Making the comparison: Dustin Ackley

In light of Dustin Ackley‘s promotion to the majors, I wanted to bring back my in-depth comparison model that I used to analyze Mike Stanton last September.

What we know: Excellent pedigree (second overall pick in 2009), left-handed hitter, 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, graded between 60-70 on the 20-80 scouting scale as a runner, plus eye at the plate

What we will assume: Ackley will stay at second base defensively

Dustin Ackley is a unique prospect, mainly because his most appealing talents are exactly those that are the most difficult to measure. They are also those easiest to measure incorrectly.

It is unusual for a player to be drafted as high as Ackley and not be either a remarkable athletic specimen or have substantially more power than Ackley is ever expected to develop. What made Ackley the universally logical pick in 2009 was the top-of-the-charts hitting ability about which scouts had been raving all spring. It was generally assumed that Ackley would develop into a perennial .300 hitter and sprinkle in a few batting titles for good measure.

Which is not to say they are wrong.

Ackley’s first (and, most importantly, only) professional season started with a virtual face-plant. He hit just .147 in April thanks in large part to a hard-luck .180 BABIP. The rest of his season was much more normal* as he posted wOBAs of .365 and .340 in Double- and Triple-A respectively when it was all said and done.

* We don’t actually know what normal is for Ackley, but it’s repeatable if nothing else

While any batting average beginning with a two was enough for any Ackley doubters to rear their heads, what absolutely needs to be noted is the difficulty of the task being asked of Ackley. The Mariners asked more of Ackley than perhaps any recent prospect other than Mike Leake (it’s tough to beat skipping the minors altogether, after all). Ackley finished his college career in June of 2009, then didn’t see live game action again for three months after signing just before the deadline. He was sent to the Arizona Fall League for his introduction to professional competition and managed to hit .315, reassuring the Mariners of his abilities.

What he did not do in Arizona, however, was spend any time playing second base.

Soon after the AFL, the Mariners announced that Ackley would, in fact, be moving to the keystone, a daunting task in its own right especially when coupled with beginning your first professional season. So rather than send Ackley to the ridiculously hitter-friendly California League where he could hit .300 in his sleep and spend his time worrying about learning a new position, the Mariners sent him to Double-A West Tennessee in the Southern League, fresh off a season in which the league sported a .711 OPS.

The fact that Ackley managed to post above-average numbers in the top two levels of the minors while adjusting to all of the other variables around him, AND posted virtually even walk and strikeout numbers, is nothing short of remarkable.

The moral of the story: Don’t lower your opinion of Ackley one bit based on his 2010 season.

Which most people did not. Ackley started his 2011 season in Triple-A, and his first month in the minors’ highest level started much like his first month in Double-A. Ackley batted just .211 this April, but caught fire in May and June, ending his 2011 minor league season with a .303/.421/.487 line.

The questions that surrounded Ackley’s development still remain. Will he hit lefties well enough? Will he develop enough power to justify his high draft pick? Will he stick at second base? These are the questions to consider when evaluating his potential comps.

We’ve already established our assumption that Ackley will stay at second base, and will attempt to find comparable second baseman first. If necessary, we will find just an offensive comparison for Ackley and worry about where he will end up in the field later.

For the sake of our searches, I’m going to stick to the post-expansion era (after 1961), because we’re looking for players with limited power, and want to find them during the eras in which power was prevalent. Comparing Ackley to Wee Willie Keeler or Paul Waner doesn’t do us much good.

Picking our criteria for players with no major league experience like Ackley is more difficult, and frankly much more arbitrary, than it was for our Stanton example, where we had a half-season of major league production on which we could base our selections. For Ackley, we’ll start with the projections scouts have claimed since he was drafted, and mold them with his rates (BB/K, power, etc.) from his minor league seasons.

We’ll start our first search for seasons with the following criteria: After 1961, left-handed hitting infielders only (including first base, Ackley’s college position and possible destination later in his career), batting over .320, more than 90 walks (arbitrary number), less than 20 home runs (the max I’ve seen any scout say Ackley might eventually hit), and 6-foot-2 or shorter. We’re looking here for the top of Ackley’s potential window.

Rk                  Yrs From   To   Age
1        Wade Boggs   5 1983 1989 25-31
2       Todd Helton   2 2005 2007 31-33
3   Chuck Knoblauch   1 1996 1996 27-27
4         John Kruk   1 1992 1992 31-31
5         Pete Rose   1 1979 1979 38-38
6        Joe Morgan   1 1975 1975 31-31

There are a few things that stand out on this list. First, we can eliminate Helton right away. Helton was clearly a different type of hitter who has fallen into this category only due to lingering back issues that have zapped his power. Kruk also can be eliminated, although his seasons from 1990-93 do look like something Ackley could one day produce, but he was still seen as a middle-of-the-order run producer, which Ackley will never be asked to do.

