Many Words on Dustin Ackley's Prospects as a Pro Hitter

I like seeing these two together.

Frankly, I don't know why I have to keep defending Dustin Ackley.  Typically, a player will come into the league with a lot of hype and people won't be so quick to judge a slow start.  It seems to me that if you are an actual baseball fan that has watched baseball for more than a couple of years, you'd know not to judge a player on small sample sizes and that there is an adjustment period.  It doesn't appear that's the case anymore.

Maybe in an age where you can instantly watch a movie on Netflix, Americans have lost that thing called patience.  It would explain why participation in Little Leagues is significantly down in the last 10 years, mostly because kids are calling baseball "boring"  If Adrian Peterson can dominate football in his first season, if Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco can be good as rookies, if Blake Griffin can win the Slam Dunk contest as a rookie, then why can't my favorite baseball player win an MVP as a rookie?

Jason Heyward just had one of the best rookie seasons you'll ever see, yet in the grand scheme of things it seemed very "meh."  Baseball got even unluckier when it appeared that the leagues best pitcher (not best rookie, but best PITCHER) could have been Stephen Strasburg last season, and then we lost him. 

So in comes Dustin Ackley as the clear-cut #2 pick in the 2009 draft.  There was just as little doubt that Ackley was the 2nd best prospect in the draft as there was that Strasburg was the best.  He was one of the purest hitters you'd ever see coming out of college, with a sweet left-handed swing, top-end speed, a keen eye, and a potential for more power than most guys of his stature. 

Yet it seemed almost immediately that his detractors started coming out of the woodwork.  "He won't ever hit for power"  "His speed isn't that great"  "Defense blah blah blah"

Well, even if the defense is an issue, it shouldn't affect fantasy owners in the short-term.  The Mariners are committed to him at 2nd base.  If Craig Biggio could eventually move from catcher to 2B, then Ackley will be able to move from centerfield to 2B until he has proven completely helpless.  That's where his value will be best utilized by the organization.

So, we have college numbers, and over a full year of minor league numbers.  Let's take a look at the REAL prospects of Dustin Ackley as a hitter and fantasy-player.


College

Ackley went to the University of North Carolina after earning some All-American accolades in high school as a third baseman and pitcher.  He broke out right away, winning National Freshman of the Year honors after hitting .402/.448/.591 and leading the nation in hits.  He hit 10 HR, stole 11 bases, scored 74 runs, and had a 30/21 BB/K ratio.

Nobody would blame him for not being able to top one of the greatest freshman seasons ever, but he did it anyway.  Ackley hit .417/.503/.597 with 7 HR, a school-record 82 R, 19 SB, and a 53/27 BB/K ratio. 

Ackley broke out the whomping stick in his junior year and hit .417/.517/.763, 22 HR, 13 SB, 75 R, and a 50/34 K/BB ratio.  Ackley is the only player in UNC history to hit over .400 twice in his career, and he did it three times.

To break it out in simple terms; Dustin Ackley is one of the top college baseball players of our generation.  The only thing that overshadowed him was Stephen Strasburg. 


2009 Arizona Fall League

Ackley was drafted #2 by the Seattle Mariners and since he was signed at the deadline, didn't make his pro debut that year.  He got his first taste of pro ball in the Arizona Fall League.  Ackley hit .315/.412/.425.  Yes, it is the AFL but still - there are good prospects and players in the fall league, and Ackley was amongst the best. 

This is one of my favorite arguments of people who look for something bad to say about a prospect.  "It's the Arizona Fall League, that's why he did good."  (Similarly, when its a league known for hitting like the PCL or California League)  My only answer is "I'm sorry.  Should he have done bad?"  Even if a player is hitting on the moon, I'd prefer he did good than bad.  Ackley hadn't played organized baseball in months, and got right into his stride.

2010 AA West Tennessee

He debuted in 2010 with Double-A West Tennessee.  He got off to a horrible start and hit .147/.289/.227 in 90 plate appearances in April.  Basically, this is where anybody that dislikes Ackley get all of their ammo.  His first month of professional baseball. 

I'm not saying that it's not a month that happened.  It is something to be accounted for.  He hit really bad for a month in 2010. 

