The Mariners offense had been especially bad as of late, having scored a league-low 73 runs in July. That is a full eight fewer runs than the next worst team, the Cincinnati Reds, and their team wRC+ of 81 puts them in 27th place.
Those struggles helped take them out of the second Wild Card spot, as they are now third in that race, three games behind the Toronto Blue Jays.
But there was one bright spot in the month, especially after the All-Star break, and that was left fielder Dustin Ackley.
For the month, Ackley hit a ridiculous .365/.386/.506, with a 154 wRC+, and hit his first home run since May yesterday in Cleveland. His hot streak forced Lloyd McClendon to move him up to the leadoff spot, something he was wary of doing back in April when Ackley had another good stretch.
What’s more, is that following the All-Star break, Ackley has been even better than the overall July numbers, with a .396/.407/.585 line, and a 182 wRC+.
There has been a lot of talk surrounding Ackley’s progress in July, because he has heated up before, only to crash again.
He posted a 128 wRC+ in the second half of last year that caused many to proclaim he had figured something out. And though his April totals only show an 88 wRC+, from March 31st through April 19th, he had a 118 wRC+.
So is something different this time?
Well, we can’t know for sure. The numbers were certainly great, and he looks to be hitting the ball harder, and to all fields. There is also a slight difference in his stance and swing that Jason Churchill of 1090 The Fan and Prospect Insider discussed, citing some small changes in his stride and set-up at the plate.
But we have seen Ackley make changes at the plate in the past, on top of having just as good of a stretch, if not better, last August, and obviously, neither of those stuck.
I am not a scout, and will not pretend to be, so I won’t comment on anything about how he looks, or changes he has made. That stuff is important, but I’m not an expert on the mechanics of a successful baseball swing.
What I can do, is dig deeper into the numbers and see if we can’t find something that will clue us in to what is going on underneath, and whether this is something concrete and permanent, or just an anomaly that will fade away like the rest.
We will start with the positives. Obviously, the first is that he did hit this well for the month. Whether he will sustain it is yet to be seen, but he has shown once again that he does have hits in him, and the potential is there.
From there, we can see that Ackley’s line drive rate in July is his highest of the year at 22.9%. The previous three were all under 18%, and while there are caveats of sample size and accuracy (as well as how important LD rates really are for some players), that is a definite positive for Ackley.
Line drives go for hits more often than ground balls or fly balls, and that is because they are often hit hard, and thus harder to turn into outs. He isn’t a power guy, so hitting line drives and hard ground balls bode well for him to be able to sustain a high average.
However, a high average isn’t enough to be a good hitter if it comes without walks and/or power. Ackley hits fewer fly balls than the league (33.5% versus 36%), and his HR/FB is 5.6% this year and 6.1% career. Fangraphs defines that as “poor,” with league average being around 9.5%. He isn’t a home run guy, and it doesn’t look like he ever will be.
But if he continues to hit liners to all fields, he could rack up a good amount of doubles and triples, which might very well be enough for him. His career ISO is is .111, with a .122 mark this season. What that means is, if he posts a .280 average, as of now, he would have just a .390-.400 slugging percentage.
Ideally, that would trend up a bit, at least to .140, which with that same .280 average would give him a .420 slugging percentage.
There is also the problem of his .435 BABIP in the month of July. That is 100% unsustainable, so his batting average will take a pretty substantial hit if nothing else changes. And that is precisely why he needs to do something more, whether it be getting back to the 10% walk rate he showed in his rookie year and in the minors, or adding more extra base hits.
He currently has his lowest professional BB%, at just 6.2%. That is below average, and not what you want to see from a contact/on-base guy like Ackley. Even if he hits .300, that OBP will not be all that impressive, which is where the empty average I alluded to earlier comes in.
Now, fortunately for us and Dustin, he is seeing a higher rate of strikes than most. Pitch F/X has him with a 51.7% zone rate, over 6% higher than the 45% average. That means he isn’t getting as many opportunities to walk as most players do, so some of it probably goes beyond his control.
In addition, his O-Swing% (swings on pitches out of the zone), is slightly lower than league average at 28%, so it isn’t as though he is chasing pitches he should be laying off.
So where did all that get us? Well, not all that far. It is still an extremely small sample we are working with, and for every number that tells us he is just getting lucky, there is another that tells us something may have changed.
What we do know is Ackley won’t continue to hit this well, that much is obvious. But if he did indeed figure something out, and if the walk rate trends back up to where it was and should be, and he continues to sting liners into the gap, Dustin could be a .280/.345/.420 guy that this Mariners team desperately needs in front of Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager.
Unfortunately, he could also crash and burn in August and leave us with the same below-average-but-occasionally-useful player we have seen all year.