The 2013 Mariners are annoyingly familiar. They’re losing, for one, 12-17 at the moment. The offense is giving itself chances to score runs, but it spits on those chances before grounding them weakly to shortstop. Felix and Iwakuma are among the top five or so starters in the league right now, but the other three rotation spots have been inconsistent at best and horrible at worst. The bullpen has bright spots, but it’s dealing with some injuries and the replacements have been spotty. Injuries have also decimated the outfield. Michael Saunders just returned to the field after being one of the team’s best hitters early, and Michael Morse has apparently recovered from or at least learned to compensate for his broken finger, but Franklin Gutierrez is doing exactly what’s expected of him, with weird leg injuries halting then stopping his season.
Much of the lamenting has centered around the continued failure of the team’s supposed future, namely Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero. I’m not going to argue for Smoak and Montero, at least not right now, but Ackley’s demise might be greatly misstated. Or at least, his resurgence has been somewhat unnoticed.
Right now, Ackley is sitting on a .253/.284/.286 line. That’s not good, although the batting average is about 30 points higher than last year. His OPS+, which merely compares his OPS (.570) to league average, is 65. League average is 100, so he’s been 35% worse than average.
Now, time for fun with numbers and random cutoff points! Ackley started this season as cold as Antarctica. After seven games, he had two hits and two walks. If we take out those seven games, he’s batting .310. The OPS is still only .681, which isn’t good, but I’ll talk more about that below. If we look at roughly the last two weeks, starting April 17th, the line jumps to .383/.396/.447. Those numbers over a full season would be phenomenal and beyond any hopes we could have.
Picking starting and ending points like I just did is risky analysis, so I make no guarantees on anything here. It’s certainly possible Ackley is just on a hot streak and he will soon plummet Smoak-style. It’s also possible the first week or two was a terrible cold streak and the .310 BA is more realistic. Arbitrary date selection isn’t great, but it doesn’t automatically make a more hopeful interpretation illegitimate.
More interesting is the disparity in the stats. The batting average is great, but his on-base and slugging percentages still lag. Once the benchmark of offensive stats, batting average has fallen out of favor of late. OBP and slugging are more comprehensive, and more advanced stats go even further. Right now, everything Ackley is doing is batting average driven, and within that, it’s all singles-driven. He has three walks and three doubles, and 23 singles.
The scouting report on Ackley has always been he’s an elite contact hitter with a great eye and solid gap power. After fixing some mechanical issues dating back to last season, the contact skills seem to be on the rebound. He’s hitting the ball hard to all fields again and rolling over on pitches less. His plate discipline is hard to wade through. His swing rates are roughly the same as ever, although he’s swinging at pitches outside of the zone a bit more. That might be a good thing, as part of Ackley’s problem has been a stubborness in not swinging at borderline pitches. It hasn’t worked out well, so a slightly more aggressive approach might help. He’s making a little better contact in all facets this year, so something’s working.
The biggest concern with Ackley is the lack of both walks and power. I would bet the two are related. There’s no reason for pitchers to go outside the zone when they still have last year’s scouting report and he’s only hitting singles thus far. Add in that Ackley makes contact with almost everything, and pitchers are going to have to work hard to walk him. That’ll change if he keeps hitting like this, but the process would be helped greatly (as would his production) if more of his singles start going for extra bases. Pitchers are going to challenge him until he does some damage.
Dustin Ackley is on a singles streak, which is great and gives hope for the future. But he won’t continue to hit nearly .400, and he will need to do more than hit singles to really make an impact. Walks and at least gap power need to be a part of the package. I’m betting both will come soon. Ackley’s slowly putting his game back together. A barrage of doubles might signal the next and most important piece.