Throughout the annuls of history, we, as a human species have learned that it’s not easy being green. While it’s not easy being green, it is also not easy hitting at Safeco. Looking through the ballpark values, I can surmise that if I jumped off the roof of Safeco, I would have a hard time hitting the ground. It’s well documented, the struggles of high-ceiling prospects donning a Seattle Mariners uniform. Most especially with Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, and our subject for today’s post– Dustin Ackley. Despite a strong showing at the end of last season, Smoak is the closest to becoming the next ‘falling star’ cautionary tale, putting him right next to the likes of Delmon Young, Rocco Baldelli, and Chris Brown’s fist. But both Montero and Ackley still have a fair chance to reach their potential, and from what I read at TMZ the other day, Chris Brown’s fist has made a sudden turnaround. At the very least, they (the players, not fist) have one more season before the grumblings become deafening, and players like Stefen Romero, Nick Franklin, and Mike Zunino start knocking on the 25-man door.
Drafted from the University of North Carolina, Dustin Ackley was heralded as having the most advanced hit tool in the 2009 draft. During that year as a junior, he hit 417/517/763 with 22 homers, drawing 50 walks and only striking out 34 times. His pitch recognition and swing were considered strong. Ackley also showed a good work ethic, and had great ‘intangibles.’ Which, in scouting vernacular, meant that he was white. You could also say that he was gritty and a team player. Or maybe just call him Wes Welker if you’re into the whole brevity thing. His ceiling was a high-batting-average hitter with moderate power and strong strike zone judgement. And, in his 2011 MLB debut, Ackley did not disappoint with a nice teasing of our fantasy baseball loin area. There’s really no medical way to locate this area, but just go to the usual place, then a little to the left, then go up a smidgen and you’re home. I would suggest cutting your fingernails before assembling a search party. In 376 plate appearances he hit 273/348/417 with some sprinkling of speed (6 SB) and power (6 HR) combined with a modest BB% of 10.6. When the 2011 season ended, he quickly vaulted up the 2012 lists, proclaimed upon the rooftops, if your rooftops look like baseball pundits, to be a possibly top-5 at the keystone, with a chance to put up a 20/20 with a 300 batting average. One person was not fooled.
“I’m having a real hard time understanding the hype on Ackley. To the point where I’m not drafting him unless he falls pretty far. He’s never hit more than 9 homers at any level of professional ball or stole more than 8 bases. Granted, these were abbreviated seasons, but he’s also going to be playing his home games in a terrible hitting park. I’m gonna let someone else take the chance that he shows his ceiling of 15 homers and 15 steals while expecting he shows something closer to… 2012 Projections: 80/12/55/.265/12″
That was the star of this show, Grey, ranking Ackley at 15 last year, behind the likes of Jason Kipnis, Kelly Johnson, and Aaron Hill. Certainly against the consensus, he had the correct mindset. In fact, the projection turned out eerily close to what Ackley actually provided in his counting stats, hitting 84/12/50/226/13. It sure doesn’t help that Ackley plays half his games where offense goes to reenact William Wallace’s illustrious death brought on from the killing of Englishmen and yelling obscenities at Jews. But his splits weren’t considerably different, batting a 228/294/285 at home while hitting a 224/293/365 on the road. Combined that with the fact that one of Ackley’s strengths, strike zone judgement, was nowhere to be found with a very pedestrian 18.6 K%. Along with a middling ISO that barely got out of the double digits at .102… well, you can see how Ackley’s offensive output was akin to my high school love life. Little production with a depressing side of underachievement.
So why bother? Well, after the top-3 of Cano, Pedroia, and Kinsler, the depth kinda gets jumbled, and to a certain extent, interchangeable within the tiers. Usually the best strategy is to try a balancing act to target sleepers in certain areas so you can pay market value for the guys you want. And, lo and behold, Ackley has done a fine job completely destroying his fantasy value, thus making him into a sleeper choice. But for him to actually play above his value, he needs to at least provide marginal improvements across the board so as to not turn into Darwin Barney. Which would be unfortunate, because not even Darwin Barney wants to be Darwin Barney.
If you look at Ackley’s stat page with a microscope in one hand and a rum n’ coke in the other, there are a couple of signs that 2012 was more of a bad outlier than what should be the norm. First, I’ll direct you to his SwStr% of 6.2. For those of you who are unaware of this statistic, it’s basically how much a hitter misses when swinging at a pitch. A good rate is anything below 8 percent. A great SwStr% is anything below 6.5. If you take that information and combine it with the fact that he had a Contact% of 86.1… simply put, no one in the MLB right now makes that much contact and strikes out that much. The two just don’t go together. If you assume that the K% will just come down from regression, from 18.6% down to say something like an arbitrary but very possible 16.0%, you will see around a 25 point swing in his OBP and 15-20 point swing in his BABIP. Ackley also had a fly ball BABIP of 0.63. Just to put that into context, if you fielded an entire team of 2012 Dustin Ackley’s, the team would have had the lowest fly ball BABIP since 2003. An ISO increase is not only possible, but should be counted on. Naturally, there would be a complete upswing effect on his slash. Just through the normal regression talked about, you could easily make the case for a 250/330/380 slash. You know who had a similar slash lines last year? Dan Uggla and Jason Kipnis.
On top of what the regression dragon and his red hot magma breath have in store, there is also some construction going on at Safeco. If you haven’t heard, the Mariners, like the Padres, have chosen to tinker with their respective park’s square footage. While the Mariners are moving portions of the outfield fence in, you can never be generally assured that fences moving in equals more offense for everyone. Like all things in baseball, it’s about the subtext. The most extreme changes are in the left-field power ally by the tune of 17 feet, which would benefit right-handed hitters. However, Ackley is a left-handed hitter and his power is to right-center, where the fences are coming in only 4 feet. While not a game-changer, there will be a slight benefit.
So what’s the Greydar say this year on the forthcoming rankings (I got a sneak peak!)?
“You know, Fantasy Gods, it sure doesn’t help that some of the upside guys are on the Padres, Marlins and Mariners. Never the hoo! Ackley hit 7 of his 12 homers last year in the 2nd half. Never the hoo my fanny hole, he also hit .217 in the 2nd half. There’s a chance here for a guy to get 15/15+, but he only hit 2 homers last year at home and his average might not get over .250 without some luck. 2013 Projections: 80/16/52/.245/12″
While I agree with never wanting hoo in my fanny hole, I think there’s a good chance Ackley outperforms Grey’s projections. Which makes him go under the Greydar. Not over, mind you. Like the White House, I don’t think anything is allowed above such a thing.
Its hard to imagine Ackley ever being a top-5 second baseman, the one elite category required just isn’t there. But there is no reason that he can’t be in the top-10 and hold good value, and I think that begins this year. If you can grab him late, I think you can expect a cute and cuddly rebound to the tune of… 2013 Projection: 97/17/68/.286/19