His overall line in West Tennessee ended up at .263/.389/.384, 2 HR, 29 RBI, 21 doubles, 55 BB, 41 K's, 8 SB over 350 PA's before being promoted to AAA. 

The negatives: Ackley didn't flash any power.  Even when he hit well, he wasn't hitting home runs.  Not expected to fill out immediately and become a power hitter, the hope was and still is that Ackley can develop something like 15-20 HR power, and he only hit 2 in a little over 3 months at AA.  People expecting more speed were also disappointed, as Ackley "only" stole 8 in a little over a half-season, despite getting on base so much.  Additionally, Ackley hit the ball on the ground 56% and only 12% line drives.

The positives: After April, Ackley was almost everything he was expected to be and in some cases, more.  He had a .180 BABIP in April, and that immediately shot up to .355 in May and so all of the rest of his numbers shot up too.  In 101 May PA's: .303/.475/.447 was his triple slash.  He had a .421 wOBA, a .144 ISO, walked 21.8% of the time and struck out only 12.9%.  In 119 June PA's: .294/.387/.451, .369 wOBA, .157 ISO, 13.4% walks, 9.2% K's and line drives were up to 14%. 

Ackley was hitting for average, drawing a ridiculous amount of walks, limiting strikeouts, displaying fair power for a player of his size, and because his BB/K numbers were still elite in April, one can argue that many of his failures were attributed to BABIP.  To be fair, he was not yet displaying the 20/20 (or maybe 15/30) kind of numbers many people were expecting. 

After 40 PA's in July, Ackley hit .333/.400/.389 and was promoted to AAA Tacoma.

2010 AAA Tacoma

Ackley was one of the youngest hitters in AAA at 22-years-old and still in his first pro season.  His numbers kind of got all "reversey" (A word I'm allowed to make up) when he got there.  His strikeouts outnumbered his walks for the first time, but he was displaying more power.  His final line in 237 PA's was .274/.338/.439, 5 HR, 23 RBI, 12 doubles, 4 triples, 2 stolen bases, 20/38 BB/K ratio, .165 ISO. 

His road numbers were significantly better than his home numbers.

HOME: .253/.315/.394

ROAD: .292/.357/.478

Though the PCL is known as a hitting league, Tacoma's park factors show that it is much tougher on hitters than say Colorado, Reno, or Tuscon.  And even tougher on left-handed hitters.  You could surmise that his home numbers were hampered by the fact that it's a tougher stadium to play in than most in the PCL, and conversely that his road numbers were helped by the rest of the PCL. 

The negatives: Ackley's overall numbers were less than expected.  His minor league best K/BB ratio numbers suffered, though they were still better than average.  His OBP should be his greatest strength, and it wasn't.  He also stole only 2 bases.

The positives: He was still one of the youngest hitters in the league, and holding his own.  Despite the reputation that a AAA pitcher may get as being "bad" because they areoften older veterans that haven't been able to stick in the major leagues, or not good enough to get called up, they are still significantly talented pitchers and in many cases much older than Ackley.  His power numbers shot up and were closer to the 15 HR per season range we would hope for.  And though he stole only 2 bases, his 4 triples in less than half-a-season (and 8 triples overall) show that he really does have significant speed and perhaps just wasn't getting enough stolen base opportunities, green light, that sort of thing.  Stealing bases is more than just speed, it is an artform.  So it's still too early to tell if Ackley doesn't steal bases because of opportunity, or because he's not a great base stealer.


2010 Arizona Fall League

Ackley followed up his very good 2009 AFL with an MVP performance in 2010:

.424/.581/.758, 4 HR, 19 RBI, 28 R, 5 for 5 on stolen bases. 

Again, say what you want about the AFL, I'll probably agree with you.  It was only 20 games, but on the same token, look at his counting stats in only 20 games.  To me, it shows that within Dustin Ackley is a lot of talent.  Whether or not that can be tapped into on a consistent basis is the same question we have to ask ourselves about every prospect.

2011 AAA Tacoma

He returned to AAA Tacoma this season to work on his second base defense, refine his hitting, and run down his Super Two clock.  Like in 2010, he did not hit the ground running. 

