June 28, 2011
SEATTLE — In 2008, the Seattle Mariners couldn't win for losing. They finished the season with a pathetic 61-101 record, the third-worst by winning percentage in the team's history. They had lost 14 of 15 going into the season's final series, and the only saving grace to the season that spelled the end for general manager Bill Bavasi and interim manager Jim Riggleman — yes, THAT Jim Riggleman — was that the M's were in contention for the worst record in Major League Baseball. That would allow them to take San Diego State pitcher Steven Strasburg with the first overall pick, adding the most scrutinized draft prospect ever to a roster in need of an industrial-strength tub of spackle.
But the 58-101 M's swept the A's in that useless series, and the 59-99 Washington Nationals lost their season's last three games in Philly. The Nats got Strasburg, and the Mariners had to "settle" for North Carolina infielder Dustin Ackley(notes).
Strasburg came out of the gate like a nuclear combination of every mythical pitcher, but he's now working on a comeback from Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, Ackley, who was made to wait as the Mariners got their act together with a new philosophy of "build from within, and don't screw it up," is now reaping the rewards of that patience.
Ackley was called up earlier this month and started out hitting seventh for the M's, the better for him to ease his way into the majors. But it didn't take long for him for move up to second in the order, possibly providing the M's with the hitter behind Ichiro Suzuki(notes) they've been trying to find for … well, pretty much the whole time Ichiro's been in America. Ackley is currently hitting better in the five-spot, but small sample size alerts are abound.
His approach to plate coverage is fairly ridiculous. Through Ackley's first 18 major league at-bats and 29 major league swings, he didn't swing and miss once — he didn't throw the bat at a ball in vain until his last at-bat against the Nationals, which was his sixth game with the big club. He's made it on base in every game so far; in the two games he didn't collect a hit, he racked up a total of three walks.
"Yeah, I didn't even know about that — somebody else told me that," manager Eric Wedge said of the whiffless streak before Sunday's 2-1 win over the Florida Marlins, which was Ackley's first multi-hit effort in the bigs. "He's a bat-to-ball guy, and just as important, he gets the barrel on the ball. He has that knack — that ability, and that's been very consistent as long as I've seen him."
Ackley, who bats left-handed and throws right, is now hitting .303, his on-base and slugging percentages are already the highest on the team, and it's becoming easier to see where this is going.
"I'm just trying to get a pitch that I can hit," Ackley said when I asked him about his specific approach to plate coverage. "I think that's the key thing — just try not to swing at bad pitches for the most part. Those guys are tough, and they're going to try and make you chase pitches and get you out of your game. It's been a crucial thing to me to try and stay within myself and not try and do too much early."
Wedge continued to wax rhapsodic about Ackley after the game. "He gives himself a chance with each at-bat. He stays over the ball, he has a good swing, and he barrels up the ball as good as any young player I've seen in a long time. You put that all together and you're going to get on base quite a bit."
When asked what's surprised about Ackley so far, Wedge pointed to an underrated asset. "He's better defensively -- he's better than I anticipated. His heartbeat is as anticipated. His approach at the plate, the same. He's a pro, and he's got some good people to look to. [Bench coach] Robby Thompson, the way Adam Kennedy(notes) handles things, the energy of [Brendan] Ryan up the middle. He's surrounded by some good people. He obviously did one hell of a job in the minor leagues — they did one hell of a job with him down there."
For Ackley, it's a fairly intuitive approach that pays dividends at this point. He's not a film junkie; he prefers to get intel from other players and coaches. "Just talking to people, finding out what pitches [enemy pitchers] have is the key. I don't watch a whole lot of video at this point — maybe on the starter of the game in here, but as far as the relievers go, it's just knowing what they've got."
On his second at-bat against the Marlins on Sunday, Ackley took an Anibal Sanchez(notes) pitch over the head of center fielder DeWayne Wise(notes) and cruised into third with his second major league triple of the season. He later aimed a single just on the right side of first base, and hit a double in the top of the 10th inning against reliever Randy Choate(notes), who had allowed a .103 average against left-handed hitters all year. Ackley then took third on a Miguel Olivo(notes) sacrifice fly, and scored what turned out to be the winning run when Steve Cishek(notes) threw a wild pitch on an intentional walk to Carlos Pegeuro.
Ackley said that he'd never scored a winning run like that before. "Not so far in my career — that was a first. Hopefully, there will be some more like that to bounce our way; it'd be nice. You have to stay close to the bag because they're holding you there. After I saw him throw a couple of pitches, I said, 'Man, he's throwing a couple wide.' I thought that for a guy throwing from that angle, it'd be easy for one to get away. I was pretty ready, and when I saw the ball get by, I just ran as hard as I could."
"He's quick," Wedge said. "You know, he has some speed, and for a young player, he's got pretty good instincts, and he's just going to get better with that the longer he's up here."
Shortstop Brendan Ryan(notes), whose locker is next to Ackley's, joked about his new teammate in pseudo-legendary nickname terms as the media approached: "Don't talk to me — talk to the Barrel Finder."
Strasburg may be great, but he'll have a hard time topping that nickname.