What is wrong with Dustin Ackley? I have been hearing that question nearly all year (and perhaps I am oversensitive since I own him in multiple fantasy leagues), so I decided to do a little digging.
Quick background on Ackley – drafted #2 overall out of UNC in 2009 (just after an SP you may have heard of) he rocketed through the Mariners system and made his debut halfway through the 2011 season. In 90 games last year, posted a wRC+ of 117 as a 23 year old second sacker on the back of a 278/348/417 triple slash in the hitter’s graveyard known as Safeco Field. His defense also clocked in as average to slightly above average, and by the end of the year a nice 2.7 WAR season (playing 60% of his team’s games) over his rookie campaign.
In 2012, things have gone far from swimmingly. At the All-Star break, Ackley finds himself the proud holder of a 233/311/325 line, good for a .284 wOBA and a wRC+ of 79, placing him squarely in the 2012 company of such luminaries as Gordon Beckham, Erick Aybar and Mike Aviles. That .233 batting average is particularly painful to the eye, and recently manager Eric Wedge’s frustrations have boiled over, hinting that changes are imminent. Though Justin Smoak would appear closer to the chopping block, the conventional wisdom seems to be that Ackley is really struggling and perhaps in need of a change of scenery – though I feel confident in saying that he doesn’t have any desire to see Tacoma in July.
Is Ackley really struggling? Let’s compare some of the basics of his 2011 campaign versus this year:
Ok, in almost an identical sample, Ackley’s walks and strikeouts are nearly identical, as are his HRs, SBs and line drive rate. Perhaps there are other changes evident if we dig a bit deeper and look at what he’s swinging at:
Ackley is swinging a bit less, and making a bit less contact. However, he’s not chasing more pitches, nor making significantly less contact (in fact, he’s making slightly more contact, and some additional out of strike zone contact, but nothing that looks like it would explain a massive change in what he’s doing at the plate.
Another reasonable question that arises pertains to AL pitchers – namely, are pitchers approaching him differently? The data suggests that he’s getting a bit more off-speed than before, but again nothing earth shattering:
|2011||59.8% (91.9)||12.1% (83.1)||6.6% (88.1)||9.9% (77.6)||
|2012||59.9% (91.6)||12.4% (82.7)||7.2% (87.5)||9.4% (77.0)||10.4% (83.3)|
So like most young hitters, Ackley proved in his rookie season that he can hit the fastball, so pitchers are feeding a bit more off speed – though again, most of Ackley’s swinging rates are largely unchanged from 2011 so there isn’t a ton of data to support the contention that this modified approach has driven Ackley’s struggles this year.
The last piece of the puzzle, as is often the case with hitters, lies in Ackley’s BABIP numbers. With help from Fangraph’s Jeff Zimmerman, we don’t have to settle for merely comparing BABIP from 2011 and 2012; rather we can drill down to the next level and try to understand what Ackley’s combination of line drives, grounders and fly balls would be expected to produce:
So basically, Ackley is putting up near identical numbers in every respect this season, except that his balls are being turned into outs far more often than we would expect, whereas in 2011 he was about where we would expect, to slightly lucky on balls in play. The final column of the spreadsheet (xAVG) recalculates his batting average as if the expected number of balls in play resulted in hits. The punch line? Ackley hit .273 last year and “should” have hit .259; he’s hitting .233 this year and “should” be hitting .263. If we weren’t concerned about Ackley in 2011, there is no reason to be concerned now.
Does this mean Ackley is free and clear? Of course not – he’s still striking out at a rate above 20%, and for a player with his limited power he’ll need to improve if he wants to ascend amongst AL second basemen. For now, however, he is a solid starting second baseman, which is more than enough for the struggling Seattle offense. Seattle has questions at C, at 1B, at 3B, and basically every OF position. What’s wrong with Dustin Ackley? Nothing.