After falling one win short of a postseason berth in 2014, the Seattle Mariners have spent their off-season attempting to improve themselves in their two weakest areas; offensive production and the outfield. Adding outfielders Nelson Cruz, Justin Ruggiano, and Seth Smith during the off-season and Austin Jackson at last year’s trading deadline improves their offensive outlook and dramatically transforms the team’s outfield situation.
By adding these players and turning the page on Michael Saunders, Corey Hart, and Abraham Almonte, the Mariners are certain to have two different starting outfielders and a different designated hitter on April 6th when they open the season against the Los Angeles Angels. The lone holdover from Opening Day 2014 appears to be left fielder Dustin Ackley.
Ever since Ackley posted a .273/.348/.417 triple slash and hit a team-leading seven triples in just 90 games during his 2011 debut season, Mariners faithful have been waiting for the former North Carolina Tar Heel to become a mainstay in Seattle’s lineup. Unfortunately for the Mariners and the number two overall pick in the June 2009 Amateur Draft, he hasn’t approached those heights again.
How much time is enough?
Young players need experience, plus the patience and support of their organization to adjust to playing in the major leagues so they can eventually flourish. For example, Kyle Seager struggled during his 53 game debut in 2011, but has incrementally improved with each passing season and is now one of the best third baseman in either league. By 2,000 major league plate appearances, a player’s value and future role have normally become clear. This is not an iron clad rule, but 2,000 plate appearances is an appropriate time to have that conversation.
For most of Seattle’s core of young position players, it’s too early to determine their long term value or role due to their relatively low amount of major league service time. It’s a challenging proposition for a team with designs on making their first postseason appearance since 2001; develop youngsters while attempting to contend. Among Seattle’s current crop of young players, Seager and Ackley have reached the 2,000 plate appearance mark with Logan Morrison quickly approaching that milestone.
While Morrison will eventually come under similar scrutiny, Ackley is a far more enigmatic figure in Seattle thanks to being a high draft selection, quickly ascending through Seattle’s minor league system, initially being successful in the majors, and subsequently struggling since 2012. My initial perception of Ackley was that he was a slow starter who performed much better in the second half of seasons; that’s not completely accurate. Although it’s true that his overall career numbers are better in the second half, he’s both struggled and flourished during the first and second half of different seasons. I believe that best way to describe his offensive production is “consistently inconsistent.”
To better illustrate that point, I decided to use his month-by-month on-base plus slugging (OPS) because OPS is a metric that takes into account a player’s ability to make contact, their plate discipline, and their power. Although the league average for OPS fluctuates from year-to-year, the league-average hovers near .730. Fangraphs provides the following table as a reference for assessing a player’s performance based on their OPS.
With the exception of his torrid 2011 debut season, Ackley has been limited to bursts of productivity surrounded by longer periods of ineffectiveness. Since the start of the 2012 season, he’s been significantly below the major league average for OPS in all but four months and has only been over league-average for two consecutive months once; July and August of 2014. Since 2012, his OPS has been below-average for each season.
The .286 OPS for June 2013 is not a typo, but it’s important to note that he only played in three games in that month after spending most of the month at AAA-Tacoma in an attempt to regain his swing. The main reason for his quick return was an injury to outfielder Franklin Gutiérrez.
Possible turning point?
So, what changed and led to Ackley putting together his best OPS in consecutive months and best overall half-season since 2011? Perhaps, it was a change to his batting stance. Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill touched on mechanical adjustments made by the left-handed hitter in two July 2014 tweets.
Watching a lot of Ackley PAs… He’s starting more closed now v. April-May. But also closer to plate. April 16 — pic.twitter.com/obLIEUEzHX
— Jason A. Churchill (@ProspectInsider) July 26, 2014
My interpretation of those comments are that, thanks to the changes made at the plate, Ackley was able to handle middle-away pitches better by being closer to the plate and by closing his batting stance. The July 24 picture illustrates the changes, which may be the underlying reason for Ackley’s resurgence in July and August.
More Ackley: Here is July 24 (you can see he’s more closed, closer to plate v April) pic.twitter.com/rupZ2rLHZE
— Jason A. Churchill (@ProspectInsider) July 26, 2014
After July 15th, Ackley was 23rd in the American League (AL) in OPS for the remainder of the season, finishing ahead of teammates Cruz (25) and Seager (41).
Despite his mid-season adjustments, Ackley’s performance fell off considerably in September when he posted a .149/.205/.299 triple slash during 18 games. One contributor to his September decline were bone spurs in his left ankle that hampered him and resulted in him missing four games. This isn’t the first time that Ackley has experienced problems with bone spurs; he had surgery to remove bone spurs after the 2012 season. At that time, it was believed that the spurs affected Ackley’s ability to push off at home plate and to run the bases.
During this off-season, he visited an ankle specialist who made recommendations to the team on how to handle the situation going forward. Every indication from the team is that Ackley is physically ready to go and will be played frequently during Spring Training by manager Lloyd McClendon. The question that lingers going into 2015 is whether his September struggles were injury-induced or a regression back to previous consistency.
2015 role with Mariners
The general consensus among fans and national pundits has been that Ackley will be Seattle’s Opening Day left fielder barring injury; that’s not necessarily certain though. During his January 17th Hot Stove Report podcast for 1090 The Fan, Jason discussed General Manager Jack Zduriencik’s comments about the left field position on the Steve Sandmeyer Show. Zduriencik stated that he and manager Lloyd McClendon plan to “put the best club on the field whatever that is.”
“To say that anyone is on scholarship or somebody’s got something locked in, they’ve got to prove it in Spring Training.”
— Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik on The Steve Sandmeyer Show
To me, Zduriencik’s comments open the door to the possibly using Smith in left field against tough southpaws or even Ackley losing left field playing time to either Ruggiano or James Jones. I don’t McClendon will proclaim Ackley as his left fielder early in Spring Training as he did last February.
There’s a clear benefit to using the left-handed hitting Smith over Ackley against southpaws. Smith’s 2014 OPS against left-handed pitchers was appreciably better than Ackley’s. Smith’s career OPS versus lefties is lower than Ackley’s, but the 32-year-old veteran has been far more productive and consistent than Ackley during his eight-year career.
With the exception of his 2011 debut season, Dustin Ackley has struggled to sustain long periods of average to above-average production and hasn’t matched the lofty expectations placed upon him after being selected one pick after Stephen Strasburg in the 2009 draft. If the soon-to-be 27-year-old doesn’t continue his 2014 second half performance into 2015, the team should transition in a new direction just as they did with first baseman Justin Smoak. After entering last season with 1942 plate appearances, Smoak was waived by Seattle after playing in 80 games and 276 plate appearances in 2014.
If Ackley’s 2014 mechanical adjustments are a permanent fix, he’s best suited to be part of a left field platoon and play primarily against right-handed pitching. The thought of Ackley being a part-time player will disappoint many Seattle fans. However, being a platoon player gives him the best opportunity to repeat his 2.1 fWAR value and help the team contend for the AL West crown.