Once upon a time, Dustin Ackley was one of the most heralded prospects in the game of baseball. Ackley, along with Justin Smoak, was going to headline the next great Seattle Mariners team. He was going to hit, and he was going to be a star. A few years later, those reports seem like pipe dreams. Ackley, along with Smoak and Jesus Montero, have come to symbolize the failure of nearly an entire wave of Seattle farmhands that resulted in years of mediocrity and a near waste of Felix Hernandez’s younger years. Seattle now has a chance to make a real charge to the postseason, and Ackley has a chance to be an important cog in the machine at Safeco Field, just in a different way than many expected.
It was not at his natural second base that Ackley finally found success again last year, but in left field. Forced out of the infield by Robinson Cano (perhaps you've heard of him), Ackley surprised onlookers by actually posting positive defensive marks at his new position. DRS says he saved seven runs, while UZR/150 rates him at 8.8. Those scores rate him fifth and fourth in the league, respectively, among qualified left fielders.
The names ahead of him are renowned whizzes like Alex Gordon and Christian Yelich. Ackley’s scores don’t exactly tear the house down, but they helped lead to a 2.1 fWAR mark that was the highest since his rookie season. The Mariners will take that, especially if Ackley’s bat can climb a little above the 97 wRC+ that it was in 2014. There’s a decent chance that happens, too, but don't expect anything dramatic.
Ackley hit 14 home runs in 2014, which is a career high. His ISO also spiked to .153. The increase in power and cratering of his OBP to .293 would seem to point to an increase in strikeouts due to a more swing-for-the-fences approach, but that’s not the case. Ackley’s strikeout rate actually stayed pretty much the same as it fell ever so slightly from 16.9% to 16.6%. What actually happened was that our old friend BABIP went to work. Though Ackley has a career BABIP mark of .288 (which is partially weighed down by his disastrous 2012 mark of .265), he only managed to squeeze out a .273 rate on balls in play. When we look at Ackley’s spray chart for the year (below), it’s easy to understand why.
Ackley’s ground balls seem to be the reason for his low BABIP. While his grounder rate of 45.3% isn’t especially abnormal (actually his lowest mark since his rookie year), the vast majority of them are pulled to the right side of the infield. That makes Ackley a prime candidate for the infield shifts that are so very in vogue around the league.
We can see in the GIF that almost all of Ackley’s ground balls to the right side were converted into outs. When paired with his walk rate of only 5.9%, his OBP becomes easy to explain. Barring another change in approach (his swing rate rose from 38.9% in 2013 to 43.4% in 2014), Ackley projects to be somewhere in the neighborhood of slightly above league average with his bat. Steamer projects him for 101 wRC+. That’s a far cry from the glowing scouting reports he carried during his time in the minor leagues. Prospects, as they say, will break your heart.
The good news is that league average does not mean bad, especially when partnered with a plus glove. The aforementioned scouting reports never liked Ackley’s defense at second base anyways, so the Mariners being able to find him a defensive home is a wonderful safety net to a career that looked to be in a tailspin.
Socking 14 dingers will do some good as well. The Mariners don’t need Ackley to be a foundation for their offense. That’s what they pay Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz to do. Decent power and good defense simply make Dustin Ackley a good secondary piece. He, along with Austin Jackson and the platoon of Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano, could actually form a pretty good outfield corps. And when you look over the litany of "can’t-miss" prospects that have failed to be even that, you’ve got to think Dustin Ackley’s got a pretty good thing going for him right now.
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Nicolas Stellini is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and a member of the IBWAA. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.