The Seattle Mariners are a franchise that has had a number of star players come through over the years. All-Star infielders, Hall of Fame outfielders, Cy Young Award winning starting pitchers. But left field has more or less been a disappointment. Outside of a few Raul Ibanez seasons and maybe a Phil Bradley campaign or two, left field has been a position of continual under performance by nearly everyone Seattle has run out there for 37 years.
Dustin Ackley's college career was primarily spent at first base, the result of a ligament tear which led to Tommy John surgery early in his career, likely the result of pitching too much in high school. He played 125 of his first 141 games at first base for the Tar Heels as a freshman and sophomore before being transitioned to second base upon signing with the M's. That position change went away last year when Nick Franklin came up to replace Ackley, who was going on nearly two years of struggles after a hot start to his big league career, and now with Robinson Cano in town for the next 10 years it is safe to say that second base in Seattle isn't happening again for Ackley, or anyone else for that matter. But although that arm injury was long ago, the questions about his correct position, his arm strength and his ceiling because of that have never truly gone away.
The usual take on Ackley as a left fielder? He won't hit enough to warrant being played at the position. And he doesn't have the arm and doesn't have the range to offset the offensive deficiency that you'll be accepting by putting him out there. The funny thing is, though, if you look at the numbers that left field has typically produced, it starts to look like the exact position you'd pencil Ackley in to play.
Over 20,000 plate appearances went to big league left fielders in 2013 and they combined to hit .259/.323/.412 as a group. 30 players in MLB qualified as left fielders and got at least 400 plate appearances in 2013. Their average output? .262/.332/.427, 16 home runs, 12 stolen bases, 2.3 fWAR is what FanGraphs tells us. And if we eliminate the extreme outliers by removing Mike Trout (10.4 fWAR) and Vernon Wells (-0.8 fWAR), the average is 2.1 fWAR. Who doesn't think that Dustin Ackley can reach those figures for Seattle?
Ackley hit .253/.319/.341 on the year for Seattle in 2013 and owns a career mark of .245/.315/.354 in his 356 big league games. Not exactly standing out against those stats above, but the former No. 2 overall pick hit .304/.374/.435 in 53 games in the season's second half last year and has come into spring training this year seemingly still riding that hot streak. Only two qualified left fielders -- Trout and Boston's Daniel Nava -- bested all three of those slash marks over a full season last year. And eight games into his Cactus League season here in 2014 Dustin is hitting .478/.500/.870 (11-23), collecting six extra base hits and consistently driving the ball into the outfield.
Ackley played mainly center field last year after his position switch but was told by manager Lloyd McClendon that he'd be seeing time solely in left field this year. Why? "Because that's where I want him," the M's new skipper says, matter-of-fact-ly. Adding, "I think our challenge is to get him in one place and leave him there and let him flourish." To that end, Dustin was noticeably tentative on his routes at times in the outfield last year, but outfield coach and former Gold Glover and All-Star Andy Van Slyke has done a lot of work with Ackley and the reports out of spring so far indicate that he is looking more comfortable as an outfielder.
Getting Ackley comfortable has been a process over his time in the organization as he has undergone position switches and swing changes along with a roller coaster in terms of confidence. Before he was sent down to Tacoma to work on finding himself at the plate and becoming an outfielder, Ackley was making a lot of soft outs, often rolling over on hittable pitches and pulling easy ground balls to the second baseman. When he returned to the big leagues he was covering the outer half better and finding many more hits to left field as a result. To end the year he was driving the ball with authority more, finding the gaps and clearing the fence to his pull side with much more regularity. The numbers show that Ackley had a 4.6% XBH rate in the first half, 7.7% in the second half, including connecting for three of his four home runs on the year over his final 26 starts. And that trend has continued in spring, as mentioned above and pictured below, as Dustin continues to hit the ball with authority.
There were definitely hard times and frustrations -- for the player, for the fans and certainly for the organization. Can he end the streak of frustration, not just for himself but for a franchise light on left fielders throughout their history? That may still be too soon to answer definitively, but the player that Dustin Ackley has evolved into over the last nine months appears to be the exact type of player that the Mariners need; an athletic, good hitter that plays in the outfield and can run. And he is hitting enough to be their left fielder.
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