As the team reported for 2011 camp, there was a lot of buzz in Seattle around prized prospect and Dustin Ackley. The No. 2 overall selection of the 2009 draft behind Stephen Strasburg got off to a slow start in 2010 in his first regular season league action, but he ended up being promoted, getting on a hot streak and putting together a solid yet unspectacular rookie campaign, all while learning the play a new position, second base.
To get him further work at second, the M's sent Ackley as one of their seven representatives to the prospect-rich Arizona Fall League, where Ackley did nothing short of destroy the pitchers in the AFL. He led the league with a .424 batting average, a .581 on-base percentage, a .758 slugging percentage, an 1.338 OPS and with 28 runs scored. He was named the AFL's MVP, and immediately fans wanted to know if Dustin was ready to infuse some life into the Mariners offense right then and there.
But of course, with prospects there often is that tricky set of questions that revolve around service time, arbitration, super two status and team control. Surely Dustin Ackley was one of the 25 best players on the Mariners at the end of Spring Training 2011, but, as 2011 wasn't expected to be a season that saw the Mariners be competitive in the American League West, why waste a year of team control down the line? Truly a wise move--if not an overly popular one with fans--by the baseball club, as a year further down the line certainly has a much better chance of being more important than 2011 is from a wins-and-losses standpoint.
Ackley truly was still in the process of learning the nuances of his new defensive position as well. He played the position in 121 games in 2010, but many reports were that he still looked stiff on some plays and lacked fluidity in turning the double play. So 2011 opened with Ackley in Tacoma, for what everyone knew would be a temporary assignment. The key for him during this time were to get better on defense. Period.
He did hit a little bit while he was in Tacoma though. A .303/.421/.487 triple-slash with an improvement in nearly every aspect of his hitting: his extra base hit rate climbed, his walk rate climbed, his homerun/fly ball ratio increased, his strikeouts fell. Ackley did everything and more with the bat. His defensive stats improved, too. But many reports still had him as unpolished at second base. One prospect expert was even quoted as calling him, "an outfielder playing second base", while many just flat out stated that he could never be league average at the position.
With what they had in the bat (and with what the big league club lacked), it was clear that the Mariners weren't worried with those reports of his defensive shortcomings. The bat has translated very well to the big league level (more on that in a bit), but as fans have watched Dustin Ackley play 68 fairly impressive games at the position this season, they may be wondering just what those so-called experts were seeing in his defense to make them criticize it so freely.
Ackley has shown a very good arm and very reliable hands which have enabled him to make all of the plays that anyone would expect a lifer at second base make. His fielding percentage, Range Factor, UZR and anything else you want to use all show that Dustin Ackley has performed admirably at the position.
And, of course, he can swing the bat a little bit. Leading off his skills are great hand-eye coordination and a terrific batting eye paired with awesome plate discipline. He also has a solid line drive swing with the bat staying in the hitting zone a long time. In other words, he makes contact very well. He has shown perhaps more power than was expected from him heading into 2011 and, as he surprisingly said himself, "I try to hit a home run with every swing." Not sure that I'm buying that is truly his approach, but he does swing hard. He uses the whole field--evidenced in the fact that he has 28 hits to right, 28 to center and 23 to left, with eight of his 13 doubles going to the left of straight-away center field.
As pitchers have adjusted to Ackley, Dustin has adjusted to them. He has been consistently busted inside with fastballs since his early hot start, but you routinely see him turning on those pitches with authority now. He's hitting .302/.390/.517 at Safeco Field. He's hitting .263/.317/.406 after falling behind in the count. He's just hitting. Period.
Perhaps the most telling statistical number from Ackley's line is this: 52. 52 is the number of times that 23-year-old rookie Dustin Ackley has hit 3rd in the Seattle batting order already this season. 52 out of his 68 starts (the last 52, of course).
Dustin Ackley's progression with the bat in 2011 has made it very clear that he already is the Mariners best hitter. And the progress he has made with the glove this season has also made it clear that he is just fine as Seattle's second baseman as the club moves into what it hopes are more competitive seasons.