Mariners' Dustin Ackley sees strong spring as continuation of last year's second-half success

Staff writerMarch 28, 2014 

Seattle Mariners outfielder Dustin Ackley runs to first base after hitting a single against the Chicago Cubs at Cubs Park on March 20, 2014.

JOE CAMPOREALE — USA Today Sports

— The old adage that stresses a need to disregard spring-training stats generally holds true.

Generally.

Mariners left fielder Dustin Ackley sees it differently. That he entered the spring’s final two games at 26-for-64 (.406) is, he believes, an affirmation of his 2013 second-half breakthrough.

"It’s huge," he said. “To come in here and have this success is exactly what I needed to have confidence going into the season. I just wanted to keep things rolling from last year.”

Ackley, 26, was former No. 2 overall pick (2009) who was bordering on bust status last season when sent in late May to Triple-A Tacoma to work on a position switch from second base to the outfield.

He was batting just .205 through 45 games (with an appalling .266 on-base percentage) after finishing a disappointing 2012 at .226 and .294.

"It was like, 'What do I need to do here?' " Ackley recalled. ' "I don’t really know what’s going on.' "

Then … something clicked at Tacoma. Ackley batted .365 in 25 games with a .472 OBP while learning the rudiments of outfield play. That prompted a recall to bolster the Mariners' run-starved lineup.

"It was more of a mental click than a physical click,” he said. “Getting my head right. Going down to Triple-A and figuring things out. Mentally, getting back up there and having the confidence I always had in the past.”

It worked.

Ackley batted .285 with a .354 OBP in 68 games after his return. He was even better after the All-Star break: .304 and .374 in 53 games.

All from a revised mental approach.

"Just not thinking about if I need to swing at the first pitch or not swing at the first pitch,” he agreed. “I think there were so many thoughts going through my head early on in the year that it was hard to hit the baseball.

"When I separated that, I was able to focus on what I needed to focus on: 'OK, you know how to do this. Just go up there and be aggressive like you always used to be.'

"When I started doing that, things started to get better, things started clicking a little bit. Everything has been a continuation of that. The more confidence I got, the better my swing got.”

New manager Lloyd McClendon likes what he sees.

"Everybody knows the stories about how he came in last spring and had a different stance,”McClendon said. “I told him he needs to get back to being him and understand that hitting a baseball is probably the most difficult thing to do in any sport.

"From time to time, even the best are going to struggle. It’s just a matter of getting back off the mat and going back at it the next day. I think he’s understanding that, and he’s enjoying the game.”

McClendon did order one switch, though.

When Ackley returned last year from Tacoma, he played center field. McClendon put him in the left when camp opened and, pretty much, told him to learn the position because “that’s where I want him.”

That meant some long (and grueling) sessions with first-base coach Andy Van Slyke, who won five Gold Gloves for defensive excellence in the outfield during a 13-year career.

That’s paying off, too.

Ackley appears increasingly comfortable in his new position.

"The things I needed to work on,” he said, “were how to approach ground balls; what foot to catch them off of. Working on the crow hops. Working on arm angles.

"That’s continued to get better with long toss, just getting the infield arm out of my arm. I think Arizona is the perfect place to learn how to catch fly balls. It doesn’t get any harder than this. It’s a perfect spot to learn.”

The switch to left resulted from McClendon’s desire to maximize Ackley’s speed while minimizing what is generally viewed as a suspect arm.

But that arm, long geared to the infield, shows signs of playing beyond expectations. Extended sessions of long toss initially produced some soreness but now appear to be paying off.

Ackley thwarted Yonder Alonso’s bid to stretch a single into a double in a recent game against the Padres by making a strong throw. The play wasn't close.

"That’s huge," Ackley said, “because it puts thoughts in the other team’s mind. I’m sure they’re thinking, `Oh, this guy played second base. His arm stinks.’”

So he’s heard that criticism?

"Oh, no doubt,” he said. “You come from second, they’re going to think, 'This guy can’t throw at all.' I think I might surprise some people this year. Maybe catch some guys underestimating me.”

At the plate, though, the less thinking, the better.

"I’m seeing it, and hitting it,” he said. “That’s how it should be. You shouldn’t have to worry about where your foot is or where your hands are. Once you start doing that, you’re in big trouble.

"You can do those things in the cage. You can work on a couple of things. But once you get on the field, it’s you, the pitcher and the ball. That’s it. You can’t have any other distractions.”

Even in spring training.

bob.dutton@thenewstribune.com
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