Joe Morgan is probably the best all-around player on this list, but did you realize that he hit over .300 only twice in his Hall of Fame career? I certainly didn’t until I took a closer look. While Morgan was a great player, too much of his offensive value was tied to his ability to draw a walk, and Ackley projects as a potential .300 hitter year after year, meaning that even if Ackley becomes the best version of himself and a player who could equal Morgan’s offensive production, he will go about it in a very different way.

That leaves us Boggs, Knoblauch and Rose, all of whom I like as potential comps. Knoblauch is clearly the lowest ceiling of the group, although it’s easy to forget just how great he was in his prime. Knoblauch may come into play later with Ackley, if you can discount the stolen bases and throwing issues, but for the ultimate ceiling of a second overall pick, I’d like to aim higher than a player with a career WAR lower than that of Devon White and Brian Giles.

Rose and Boggs are the best comps, although neither is perfect. Rose’s years from 1965-71 are exactly what I was in search of when looking for a comp for the best we can expect from Ackley’s prime, but Rose went on to have more than 2,500 hits after that, a burden I wouldn’t put on anyone. Boggs is also a nice comp, but if it does all come together for Ackley, he will hit for more power and likely will never walk 125 times in a season (although reaching the 100 mark repeatedly isn’t out of the question). For the sake of our discussion, I’ll officially say that Ackley’s ceiling is that of Pete Rose’s prime, but not his longevity.

Year   Age   G  PA  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+  TB
1965    24 162 757 670 117 209 35 11 11  81  8  3 69 76 .312 .382 .446 .828  127 299
1966    25 156 700 654  97 205 38  5 16  70  4  9 37 61 .313 .351 .460 .811  115 301
1967    26 148 647 585  86 176 32  8 12  76 11  6 56 66 .301 .364 .444 .808  120 260
1968    27 149 692 626  94 210 42  6 10  49  3  7 56 76 .335 .391 .470 .861  152 294
1969    28 156 728 627 120 218 33 11 16  82  7 10 88 65 .348 .428 .512 .940  158 321
1970    29 159 728 649 120 205 37  9 15  52 12  7 73 64 .316 .385 .470 .855  125 305
1971    30 160 707 632  86 192 27  4 13  44 13  9 68 50 .304 .373 .421 .793  130 266
1972    31 154 729 645 107 198 31 11  6  57 10  3 73 46 .307 .382 .417 .799  134 269

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/1/2010.

If Ackley comes anywhere near that run of eight seasons, the Mariners will be ecstatic.

That was the fun part. Now for the more realistic comparisons. Ackley could end up being the type of player Rose was during that stretch (although don’t compare their styles at the plate—Rose looked like he was just trying to serve the ball into the outfield and never strike out. Ackley swings more along the lines of what you would expect. But whenever you set a player’s potential at a Hall of Fame level, the words long-shot have to be in the mix.* Ackley has the talent to get to 3,000 hits, but he’d hardly be the first who fit that description and came up well short.

*Of course, Rose’s Hall of Fame worthiness is due mostly to that longevity that we discussed. If he had aged normally and begun to decline at 31 like many players do, he would probably still have made it because he got to 3,000 hits, but he wouldn’t be the all-time hit leader by any stretch.

So we’ll lower our standards just a bit. Looking for the same criteria as before, but this time just second basemen and we’ll lower the batting average to .300. We find only three players who have done it in more than one season: Rod Carew, Roberto Alomar and our old friend Chuck Knoblauch.

When I began this comparison, Carew was the first person that came to mind. I guess it was the natural instinct when you think of .300 hitting first/second baseman with limited power. It’s a small group. But even as highly regarded as Ackley’s hitting ability is, I’d be shocked if he ever averaged .358 over a five-year span as Carew did from 1973-77, and Carew never walked more than 78 times in a season. Again, similar results, but different paths to get there.

But I love the Alomar and Knoblauch comps. Alomar, from a purely offensive standpoint, would be a great upper-end realistic comp for Ackley. Consistent ability to hit .300 (nine times in 10 years between 1992-2001), averaging 16 home runs per season during that span and more walks than strikeouts. In fact, Alomar’s best span (1995-2001) during which he posted a combined OPS+ of 125 is just a small notch below the span of Rose’s prime above. Seasons of .314/.389/.488, 33 doubles, 17 home runs, and 66/64 BB/K ratio (Alomar’s averages during that time) would be realistic for Ackley, and are remarkably similar to Rose as well. But the nod goes to Rose because of things like three batting titles and leading the league in hits seven times, doubles five times, and runs four times. Alomar has only one runs title to brag about. We’ll stick with Alomar as his realistic high-end comp (offensively only).

