Don’t assume Dustin Ackley will start slow
By Dave Cameron
You’ve probably heard that Dustin Ackley is on fire down in Tacoma. After a tough April, Ackley is hitting .377/.482/.638 in May, and an even more impressive .463/.540/.707 in his last 10 games. He’s dominating Pacific Coast League pitchers, and it won’t be long before the Mariners give him a chance to show what he can do in the big leagues.
Given all the busted prospects the M’s have had over the last few years and the continuing struggles of most of the young hitters on the roster right now, I wouldn’t blame you for exercising a little skepticism about what Ackley might be able to do over the rest of the season. A lot of players tear up the minors only to face a reality check once they get to the big leagues, and gaudy numbers in Triple-A do not always translate to immediate success.
However, there are reasons to believe that Ackley may not experience the same growing pains the Mariners have had to endure with the likes of Michael Saunders, Jeff Clement, and Wladimir Balentien. Unlike the other three, Ackley succeeds using high level hand-eye coordination that makes up for a lack of big time power. While he has six home runs for the Rainiers already, he’s never going to be much of a slugger, and his value at the plate will come by racking up singles, doubles, and walks.
Over the last 20 years, players with this kind of high walk, low strikeout approaches have often made seamless transition to the Major Leagues. In 164 at-bats for Tacoma, Ackley has drawn 33 walks and struck out just 25 times. Here’s how a few other similar hitters have fared in that category before getting promoted:
Chuck Knoblauch, 1990 (AA): 432 AB, 63 BB, 31 K, 2 HR
Quilvio Veras, 1994 (AAA): 457 AB, 59 BB, 56 K, 0 HR
Jason Kendall, 1995 (AA): 429 AB, 56 BB, 22 K, 8 HR
Darin Erstad, 1996 (AAA): 351 AB, 44 BB, 53 K, 6 HR
Chris Coghlan, 2009 (AAA): 96 AB, 12 BB, 10 K, 3 HR
Logan Morrison, 2010 (AAA): 238 AB, 48 BB, 35 K, 6 HR
With the exception of Morrison, all of these guys are smaller, slender players with similar builds to Ackley. None of them had developed power when they got to the big leagues, and relied on the same kind of approach to hitting that Ackley specializes in. They were chosen for their similarities in hitting profiles, but also because they debuted between the ages of 22 and 24, putting them at similar experience levels to where Ackley is now.
Now, here’s that same group, but this time with their overall offensive numbers from their first Major League season.
Knoblauch, 1991: 565 PA, 59 BB, 40 K, 1 HR, .281/.351/.350 (Rookie Of The Year)
Veras, 1995: 538 PA, 80 BB, 68 K, 5 HR, .261/.384/.373 (3rd in ROY)
Kendall, 1996: 471 PA, 35 BB, 30 K, 3 HR, .300/.372/.401 (3rd in ROY)
Erstad, 1996: 229 PA, 17 BB, 29 K, 4 HR, .284/.333/.375
Coghlan, 2009: 565 PA, 53 BB, 77 K, 9 HR, .321/.390/.460 (Rookie Of The Year)
Morrison, 2010: 287 PA, 41 BB, 51 K, 2 HR, .283/.390/.447
As a group, these guys saw very minor changes in their walk and strikeout rates after getting promoted — the skills they showed in the minors transferred to the majors. They still didn’t have much in the way of power, but it didn’t matter, as they all hit fairly well right out of the gate.
Erstad was the worst of the bunch in his rookie season, but he also had the worst BB/K of the group in the minors (and worse than Ackley is putting up now), and he also turned into a fantastic hitter the very next season and was an All-Star by age 24. Knoblauch, Kendall, and Coghlan are probably the three best comparisons in terms of hitting skills to Ackley, and all three made instant impacts in the big leagues.
Skepticism of young players is easy to find, especially from anyone who has had to endure a painful at-bat from Michael Saunders of late, but Ackley is different — he’s not a hack whose flaws are going to be immediately exploited by MLB pitchers. He’s just a good hitter, and he’ll likely be a good hitter as soon as the M’s call him up.
(Note from Salk: For the second season, Dave Cameron from USS Mariner and Fangraphs will be writing for this blog. This year, he’ll be writing every other Thursday, alternating with Jeff Sullivan of LookoutLanding. Dave will be focusing on the Mariners from a statistical perspective whereas Jeff will bring his own unique brand of analysis. I’ll also be doing some writing for USS Mariner, bringing a taste of the clubhouse to that site. Enjoy!)