Dustin Ackley believes he’s ready to make an impact
By Shannon Drayer
PEORIA, Ariz. – While the Mariners made a big addition to their offense over the winter with the acquisition of secnod baseman Robinson Cano, general manager Jack Zduriencik pointed out on multiple occasions that the club’s best path to success was for the young core players to take the next step.
Dustin Ackley is front and center in that group, and with needs in the outfield and at leadoff hitter, the opportunity for him to make an impact is there. He has the tools to contribute with the bat, in the field and with his legs. But for Ackley, who is still adjusting to playing in the outfield, success in all three areas starts with what he does at the plate, and success at the plate for Ackley starts with confidence.
“I learned for me last year it wasn’t so much the swing, it was more mental,” he said after a morning workout. “It was getting up there and you were defeated before you even got up there. But it is just getting back to how it used to be in college, where I would get up there and I didn’t think anybody could get me out. That’s what it felt like again at the end of last year. When I got out it was like, ‘That was not right, that was lucky. That shouldn’t have happened.’ Before, it was, ‘Oh man, I can’t swing at this pitch, that pitch, whatever.’ That really got me in trouble and I have really learned a lot from that, from the standpoint of if you are up there, no matter how good your swing is, if you are not mentally there it doesn’t matter how good you are.”
It was a tough and unexpected lesson to learn for someone who had never really struggled. It was even tougher to identify while he was in the middle of it. It wasn’t about the mechanics he was trying to change. It wasn’t about more work in the cages or talking with different coaches about hitting. He didn’t need to think more, he needed to think less at the plate.
“I was never ready to hit the first pitch,” he said. “No matter how hard I try I always thought about, well, I can’t make an out on the first pitch. I have been struggling. What are people going to think if I make an out on the first pitch and I am struggling?”
He became his worst enemy. If he appeared to be frozen at the plate on pitch one, well, he was.
“Early on when I wasn’t ready for the fastball. I was taking changeups down the middle, I was taking those first-pitch curveballs,” he said. “I think a lot of that just snowballed. Once I started to take pitches and it started to get into my mind, ‘I can’t make an out, I can’t swing at this pitch.’ When you are in that funk and you are not doing it, you are not ready, they are pounding that first-pitch heater, now you are down and now they go to work on everything else. I think that is where the struggles came. I was giving away the first pitch. I never hit it and all of a sudden I was having to swing at the best pitches they’ve got. It started to get really bad.”
Bad enough to earn a trip to Tacoma, where he made a very quick turnaround. Again, it wasn’t because of a mechanical change, rather one in his mindset. He discovered quickly that with the pressure erased in Triple-A he was more focused when he got to the plate and ready to hit the first pitch.
“Before I was like, ‘Well, if I am not ready I can’t hit these pitches,’ but the more I was ready for the fastball first pitch the more I was starting to hit the curveball first pitch, hit off-speed stuff,” he said. “So I got over that and thought ‘Who cares?’ I don’t have to worry about anybody but myself. I have got to get up there and focus. Nobody is going to do it for me. I just have to get up there and block that all out.”
Ackley hit .365 with a .972 OBP in 25 games with the Rainiers before being recalled. Confidence-inspiring numbers to be sure, but Ackley still needed to remind himself to not let the doubt creep back into his mind.
“I think even once I came back up there was a little bit of transition thing where I was like, ‘OK, just keep going, keep doing the same things. Even though it is a different level it is still the same game, still doing the same stuff.’ It started to kick in again, just being in on every pitch and being what it used to be,” he said.
Keeping it there involved a commitment to the mental side of the game, a key that he came across in a moment of desperation. Shortly after he was demoted to Triple-A, Ackley found himself wandering around a bookstore. He thought perhaps he could find some answers there and came across Harvey Dorfman’s “The Mental Game of Baseball”, a book many players have credited with helping them find success. The book resonated with Ackley and got him looking for answers beyond the batting cage. It showed him a bigger picture.
“Everything has had an impact,” he said. “Talking to people, reading stuff, getting positive thoughts back in my mind is a big thing. Help from the staff we have had, other players, (Raul) Ibanez, Kendrys (Morales). It was big just learning all that stuff. It is almost like learning to hit again. You are just focusing your mind. I always thought if you are a good hitter you are always going to hit well. Not really the case. Not if your head’s not there. You are not going to be as successful as you want.”
With his head in the right place he can push out the doubt that froze him last season. He can stop trying to make changes and trust that what he had, what got him to this level, is good enough if left alone and left to come through.
“For me it is more a feel. I don’t look at the mechanics like crazy now, it is more a couple of aspects I look at and after that it is feeling. It’s like, ‘OK, this feels right, this feels like it is how it should feel. I’m in the box, I’m ready and this is how I used to see the ball.’ “
“That’s going to be the biggest thing for me this year,” he continued, “being ready every game, every pitch, no matter what the circumstance. Nobody cares, you are going to be ready first pitch, be ready to hit.”
Expectations will be high for Ackley this year once more. He will have to continue to develop as an outfielder, a challenge he embraces. There is a leadoff position to be won as well, and for a team that finished 28th out of 30 in steals in 2013, he will be expected to use his speed to steal far more than the two bases he stole last season.
“For me I think that should be a big part of my game,” he said. “In the two years past with the struggles I had at the plate, when I did get on base I was a little tentative. Getting on base, running and stealing, I think that is going to be huge for me, and I think leadoff is definitely something I should shoot for. You get a lot more at-bats, you are hitting in front of a lot of good hitters. I think that is one of the goals this spring, to hit towards the top of the lineup. I think that will be real beneficial for me, and if I can handle it, good for the team.”
It is all there for the taking for Ackley. A renewed outlook, a good rapport with the new manager, Lloyd McClendon – who visited him at his home in Michigan in the winter – and a new feeling around the club put him in a good position to step up and show the potential he was drafted for. It is not about change; rather, it’s about getting back to what he was. He has experienced the struggles and believes he emerged from it with the tools he needs to avoid something similar. Time will tell, but for now he appears to have a good approach both at the plate and away from it.