Is Ackley For Real, Or Just Teasing Us Again?
If you’re one of the few Seattle fans still paying attention to the Mariners despite the massive hype for the Seahawks and the epic acquisition of Clint Dempsey by the Sounders, you may have noticed that Dustin Ackley, who also was once very hyped, has been tearing the cover off the ball lately. Since the all-star break, Ackley has had a nifty little line of .330/.361/.473 with 8 doubles, a triple, and a homer. It seems like he’s hitting the ball harder, and for once he’s finally being rewarded for it. But we’ve seen this from Ackley before, and he’s gone right back to sucking for a much longer period of time. So, is Ackley for real this time, or is he just leading us on yet again?
The first thing worth looking into is how Ackley’s approach has changed against the “lefty strike,” the low and outside ball that is almost always called a strike. The first graph here shows Ackley’s swing rate on all pitches from his debut until he got sent down to Tacoma this year. The second is his swing rate since being recalled:
The thing that really jumps out is significantly higher swing rates on pitches in the low-and-outside box of the strike zone, and the box just off the plate outside. Ackley’s swing rate has increased 3.2%, on the pitch off the plate, which is generally considered the “lefty strike.” It may not seem like much, but it is significant; a swing rate of 21.8% meant Ackley swung at 97 out of 445 pitches, if he had swung 25% of the time like he is now, he would have swung 111 times. An additional 14 swings could make a huge difference. In the low-and-outside box in the strike zone, Ackley’s new swing rate would have resulted in an additional 33 swings. So, Dustin has clearly made a conscious decision to start swinging at pitches that are, or are close to, the lefty strike.
Now it’s important to note that since the break, Ackley has had a .387 BABIP. I pulled my arbitrary end point further back than that for the charts above, and for the ones that will follow. A bigger data sample is better, so I went all the way back to June 26, the day Ackley returned from the minors. Over that span, Ackley has hit .289/.331/.407. It’s not his scorching recent streak, but it comes with a .339 BABIP, still a bit high, but closer to believability. The following two charts should shed some light on why his more recent BABIP is high, and why his old BABIP was so low.
Now there’s a big difference. Ackley has 14 hits to left field beyond the infield since being recalled, despite 25 fewer plate appearances before his demotion. Before, Ackley had just seven hits the opposite way. It appears his aggressiveness on outside pitches is starting to pay off, and at times for extra bases, even. Though Ackley likely won’t maintain a .339 BABIP, the ability to drive the ball the other way, and sometimes very far the other way, opens things up for him as a hitter. One quick glance at his 2011 spray chart shows that when he was at his most successful, Ackley was going the other way:
The one thing that can’t be explained by his spray charts is his disappearing walk rate. Since returning, Ackley has walked in just 6.1% of his plate appearances. I can’t explain why that number is so slow, but I do have a theory. Ackley is being thrown mostly strikes now, due to his past woes, and as he shows that he can hit strikes he once swung through, pitchers will throw him more balls. When that happens, we’ll have a better idea of how much Ackley has truly improved. If he starts striking out, that’s bad news. If he starts walking, well, he just may be developing into the hitter we all thought he could be.
It’s too small of a sample, and way too early to tell if Dustin Ackley is finally learning how to hit, or if he’s simply getting lucky. Digging deep at the numbers, though, we can see some clear adjustments in approach, and good results have followed in the early going. It’s a start, and it’s worth seeing if he can keep this up. If he can, then maybe the Mariners will have one less outfielder to shop for this offseason.