In 114 April PA's: .211/.333/.305, .094 ISO, 2 HR, 15.8% BB, 14.9% K, 55% GB, 15% LD, .237 BABIP, 4 SB

The average and power is bad, the groundballs are discouraging.  However, the BB/K is still elite, and his line drives have been up since he arrived in Tacoma. 

If he can continue what he's done in May however, he'll be exactly the player everyone has expected, wanted, or hoped for:

(10 Games) 50 PA's, .300/.420/.600, .300 ISO, 3 HR, 18% BB, 10% K, 43% GB, 17% LD, .281 BABIP, 2 SB

In this recent stretch he's hit for average, power, speed, with an incredible eye at the plate and without a BABIP he's capable of. 

Conclusion on Minor Leagues thus far:

Positives: Ackley has an elite eye.  There's no denying that his BB/K ratio is amongst the best in the minors and could translate into amongst the best in the major leagues.  On par with a Daric Barton or a Billy Butler type player, but perhaps with less strikeouts.  Even when he's bad, he's great at this.

In 85 AAA games total he's hit .259/.348/.421, 10 HR, 18 doubles, 39 RBI, 8 SB, 4 CS, 56 R.  I think his power is a little underrated at this point.  Yes, its going to be tougher to translate that power to the major leagues, especially Safeco Field, but it's not super easy to hit in Tacoma either. 

Negatives: His slow starts are discouraging and it's not typical of elite players to be so "dead-looking" for month-long stretches.  He can look so good at times (AFL, a month here and there) and also at times look so bad. 

He's got a low overall average throughout his time in the minor leagues.  Hoping he develops into a .300 hitter and not a .275 hitter, and one who is able to spray line drives and opposite field doubles. 

More discouraging than his low stolen base total, is his low success rate on his 12 attempts at AAA. 

Splits:

I don't know exactly what to think of his splits.  While he struggles to hit lefties for a higher average, he actually has a higher OPS against lefties this season:

vs Lefties: .219/.395/.375

vs Righties: .243/.350/.388

Also, last season he was better on the road in the PCL than at home.  This season, its the opposite.

HOME: .317/.427/.556, 4 HR, 16% BB, 13.3% K, 42% GB, 20% LD, .327 BABIP, .239 ISO, .415 wOBA

ROAD: .167/.303/.250, 1 HR, 16.9% BB, 13.5% K, 58% GB, 12% LD, .186 BABIP, .083 ISO, .266 wOBA

What these mean to me:

On the bright side, his low road BABIP is going to drive down his other numbers.  I also like that no matter the situation, Ackley is going to draw a lot of walks and limit strikeouts.  On the other hand, when he drives more balls into the ground more often, of course his BABIP is going to go down because there's a lower BABIP on groundballs compared to line drives. 

When Ackley is hitting line drives, limiting grounders, he's going to be a good hitter because of superior BB/K numbers and a good power/speed combination. 

Translation to the Pros

Barring some shocking move, Ackley will be playing his pro games for the Seattle Mariners for at least the first few years of his career.  Safeco is a notorious pitchers park, which should limit most players abilities.  How should it affect Ackley specifically?

Safeco's splits for lefties and righties is equal when comparing overall wOBA.  Per StatCorner, the 96/96 wOBA split means hitters are going to have a tougher time than average. 

Splitting it further, it is easier for lefties to hit home runs in Safeco because of the shorter porch in right (94/84 split) but this also limits lefties on doubles and triples (83/101 on doubles, 60/92 on triples)  However, line drives occur at a higher rate at Safeco for both sides of the plate (108/108) which is encouraging for a player like Ackley if he's hitting 20% line drives.   

I had never actually seen these splits in Safeco before, never seen it broken down this way, but it makes a lot of sense when I look at it.  Despite his speed and his ability to put the ball in play hundreds of times a year, Ichiro was never an elite doubles or triples hitter.  Or at least not the kind of totals you would expect. 

