Churchill: Hope For Dustin Ackley
Through the month of June, 2014, Dustin Ackley was a career .241 hitter with a paltry .308 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage — .350 — that should be his on-base mark. His rookie season of 2011 was promising, but it’s been all downhill since.
In 2012, Ackley managed a .226/.294/.328 triple-slash, and despite 12 home runs and 59 walks, struck out 124 times and managed just 36 total extra-base hits. A year later he struggled so mightily that a streak of 19 hitless at-bats in May prompted the club to send him back to Triple-A Tacoma for a month.
He returned after clubbing Pacific Coast League pitching for a month and went 19 for his next 81 (.235) with six doubles, and basically more of the same mess.
He did have a gigantic August batting .390/.420/.597 and despite a .229 average in September with no power (.300 slugging percentage in 70 at-bats), he drew 15 walks and posted a .365 on-base percentage. There was hope, at least a glimmer, when 2014 began. New manager Lloyd McClendon showed tons of confidence in Ackley by saying in March that Ackley was the left fielder.
But then 2014 began.
Ackley hit a frigid .243/.278/.338 in April after going 2-for-4 with a triple on Opening Night. May wasn’t much better — .221/.287/.395 — and June was one of Ackley’s worse months as a professional when he hit .165/.233/.215 for the month.
And as fast as Keyser Soze disappeared into broad daylight, Ackley not only flipped a switch toward a hot streak in July, but may have actually made a meaningful change in his setup and mechanics.
Batting stances long have been the most over-discussed aspect of a hitter’s game. Where his feet are, where his hands are and how open or closed he may or may not be means little to zero. What does matter is where his hands are when the pitcher releases the ball and whether or not his setup allows him to get his hands through the strike zone in time and cover the entire plate effectively.
A stance may be ugly — remember Julio Franco’s bat wrap? Craig Counsell’s bat being stretched into the sky top-end first? — or it may seem like his stance is just fine. Thing is, it doesn’t matter what it looks like. At all. Not even a little bit. Aesthetically, a batter’s stance can be as ugly as sin. Mechanically within the swing is where it matters.
Ackley bails to the right side of the infield — toward the hole between first and second base — on every pitch in which he swings. Every swing. Yes, bails, present tense, including throughout his torrid July where the former N. 2 pick is batting .375/.392/.486 with eight doubles and nine multi-hit games in 20 starts.
Ackley pulls off the ball — front side, including feet, hips, head and ultimately his hands — which makes it difficult to stay on and handle pitches middle-away or away, and makes it tougher for Ackley to consistently square up pitches in the middle of the zone and even middle-in. Such a flaw makes any batter very easy to attack. Generally speaking, Ackley has been getting himself out without a lot of work from the pitcher.
Ackley hasn’t made alarmingly-noticeable mechanical changes in his swing. It’s basically the same from his front side opening early to pulling everything important with it. What is different is his timing, and where he is standing in the batter’s box, relative to home plate, which dictates the strike zone, of course.
Before showing what he’s doing differently now, let’s look back on Ackley’s setup since he broke into the big leagues. Each screenshot is frozen at or near release or during the flight of the ball to illustrate where Ackley is at those points.
First Career MLB At-Bat
As you can see above, as Roy Oswalt’s pitch is more than halfway to the plate, Ackley’s front foot is near the ground, triggering his swing. His hands are back in this frame, a good sign that he isn’t going to get out on his front foot and roll over a grounder to second. He stayed back and singled up the middle in this at-bat.
October 1, 2012
I chose this game because it was the end of the 2012 season, Ackley’s first full season in the majors. Angels lefty C.J. Wilson has yet to release the ball in this shot, and Ackley still is in good position to hit.
What occurs after that, however, has been most of Ackley’s problems hitting consistently in the big leagues.
(Yes, I know, I’m showing you what appear to be batting stances and setups after proclaiming them useless, but there’s a point to this, so stay with me, and note that these shots are being frozen with the pitcher about to release the ball or having already released the ball, not as he’s getting the sign. In essence, these are not batting stances and setups at all.)
October 2, 2012 — SWING
Any novice can see how imbalanced, both vertically and horizontally, Ackley’s entire body is in this frame and he’s a split second from contact. If he makes contact, the torque created will be all hands, wrists and arms. His legs and midsection are not able to help much. He’s taken them out of the equation.
To contrast, here is Kyle Seager at the same point, in the same game:
Notice Seager’s legs are lined up with his body and in sync with his hands and head.
Ackley made small adjustments here and there in terms of his setup over the last few years, but little to none to his weight transfer, timing mechanisms and anything that eliminates how early he opens his hips.
Ackley May 26, 2013
The above shot is the day before he club optioned him to Tacoma last season.
Ackley June 28, 2013
The above shot is Ackley in his first at-bat after being recalled. What followed was nearly frame-for-frame identical to the swing he took versus Wilson the previous October, with one small exception. That exception is a less of a step toward the first base hole, but instead one toward where the second baseman generally plays. It’s not nothing, but it didn’t help Ackley stay home, stay balanced and cover the plate. The results didn’t change at all.
Here is Ackley this past April
And here is Ackley July 24
The difference between April and July is noticeable in his setup in two manners. First, he’s closed this month while he was much more open pre-pitch back at the start of the season.
But Ackley is also a bit closer to the plate, and he’s not resting the bat on his shoulders. Instead, his hands already are in the hitting position, perhaps just an inch or so higher, but also clearly back a tick or two toward the backstop.
Ackley has above-average bat speed, a short swing and good hand-eye coordination. What he’s essentially done here with these changes is trust that his bat speed and bat-to-ball skills will win out even if his swing is a half-touch longer and he starts his swing a half-tick later.
What this does for him is keep his hands back and any success with it appears to have given him the confidence to stay on the ball longer before triggering his hands.
Being a little closer to the plate can help him cover the outer half of the plate better while his bat speed, quick hands, et al, allow him to get to balls middle-in, even if he stays back longer.
He’s been doing it more this month and it’s paying off for him. Whether or not it’s sustainable, and to what extent it will help him produce remains to be seen. But it’s something tangible and there may be more to come in terms of adjustments.
Covering the outer half better will invite pitchers inside more where most Ackley’s extra-base power happens to be, and where all of his home run power lives.
What Ackley has done still is not enough, in my opinion, to allow all of his natural baseball skills to max out, as he’s still giving away leverage, but it’s something on which to keep an eye as the season progresses — if Ackley remains in Seattle beyond the trade deadline.
What pitchers are likely to do more of once they catch up to these adjustments is tease Ackley inside off the plate and challenge him in when the count or pitch sequence may call for the opposite. But that’s where Ackley’s hands and coordination come into play, and his discipline will become increasingly critical if he wants to be consistent.
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