Dustin Ackley is off to a strong start to the 2015 season. He’s homered three times as of the middle of Monday’s game in Los Angeles and has just one strikeout. Yes, it’s a small sample, but it’s a good small sample to start the year rather than a very bad one, which is what has occurred more often than not for Ackley in April.
The quick and dirty of it is two-fold; Ackley pulls away from the baseball, from foot to head and everywhere in between, and he gets out front early and does all of the above often. The result is a very tough task covering the outer half of the plate, particularly the lower portion of the outer half, and a lot of pop-ups and ground balls due to a lack of proper timing.
In my opinion, and in the opinion of many, many scouts I have spoken to about the subject, Ackley’s upside is extremely limited without some adjustments, and permanent ones. He won’t hit left-handed pitching with any consistency with his current set of mechanics, nor will he be able to handle pitches middle-away and away with any regularity whatsoever. To hit for acceptable average and produce acceptable on-base percentages, Ackley will have to be Wade Boggs or Tony Gwynn in most other ways to make up for his mechanical shortcomings; only swing at strikes, rarely swing and miss and rarely miss when given a pitch to hit. The only areas of the strike zone he can cover with consistent success right now is middle and middle-in, and he can do so with power, as we have seen from him in the majors since 2011.
He may not face lefties much in 2015, as Rickie Weeks and Justin Ruggiano serve as serviceable alternatives against southpaws. Both are veterans with proven track records against lefties. The result of that is very likely to be better overall rate stats for Ackley. He batted .212/.255/.298 with nine extra-base hits in 162 plate appearances versus left-handed pitching a year ago and in his career has produced a .237/.296/.342 triple-slash.
In 2014, Ackley put up a decent line versus righties, though — .259/.310/.442 with 13 of his 14 home runs. He’s 5-for-15 with those three long balls versus right-handed pitching in 2015.
Has he turned a corner?
Not for me, he hasn’t, at least not yet. It does appear he’s found a way to deal with right-handers better than he did 2012-2013, although .259/.310/.442 is hardly anything to write home about, even considering the lack of offense in baseball today. As for his work versus left-handed pitching and overall? I guess we’ll see, but expecting him to produce significantly different results with what absolutely appears to be the same poor mechanics is, well, insane.
Without a change that helps him stay back and get to balls on the outer half and do something positive with them, rather than foul them off, hit a lazy pop or fly or ground out, the production isn’t changing. Sure, every now and a gain he’ll get to a ball middle-away and barrel it up — he did so versus Brandon McCarthy Monday for long ball No. 3. In 500-700 plate appearances, a batter with literally zero success with pitches in one half of the zone would have no chance at all to hit even .200. But it’s a long season and at 27 after more than 2,000 plate appearances, betting versus insanity isn’t wise.
Last summer Ackley appeared to move a wee bit closer to the plate, which seemed to help; baseball is absolutely a game of inches. But a ridiculous amount of the balls he squared up after the break last year were middle or middle-in. When pitchers stayed away effectively, Ackley was an easy out for most. Is it hopeless? I wouldn’t say that. But more adjustments are necessary. He has plus bat speed and the best hand-eye coordination on the roster this side of Robinson Cano. If he trusts those tools — which means he can get to the pitch inner half without opening up so aggressively — he could find himself a better hitter when pitches cross the rest of the zone.
I feel like I have written this same thing numerous times — because I have — but I think it’s important to add that there will be times over the long season he hits a ball middle-away, or even away (though much more rarely). The reaction for some might be ‘there he did it, maybe he’s fixed.’ But until he’s consistently right mechanically and producing consistently as a result, the former No. 2 pick will be best suited for the part-time play, saved from lefties, most of the time, and limited in production to a fringe-average to average performer at the plate in those platoon-heavy plate appearances.