Ackley will spend the majority of time in Safeco, but also spend a significant amount of time in Oakland, LAA, and Texas.  Oakland and LAA also have slightly below average park factors for hitters.  Texas however has a 156/145 park factor on triples and a 120/109 park factor on home runs.  Oakland lefties have a 118 park factor on triples.  It's a really small thing, but I'm just looking at every angle I can think of.  There are still other places that will kill line drive hitting lefties. 

Conclusion on potential pro numbers:

Based on everything I've seen, I have my doubts that Ackley will ever hit for a high batting average.  It seems like he should hit for a high average, but because he uses his eye to get on base so much, its hard to conclude what he would do if he ever got the bat off his shoulder.  Still, he hit well over .400 in his career at North Carolina, so maybe somewhere in there are a few high average seasons.

His on-base percentage is unquestionable.  He'll draw a lot of walks, and even if he hits .270, could reach at nearly .400 or better.  His power comes and goes, but lately its been there.  In his time in AAA, hes hit for significant power for a small statured second baseman and I believe that with Safeco as his home park he could hit between 15 and 20 home runs in his prime.  Maybe 10 to 15 home runs in his first couple of seasons.  I think the potential is there for 20 home runs, perhaps Craig Biggio type power.  I think doubles and triples could be similar to Ichiro, but maybe slightly higher if he is stroking more line drives.  30-35 doubles, 5-10 triples seems like a good estimate in his prime. 

Stolen bases are the big question mark.  All the reports about elite speed, yet not the stolen bases numbers you would expect.  However, stolen bases are very dependent on team, coach, situation, and opportunity.  Whether Ackley is a good base stealer would be easier for a person like me to evaluate when he's in the majors, and seeing how often he gets the green light from Eric Wedge and how often he is in the right spot.  Wedge and the Mariners seem to like grabbing extra bases, have focused on players like Chone Figgins, and will require more small ball to score because of the size of the park.  I think Ackley is more than capable of 20 stolen bases during a full season, and has potential to grab 30 plus with Seattle.  It will be hard to say until he actually gets here, but I believe the speed at least to be real.

If I attempted to venture a guess on what a regular Dustin Ackley season would be like, I suppose I would conclude this:

.275/.380/.440, 15 HR, 75 RBI, 90 R, 20 SB, 30 doubles, 8 triples 

I think that's a typical season he is capable of.  Which would mean sometimes he can eclipse that and sometimes he won't quite get there. 

Comps:

When it comes to plate discipline and power, I think Daric Barton 2010 is a good start.  He walks, doesn't strike out, has 10-15 HR power, a .359 wOBA.  I think what would separate the two would be the speed, which would increase Ackleys stolen bases and runs over a player like Barton. 

Others might think more like 2010 Brett Gardner: .277/.383/.379, 5 HR, 47 SB, 97 R, but with less stolen bases and runs. 

Another example might be 2010 Johnny Damon: .271/.355/.401, 8 HR, 11 SB, 81 R, 51 RBI.

Historically, I think the height of what Ackley can become is Craig Biggio.  Far be it from me to compare a minor leaguer to a Hall of Famer, but there are similar conclusions for the two men who have been transferred to second base during their pro careers.  Biggio was a career .281/.363/.433 hitter who averaged 17 HR, 24 SB, 67 RBI, 105 R, and 38 doubles.  The reason Biggio is a Hall of Famer is because that was his average over 20 freakin' seasons.  All I'm saying is that I see many similarities in what could be Ackley's prime. 

Fantasy Outlook:

If Ackley were to become what I think he can become over the next couple of seasons, I would probably rate him as as perhaps the 9th-12th best 2nd baseman in the game.  (Not including other prospects) 

2nd Base is deeper than it used to be.  Cano, Kinsler, Weeks, Utley, Kendrick, Uggla, Phillips, and Zobrist just for starters.  Then I think he's in the mix with Prado, Kelly Johnson, Walker, and Beckham.  So much can change between now and 2012. 

But will he be a good fantasy baseball player? Yes.  Will he be elite?  Less likely, but possible.  His floor his very high and his ceiling, while high, is unlikely to be achieved.  I think for a few seasons he could be very highly sought while at other times he won't be liked by fantasy owners when he's going through a slump unless that league counts walks.

 

You thought I was kidding that this was many words?  I clearly wasn't. 

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