The Sophomore Slump


Mariners fans are still absorbing the loss of Chris Gimenez, and with an entire fan base in a state of mourning, we are in desperate need of something to take our minds off this devastating news. Together, we can get through this…

Since Seattle acquired Jesus Montero in the “Michael Pineda Trade”, there has been a lot of focus on what Montero can add to an already lifeless offense. But the Mariners aren’t solely relying on Montero’s bat to transform the teams dismal offense into something more watchable. Seattle is betting heavily on the improvements of their core of young players; players such as Justin Smoak, Mike Carp, Casper Wells, and Dustin Ackley.  Ah yes, Ackley. How soon we forget that Ackley was Seattle’s best position player last year. So it seems like a sure bet to pencil in our second basemen for another season atop the WAR chart, doesn’t it? Not just yet, there is some data to be sifted through.

What do these players have in common:

If you haven’t already come to a conclusion based upon the title of this article, it’s the Sophomore Slump. Through the process of facing the truth, it’s something Mariners fans are going to have to come to grips with… Dustin Ackley is susceptible to this.

These slumps are scary and a bit unpredictable, but even when things appear to be random, sifting through the numbers can eventually help lend us some sort of answer. After scouring Fan Graphs for the aforementioned players, I immediately found a trend. The average BABIP for these players “freshman” year was a robust .324, during the next season however the average dropped to a less impressive .273. Wild variances in BABIP when paired with LD% can usually tell us that a player is having a bout with bad luck. But attributing an entire phenomenon such as the sophomore slump to bad luck simply wouldn’t be very good analysis. We are going to have to dig deeper than that.

The general media consensus is: the league adjust. There is always a set of eyes on players, whether it be scouts at a live game, or coaches watching film. Someone will find your holes and then pitchers will expose them. After that, it again becomes the hitters job to adjust to the pitcher. The numbers support this theory, as I stated above in the large drop in BABIP. Pushing it just a bit further, the average BABIP the year after the slump is .306, suggesting an adjustment by the hitter.  Another factor that comes into play is wear and tear. Minor league players do not play the same amount of games the big guys do, and injury becomes a factor. Each of the players above succumbed to fatigue or injury their sophomore season, with an average of 22 less games played.

So if we can agree upon league adjustment, and wear and tear being the two main attributes of the sophomore slump, can we expect Ackley to succumb to it? Ackley’s largest jump in games came from 2009 – 2010 were his workload increased by 114. Last year he played 156 games between AAA and the MLB, an increase of 22 games. If Ackley plays 162 games in 2012 it will only be an increase of 6 games. Throughout his increases, his numbers remained solid, without alarming fluctuations in strikeouts, walks, wRC+, or power. So unless an injury comes out of nowhere, then I think it would be acceptable to cross wear and tear off the list. The league adjusting is an ever evolving process, so it is simply impossible to predict how he will be affected by it. We did watch Ackley struggle at the end of last year as the league adapted to him, so watching how he adjusts to pitchers could play a large part in how well he maintains last years .339 BABIP.

Ackley is going to be a huge part of the teams potential success in 2012. The sophomore slump has a hundreds of variables, and with this article I tried to pick out some of the larger factors attributing to it. Plenty of players have avoided it in just the last year alone: Mike Stanton, Neftali Feliz, Starlin Castro, Drew Storen, and Brennan Boesch just to name a few. Ackley has given us plenty of reasons to believe he can join that list, instead of the prior.