But what if Ackley’s power never develops even to the extent of having three 20-homer seasons? And what if his hit tool isn’t quite what we have it made out to be?

To project this, I’ve refined our search to the same group of players as before, but limited it to second basemen, and I’m now looking for seasons where the players batted less than .300, still had an on-base percentage over .350 (Ackley has already shown solid plate discipline, a skill that typically translates to the majors), and fewer than 15 home runs. Our results looked like this:

Rk                   Yrs From   To   Age
1   Delino DeShields   7 1990 1998 21-29
2     Craig Counsell   3 1997 2005 26-34
3       Adam Kennedy   2 2004 2005 28-29
4        Todd Walker   2 2000 2002 27-29
5       Duane Kuiper   2 1975 1983 25-33
6          Alex Cora   1 2004 2004 28-28

I love when things work out this easily.

Typically when there’s one player with significantly more seasons that match our criteria than anyone else on our list, it’s a pretty good indication that he’s exactly the kind of player we’re looking for. DeShields is that guy. A former first-round pick, DeShields had plenty of athleticism and a lot of baseball ability, but not enough natural baseball talent to develop into a perennial all-star. He was, however, a career starter who was above average during certain seasons.

For a nine-year span, DeShields had an OPS+ over 100 five times and below it four, and that prime looked like this:


Year   Age  Tm Lg   G  PA  AB  R   H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+  TB
1992    23 MON NL 135 599 530 82 155 19  8  7  56 46 15 54 108 .292 .359 .398 .757  116 211
1993    24 MON NL 123 562 481 75 142 17  7  2  29 43 10 72  64 .295 .389 .372 .761  102 179
1994    25 LAD NL  89 376 320 51  80 11  3  2  33 27  7 54  53 .250 .357 .322 .679   84 103
1995    26 LAD NL 127 493 425 66 109 18  3  8  37 39 14 63  83 .256 .353 .369 .722   99 157
1996    27 LAD NL 154 642 581 75 130 12  8  5  41 48 11 53 124 .224 .288 .298 .585   60 173
1997    28 STL NL 150 643 572 92 169 26 14 11  58 55 14 55  72 .295 .357 .448 .804  111 256
1998    29 STL NL 117 484 420 74 122 21  8  7  44 26 10 56  61 .290 .371 .429 .799  110 180
1999    30 BAL AL  96 374 330 46  87 11  2  6  34 11  8 37  52 .264 .339 .364 .702   83 120
2000    31 BAL AL 151 643 561 84 166 43  5 10  86 37 10 69  82 .296 .369 .444 .813  110 249 


Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/1/2010.

That comes out to an OPS+ of 98 during that time, meaning DeShields was just about a league average player. If Ackley’s power never develops, he will walk less, get pitched to more aggressively and likely strike out more. DeShields’ slash lines during this stretch come out to .275/.353/.386, which has Ackley written all over it if he doesn’t reach all of his potential. The good news for the Mariners, however, is that even in this realistic low-end comp, Ackley would be far from a bust, and in fact could be a reliable starting second baseman for the better part of a decade, just not the all-star they envision.

The worst-case scenario for the Mariners and Ackley would be someone like Craig Counsell, a player who has carved out an incredibly long career despite never being even a league-average player. If Ackley never hits the way scouts envision, he could still be a productive role player thanks to his versatility and athleticism. It’s hard to picture Ackley finishing his career as the .257 hitter Counsell has been over 16 seasons, but stranger things have happened.

Counsell has earned a reputation as a winner and a good clubhouse presence, which has helped him extend his career, and all reports point to Ackley having many of the same positive intangibles, so there is little chance of Ackley flaming out and having a short major league career. Counsell fits as a nice worst-case scenario for Ackley, but it does feel like a long-shot that Ackley never becomes even an average offensive player.

So after in-depth (and likely unnecessary) efforts to accurately compare Ackley to what we’ve seen in the past, we’ve come to this: If it all comes together, the Mariners could be looking at Pete Rose in his prime. Realistically he will fall somewhere between Roberto Alomar and Delino Deshields, albeit without the stolen base totals those two posted. Worst-case situation, Ackley has to scrap and hustle to get a long career out of what turn out to be limited abilities.

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Comments

  1. Ja4ed said...

    If you were looking for only left-handed hitters, the guy that stands out the most in any of those lists is Chuck Knoblauch.  He was right-handed.

    DeShields’ 1992 season is what I expect from Ackley early on because of the lower run scoring environment.  That .757 OPS in ‘92 was the highest OPS+.  120+ OPS+ during his peak.  I don’t think he’ll ever get as high 150 like Rose though.

  2. Jon S said...

    There’s a decent chance Ackley’s power is already here.  He has remarkably fast hands and seems to put a charge into the ball more often than not.  Chase Utley isn’t an unreasonable ceiling for Ackley, I think.

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