk of oversimplifying it, what makes Kelenic such a more reliable bet than Ackley from a scouting perspective is the power he has developed in games to match his physicality. There are plenty of muscle-bound players who lash lasers into the dirt and struggle to make their raw power manifest in games. Kelenic has tweaked his swing as he’s progressed, making subtle alterations after being acquired by the Mariners that have helped him post slugging and Isolated Power (ISO) numbers better than Ackley ever did at any level with Seattle. Ackley’s first games as a professional outside of the 2009 Arizona Fall League came at age 22 down in Double-A West Tennessee, entering the season just outside the Top-10 on multiple prospect lists. Kelenic will be debuting over a year after many thought he was feasibly ready, at the ripe old age of 21, having handled the minors with greater acuity, albeit without the ability to spend as much time in the upper levels thanks to COVID-19.

But don’t mistake the abbreviated minor league slate for a rush job. The Mariners certainly didn’t, as they felt Kelenic was ready enough to promote if he simply signed a team-friendly extension at some point in the past couple years, as 1B Evan White did. For White, that has proven to be a struggle, the jump in levels allowing him the opportunity to test his mettle and have it crushed underfoot through his first 300 plate appearances in the bigs. Projections got White pretty right in 2020, seeing a well below-average hitter who would show flashes of big league pop, but there’s still plenty of time for him to become a more capable big leaguer. When Ackley made the bigs in 2011, the projections at the time had a measured view of what he’d be capable of, as they do for Kelenic due to his lack of high-minors reps.

Ackley 2011 vs Kelenic 2021

Player Year ZiPS OPS+ (proj) Actual OPS+ PECOTA OPS (proj) Actual OPS
Player Year ZiPS OPS+ (proj) Actual OPS+ PECOTA OPS (proj) Actual OPS
Dustin Ackley 2011 88 120 0.675 0.766
Jarred Kelenic 2021 102 TBD 0.677 TBD
Both projection systems have had tweaks in the past decade and PECOTA no longer uses TAv as their unifying offensive stat, so we’re using the much vaguer OPS, apologies.

And yet, as we know, Ackley scattered singles, stretched triples, and earned free passes in his first look at the bigs, with a .339 BABIP he was never able to replicate. For Kelenic, the ability to leg out doubles and triples will be important, but with the power to club 20-30 home runs over the rest of the season, the margin for error is simply so much wider than the tightrope Ackley had to walk. A combination of different run environment, changes in values offensively, and the gap in projectability from the lack of a 2020 season create a dramatically different picture for Kelenic’s pathway to decent offensive projections than Ackley, but the route to the results for Kelenic (good contact, good plate discipline, good power) again suggest greater leeway in finding his production. As Joe wrote recently, like every big leaguer there are pitfalls that can befall even the most well-rounded and talented young players. But, health permitting, the scouting reports combined with the projections give me every reason to think that not only will Kelenic be at least a solid big leaguer, quite likely an All-Star, and also, no, he will not be Dustin Ackley.

We good here? Good.