ZEBULON, N.C. – Dustin Ackley always has been the kind of guy who can hit anything thrown at him. These days, that’s a lot.
In his first season as a professional baseball player, the former North Carolina star is having to learn a new position while hitting with wood bats, playing six or seven games a week and spending hours upon hours traveling in a bus with about two dozen other guys.
“It’s all a new experience,” he said at the Carolina Mudcats’ Five County Stadium.
Later in the day, Ackley and his West Tenn Diamond Jaxx teammates began a five-game Southern League Double-A series against the Mudcats that would mark the end of his second month of exposure to full-time minor league competition.
The transition hasn’t been as seamless as many fans expected when the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder became the No. 2 overall pick by the Seattle Mariners in the 2009 Major League draft.
A left-handed hitter, his batting average entering last Wednesday’s game was .206 with 28 base hits in 39 games – a stark departure from the .417 average he had as a first baseman in 66 games last season with the Tar Heels and a .315 mark during 20 games with the Mariners’ team in the Arizona Fall League.
Difficult rookie seasons aren’t unusual, of course. For all of his talent, Ackley knew there would be a big adjustment.
“The pitching’s a lot better at this level,” he said. “I see some of the same pitchers I saw in college ball. But instead of seeing the top pitcher once a week or something like that, you see one every game. It takes some getting used to.”
So does playing second base.
During most of his career in high school and at Carolina, the Winston-Salem native was a first baseman or outfielder. After hitting 22 home runs last season, the popular thinking was that he would go to the outfield if moved off first base.
But after paying Ackley a reported $6 million signing bonus, the Mariners obviously felt their investment would best be served by grooming him to second base, a position where talented prospects are more difficult to find.
“There are a lot of good outfielders in the organization, so I understand the decision,” Ackley said. “I’d played some second base, but not all that much. It’s a position where you’re involved in just about every play. It’s one of the toughest positions, but I think I’m learning it.”
The adjustment from the college game’s aluminum bats to wood also has been a challenge, but Ackley says the long bus rides have been the biggest change.
The Diamond Jaxx, located in Jackson, Tenn., made a 12-hour ride last week. There are some days when the game begins shortly after drives of three or four hours.
“You have to find ways to make sure you get your rest,” Ackley said. “It’s something everyone has to get used to, but you do spend a lot of time on a bus in one seat.”
At 22, Ackley is just learning the ropes, and there’s no reason to think his ceiling is any lower than when he was a college star.
The New York Yankees’ Robinson Cano, recognized as one of the best second basemen in the majors, had a .232 batting average in 118 games as a pro rookie. It wasn’t until his second and third seasons that Cano, a 175-pound left-handed batter, really started producing.
“I’m confident I’ll come around, and I’m not in a big rush,” Ackley said. “I understand I’ve got a lot to learn at this level, and learning takes some time.”