PEORIA, Ariz. – For Dustin Ackley, this is brand-new territory. He has always been the prodigy, the hitting machine. He was the one who routinely caused teammates and opponents alike to marvel at his consistency, his approach, his stroke.
Dustin Ackley is used to being the best hitter on his team, not the one flailing to figure out why he can’t get on track, no matter what or how hard he tries.
And yet that’s precisely where Ackley found himself last year, as he endured by far the worst season of his baseball life. The precision of his swing eroded. The bone spur that had sat in his left ankle since his freshman year in college caused increasing discomfort.
And his batting average plummeted to .226, almost inconceivable for a hitter of Ackley’s reputation. That’s about 100 points below the best-case scenario envisioned for Ackley when the Mariners made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft, right behind Stephen Strasburg and 23 picks ahead of Mike Trout.
When it came to his stance, his swing, the mechanics that had always come so naturally, “I didn’t really know what was going on,” he admitted.
Ackley calls it “by far the toughest year” he’s ever had at the plate (but contrasted with his best season defensively, good enough to be a finalist for the Gold Glove at second base. “Kind of weird how it all works out,” he said.)
Ackley was often tempted to shed his seemingly imperturbable demeanor, but always resisted. “There was a bunch of times I wanted to boil over,” he said. “I don’t think you really can. You have to stay within yourself, keep playing games, stay day to day with everything. If it was football and I had a week to think about it, I probably would have boiled over a little bit.”
When the season ended, Ackley took the steps he felt necessary to regain the upward trajectory of his career. The first day of the offseason was spent in surgery, removing the spur he never once brought up to explain away his struggles.
“I never really thought it was an excuse because I could play on it,” he said. “There’s probably tons of guys out there that have nagging things but never talk about it.”
But the ankle increasingly ached as the season progressed. It affected his running, and caused him, in the words of trainer Rick Griffin, to walk like an old man on the mornings of day games. Ackley is honestly not sure how much of his struggles were attributable to real or subconscious concessions he made to the ankle.
“When I was in the box and the adrenaline was pumping, I didn’t really feel it ever,” he said. “But maybe it did (cause changes in his mechanics). I can’t say that it did when I didn’t feel it in the box. It’s hard for me to say that’s the reason I hit bad or this or that.”
Manager Eric Wedge believes the ankle issues were “a small part” of Ackley’s slump. “I don’t think it was a deciding factor or anything. But I think it was part of it,” he said. The bigger part was that Ackley’s mechanics got out of whack, whatever the reason. He consulted this winter with many of his old baseball buddies and coaches, the ones who know his swing the best. The result: A revised batting style that has been apparent in early cage work here. He starts out with his shoulders facing the pitcher before shifting into a more traditional hitting stance.
“It just puts me in good positions,” he said. “Last year, with the old stance I had, there was no separation, my hands, and everything. I worked on it a lot this offseason just to get that feel of maybe what it used to feel like, as opposed to last year, when I didn’t really know what was going on. I think that was important for me this offseason.”
Wedge believes Ackley is still on track to be “a good major-league hitter.” His appraisal is conspicuously, and probably intentionally, free of lofty forecasts. No need to heap on the pressure of expectations.
On one thing, both Ackley and his manager are in agreement. The unfamiliar humbling experience of 2012 could, and should, ultimately help Ackley.
“It should motivate him,” Wedge said. “But he shouldn’t be afraid of it.”
“I think going through that is probably going to be important for me for my career – to know that I’ve been there and know how to handle those situations,” said Ackley. “It was bad last year, but I think it’s going to be a good thing for me in the long term.”
Call him a prodigy on a mission.