Dustin Ackley Has Tranformed in More Ways than One
By JJ Keller
I am sure everyone taking the time to read this knows full well how great Dustin Ackley has been of late. It’s been all over social media, it’s been written about ad nauseam, and most importantly, the results have shown up in the game and on the stat sheet.
Every time Dustin Ackley gets a hit of any remote significance, you are bound to see an influx of tweets from local writers and media members, ranging from Ryan Divish’s “Smackley,” to “Ack Attack” from literally everyone else. He is being acknowledged as Mariners Player of the Game on Twitter and Instagram. And everyone knows he has hit over .300 since July. All that tells you that the fan base is ready to embrace the former No. 2 pick’s turnaround, and everyone loves a good Dustin Ackley.
Now, plenty of people have given their angle on the situation. Tony Blengino, who used to be Jack Zduriencik’s assistant and is famous for throwing the entire organization under the bus in the offseason, gave some organizational insight on how the team saw Ackley, while then attempting to explain what has led to his resurgence. Michael Barr of Lookout Landing highlighted some of the physical changes Ackley made at the plate that may have led to the improvement. And I’ve written about the guy about 348 times in my two years here.
You should definitely check those out as they both provide solid information and insights on Ackley. But I feel something has been skipped over in most takes I have seen.
First though, let’s talk a little more about what Ackley has managed to do as of late. Entering July, Dustin had himself a 70 wRC+ (.602 OPS for those more comfortable with that metric). Since then (July 1st to Today), he’s posted a 137 wRC+ (.838 OPS). That is, quite obviously, an enormous difference in offensive production, going from 30% below average, to 37% above average.
The figurative (literal?) flip of a switch on July 1st has given him a league average 100 wRC+ on the year, and along with his average defensive value has him on pace to have a league average WAR (2.0). Funny how that works, eh?
With the basics covered, let’s get into the part I think is most interesting, and in turn what has been ignored. Obviously, we will all take what Ackley has given us in the 2nd half. That’s a no-brainer. But even though on the surface it seems like Ackley has been closer to the player we all thought we were getting, that isn’t fully the case.
Sure, he was supposed to be a well above average hitter, not well below, and that’s what he has been here. But he was thought to be an average/on-base guy with some moderate power. In 2011, John Sickels of Minor League Ball said, “if I attempted to venture a guess on what a regular Dustin Ackley season would be like, I suppose I would conclude this: .275/.380/.440, 15 HR, 75 RBI, 90 R, 20 SB, 30 doubles, 8 triples.”
The average was supposed to be .275-300, and he could lose 15 or so, on top of good gap power. But the OBP was supposed to carry him, as seen with the .380 projection above. His eye was seen as elite, and as such, he was supposed to walk a ton on top of the contact ability.
Well, since the turnaround, that hasn’t been the case at all. He has just a .338 OBP since July 1st, which is not at all elite. And .308 of that is just from the average, as he has walked just 4.7% of the time, well off from the 10-15% rate some had him pegged at.
Instead, much of his production has come from his power, holding a .195 ISO over that same time. That includes 14 doubles, 2 triples, and 7 home runs over the span, which extrapolates out to over 40+ doubles, 5+ triples, and 20+ home runs over a full season. Even the rave reviews that came while he was still a top prospect fell 10 doubles and 5 home runs short of that pace.
So is his overall offensive production right around what it was supposed to be? You betcha. But he is not doing it in the way he was “supposed to.” I can’t and won’t comment on whether that will continue, or whether he will remain productive but in the way he was projected to, or if he will fall off again. Blengino’s piece is probably best for that, and even he can’t see the future.
But we still haven’t gotten to what I feel has been ignored at times. Most of what I said above has been seen and discussed in some form. He has been good, but in a different way than expected.
I see a reason behind that though, or at least something that could explain some of the change. For the year, according to Pitch F/x data, Ackley has seen 52.6% of his pitches come inside the zone. Fangraphs says the league average is usually somewhere around 45%, meaning he is seeing almost 8% more strikes than the average hitter, and even more so than comparable hitters (as compared to his 2nd half success). Dangerous hitters will generally see fewer pitches over the plate, on account of being dangerous.
Giancarlo Stanton has the lowest Zone% in the league at 41.5%, and players like Jose Abreu and Carlos Gomez also rank in the bottom five (Robinson Cano is 22nd at 45%). Ackley isn’t as good as those players, obviously, but I think it illustrates my point.
What this tells us is twofold. 1) pitchers don’t really fear Ackley yet, and 2) There is a good chance they will begin to, or at the very least rethink going right after him every single time.
And this isn’t a case of the first half numbers weighing down the ones post-turnaround. Since July 1st, his Zone% is even higher at 53.6%. And the product of that, and his astounding 93.1% Zone-Contact rate, is his increased production. Pitchers are attacking the zone, and he is making them pay by only missing 7% of pitches in the zone.
But it also means he isn’t getting many opportunities to draw walks. And in looking at some other numbers, it seems he doesn’t play too big of a role in that. He is only swinging at 28.7% of pitches out of the zone since 7/1, which puts him on the lower end (though somewhat close to the middle of the pack), illustrating that it isn’t as though he is simply not taking pitches he should be taking. The eye seems to still be solid, he just isn’t getting many pitches that he has to take.
Ben Revere and Jose Altuve both have Z-Contact rates in the top 11 in baseball, along with Zone rates over 50%. They happen to lead their respective leagues in average. However, neither is able to walk all that much, in part because they see so many pitches in the zone, like Ackley. But in the case of Altuve, he also swings at almost 35% of pitches out of the zone, which leads me to believe he should be walking more than he is, even if he sees a lot of strikes.
What comes next is yet to be seen. If pitchers keep feeding him pitches he can handle, I think he has a good shot to maintain a high average, and a good amount of pop, while walking less than would be ideal by nature of the zone-pounding he sees. Or, pitchers learn that they can’t give him meatballs, and start to nibble at the corners or pitch him away. And that is where he will see his next test.
He can handle pitchers when they give him something to hit. But we know he has struggled with the “lefty-strike” in the past, so there is still a chance that a big chunk of this success is due to him seeing a lot of pitches to hit.
Or, Ackley could really be fixed, and if the eye is indeed still there, he will be able to adjust to seeing fewer strikes, and in turn rack up the walks, while still spraying strikes around the field and mashing the mistakes.
Many conclusions can be drawn from this adventure (he is seeing lots of strikes and taking advantage, his power is up, etc.), but it seems that the ultimate conclusion is still open-ended: Is Dustin Ackley finally, once-and-for-all, good at baseball? We will have to wait a bit longer to see if pitchers begin treating him differently, and how he responds when they do.
My main point, besides giving you all some things to chew on and keep an eye on going forward, is that we still don’t really know what kind of hitter Ackley is. And while he didn’t make a declaration, Blengino did say he sees Ackley as a .275/.310/.425 type of guy, essentially meaning he is has accepted that Ackley isn’t walking by his own volition, and won’t do so in the future either.
The plate discipline numbers tell us that it may not be that simple, and that the mysteriously disappearing BB-rate isn’t all that mysterious, and we don’t totally know that it is even gone. Ackley may just be adapting to how he is being treated, and that happens to include a stark deficiency of pitches to lay off, which would allow him to draw four balls, and in turn enable him to freely meander to first base without threat of putout. That’s called a walk, but I felt artsy after all that math.