Dustin Ackley was demoted by the Mariners after almost two months of offensive futility. While he hit enough in 2012 that his defense and baserunning still made him a worthwhile MLB player (though not the possible star that many suggested he could be, especially after his 90 games in 2011), his 2013 numbers were so bad that no amount of baserunning or defense could justify playing him, and there was no reason to keep him on the bench since he has options left and you could still consider him in the “development phase”. In this post, we will just look at the 2012 data, seeing which kind of pitches he is seeing, and where he is being pitched, and attempt to see what happened to Ackley and whether or not his problems are fixable.
Here are all the pitchers he has faced, labelled with results (Swinging strikes are overlaid on top intentionally on these graphs, with out and no out plays also showing up towards the top), via release points:
Here are all the pitches he has seen so far via the spin and speed chart:
It seems like he was struggling with top notch velocity according to the graph, but really has just 4 whiffs on the 58 fastballs he saw over 95 MPH (and 92-95 MPH fastballs give similar results). He also swung and missed at just 5 of the 82 pitches he saw below 80 MPH, suggesting he was handling most curveballs (and knuckleballs) pretty well, or at least, he wasn’t swinging and missing at a ton. Swinging and missing wasn’t a problem for Ackley, as he did it just 4.5 % of the time, the lowest in his career and half of league average. The problem then, was either weak contact or batting average on balls in play luck (or a mixture of both).
Looking at Ackley’s spray chart (via Texas Leaguers), he made a lot of outs to 2nd, just like last year, rolling over on balls, and most of his hits seemed to come from up the middle or going the other way, with no real power at all (the only power he really had were on a couple of pulled balls).
On pulled balls, Ackley has an OPS less than half of league average OPS (for left-handed batters). His BABIP on pulled balls is also over .100 lower than league average. It is hard to imagine that this is all luck, and when you adjust the BABIP, Ackley’s OBP and OPS is still well below league average on pulled balls. When you look at Ackley’s infield batted ball OPS and outfield batted ball OPS, it is still below league average, but he still has an OPS over 1.000 on balls hit to the outfield. Even if there is some batted ball luck going on there, it doesn’t explain all of it. Ackley has a higher percentage of balls staying in the infield than going out to the outfield, while league average is opposite (because of the nature of recorded batted ball data, if a hitter smokes a line drive right at the first baseman, it counts as staying in the infield, so there could still be some batted ball luck bias, but I don’t think there is a lot of evidence that Ackley has just been hitting a ton of line drives right at infielders). He just doesn’t seem to be hitting the ball very hard.
What does this say about the way pitchers are pitching him? Let’s look at his average locations:
Nothing too unusual here, though the average locations seem to be a little more outside than you usually see. His hits and runs scored are a little higher than most of the pitches, and it seems that he makes just general contact on high pitches as well. The swinging strikes is a little below the rest of the pitches, which is also normal.
There does seem to be a school of thought that Ackley had gotten too passive, that he wasn’t swinging at enough pitches (though, as the data suggests above, when he does swing, he is making a lot of contact but none of it very hard). This season, he was swinging at less pitches than average, both in the zone and out of the zone, and he was seeing more pitches in the zone than the average pitcher as well. Here are all pitches he swung at, along with the MLBAM tags:
His take chart:
He was just not pitched inside and up very much at all, and is getting a whole lot of pitches thrown outside to him, many of them far outside, some of them he is swinging at, but most of them not. This means that nearly anything he did try to pull turned into easy outs. Clearly though, the problem was not perceived bat speed, as he wasn’t jammed inside. The problem may have been approach though, as teams could throw it outside and he would still try to pull it, thought that is not what the splits say (in 2013 Ackley went 25.2 Pulled %, 54.3 Middle %, 20.5 Opposite %, versus league average 27.9 Pulled %, 54.8 Middle %, 17.4 Opposite %, meaning he was relatively balanced, pulling a little less than league average). Instead, it seems like he was taking a lot of inside pitches in the strike zone, only feeling comfortable (or seeing) swinging at pitches on the outside part of the plate. Ackley’s odd swing mechanics have been discussed quite a bit, and I don’t feel a need of show screenshots of his swing that regular viewers of the Mariners would already be familiar with anyway. Maybe it is approach and a mental thing, or maybe the Mariners will have to rebuild his swing mechanics. Their doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to fixing Ackley, but perhaps the best approach is to emphasize slap hitting abilities and teach him to reach for balls better (easier said than done), at least until pitchers start coming inside on him again. It just seems like it would be really difficult to hit the ball with authority when pitchers have no reason to come up and in. A chicken and egg/causation question is raised of course, as perhaps his passive approach lets pitchers throw on the outside part of the plate all day and Ackley never swings and causes them to throw the ball inside. Or alternatively, pitchers never come inside and Ackley never swings because when they throw the ball on the outside part of the plate and Ackley does swing, he just hits it weakly.