The diagnosis on Dustin Ackley is his problem at the plate isn’t mechanical, it’s mental.
The Seattle Mariners drafted Ackley No. 2 in 2009, right behind Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg, because he’s a hitter – evidenced by a record-setting career at the University of North Carolina.
But Ackley has batted .205 in 45 games with the Seattle Mariners this season after hitting .226 in 2012.
The issue? A confidence crisis brought on by pressure and overthinking at the plate, he says.
“I was just thinking too much up there,” Ackley said. “About not getting out, not doing this and not doing that when I should have taken the thoughts out of it.”
But since his subsequent demotion to the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers, Ackley was hitting a torrid .417 in 14 games through Wednesday.
He said it’s no coincidence. He’s just more comfortable.
“Just relaxing and taking my mind off the failures I had in the big leagues has been the biggest thing,” Ackley said. “There’s no pressure to do anything like there is at the big league level, and that’s really the mentality I have to take here and then continue to take up there.”
Never in his career has he had to seriously cope with shaken confidence. His .412 average in three years at UNC is the best in school history, and he still holds the record for most hits (28) in the College World Series.
Ackley seemed like a natural at the plate. His pure swing had the Mariners eager to select him second in 2009. By June 2011, Ackley made the big leagues.
He batted a promising .273 in 90 games with a .348 on-base percentage in his first look at major league pitching.
But in 2012, for the first time since leaving North Forsyth High School in Winston-Salem, N.C., Ackley regressed instead of progressed. And it happened against the best competition, in the brightest lights and on the biggest stage.
“I think anybody you talk to realizes baseball is a game of failure,” said Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik. “The greatest hitters fail seven times out of 10. It’s how you handle it, how you make adjustments.
“What happens when you get into certain habits and there is nowhere to go, you are on a big stage, in front of everybody, and you’ve got to work your way through it? Sometimes you may be able to and sometimes you have to take a step backward.
“In this particular case, that is what was needed for Dustin.”
The demotion was a move that might backfire on some GMs and further deplete a player’s confidence already running on fumes, but it clearly hasn’t for Ackley. He has hit the ball hard and even walked more times in Tacoma (14 in 14 games) than he did in 45 games in Seattle (12).
He didn’t know how to deal with his mental approach and needed the space and opportunity to figure it out.
“I’ve gone through slumps and failures and things like that, but I’ve always worked out of them,” Ackley said. “But those were kind of different. This year, it’s been more of a mental thing than about my swing, and just trying to think too much. The times I’ve hit well in my career, I’m not thinking about anything other than hitting baseballs, so I think that’s really what I’m trying to get back to right now.”
It’s a common experience for young player, but with Ackley, expectations are greater. He was supposed to be a staple in the organization for years to come, especially because Zduriencik came to Seattle heralded for his player development and focus on building through the draft. Ackley was his first selection.
Rainiers manager John Stearns was taken in 1973 with the No. 2 pick – like Ackley – and eventually made four All-Star teams with the New York Mets, but not before making his big league debut in 1974 and then being sent back to Triple-A.
“I went down and played mad the whole time,” Stearns said. “I wanted to show them what I could do. I felt like I was playing at 110 percent. That’s how I went about it. You just got to go down with the mindset that you are going to get your game together and get yourself back up to the big leagues. I see a lot of that in Ackley.
“Sometimes guys just have to regroup. The next time he goes up, I expect him to stay up.”
He just might not go up as a full-time second baseman.
Nick Franklin has played well since replacing Ackley at second, prompting the Mariners to push Ackley on the same route as Jesus Montero and get him used to a position change in Tacoma before returning to Seattle. Ackley started in left field for the Rainiers on Wednesday – the first time he had played in the outfield since college.
“That would be tough,” Ackley said Sunday of a possible position change. “That wouldn’t be ideal. It would be a tough transition. But if I had to, if that’s what it takes. I’ve changed positions to second, I guess changing to somewhere else wouldn’t be something I couldn’t do.”
He can’t let it further erode his confidence, or his road back to Seattle as a fixture in the Mariners’ plans will be delayed or dismissed.
“He has natural gifts,” Zduriencik said. “But they’ve been masked through this whole process that he is going through. In the end, what he’s going through now will be the best thing for him. And when he gets back (to Seattle), we will have the same expectations we had when we drafted him.”
Said Ackley: “I’ve worked my way out of mechanical slumps and things like that, but this is the first kind of mental thing that’s really ever wore on me. I think if I climb my way out of this one, hopefully I’ll be good for the foreseeable future.”