It was curious that Dustin Ackley wasn’t in Tacoma’s lineup tonight for Taijuan Walker’s Triple-A debut, considering he’d just had a day off recently. The reason soon became known: He’s been called up to the majors to fill the roster spot of Franklin Gutierrez, who went back on the disabled list.
Ackley started 12 games in the outfield for Tacoma — three in left and nine in center. I’m down in Tacoma to watch Walker — I’ll put up a game thread later — and had a chance to talk to their manager, John Stearns, about Ackley’s conversion to the outfield. I thought Stearns gave a pretty frank assessment.
“I think he’s going to be adequate in the outfield, and not above average right away, but I think he can move into that status, defensively,” Stearns said. “He hasn’t been out there. He played, what, 10 or 12 games for us? Not bad. We got to see him go back on a ball in the gap last night for the first time on a ball hard. I thought he took a good route. He came in well while we were on this road trip on a couple of balls. He basically looked like he’d played there before. But for not having been out there for awhile, I thought he made great progress while he was here in a short time on his outfield defense.”
Stearns, who has been managing Tacoma since Daren Brown came up to be the Mariners’ third-base coach on May 2, pointed out that there’s more to playing the outfield than just catching fly balls.
“You’ve got to read the ball off the bat. You have to make the judgment how hard and how high it’s hit. You have to hit the cutoff man. There’s a lot of things. It’s not that easy to be a major-league outfielder, especially a center fielder. The big thing is getting a jump and taking the right route. You don’t want to come across too short or too shallow. You’ve got to read the ball.
“For me, the toughest play, of course, is the line drive over your head. We were waiting for him to get a ball he could go back on. He had a couple here the last two or three games. One back in Colorado Springs about five days ago into the right-center field gap, and then last night he had to go back on a ball and showed he could do it.
“Again, he doesn’t have a great arm from out there, but it’s adequate, it’s fine. He can get it in, into the infield in time, hit the cutoff man. Defensively, I think that’s the big question for us down here, because he did nothing but really hit the ball well down here. Defensively, I think he can go up and make a contribution. I can see him playing either position up there and being OK.”
In 25 total games with the Rainiers, Ackley hit .365 with a .472 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage. He had eight doubles and two homers in 104 at-bats, with 19 walks and just 14 strikeouts.
Ackley was hitting just .205 with the Mariners when he was sent down on May 26. When I asked Stearns what adjustments he’s made, he replied, “We didn’t see any adjustments here. He showed up spraying the ball all over the ballpark, and had good strike zone recognition, meaning he didn’t chase the ball out of the strike zone. I don’t know what happened up there for a year and a half, but the minute he showed up here…I have not seen this guy struggle.
“He has a good knowledge of the strike zone, he doesn’t try to do too much, AKA pull the ball in the air. A lot of players get themselves out by wanting to hit the long ball, and he didn’t do any of that. He was on the line, using the whole field. Everything. Ball away, shoot a line drive to left center. Ball in, turn on it, line drive to right. Ball out over plate, up the middle, hard, on the line. Didn’t pop the ball up. He didn’t chase balls out of the strike zone and strike out. He was outstanding. I was shocked at how well he swung the bat, the day he stepped on the field down here.
“Baseball’s a tough game. Sometimes you go up there, you have to regroup, but I fully expect him to be a major-league player for the next long time.”
Stearns, who like Ackley was a second overall draft pick (in 1973 by the Phillies), can relate to Ackley’s struggles. He said he went through the same thing — regrouping in the minors — before becoming a four-time All-Star catcher with the Mets.
“I had to do it. I did it already, so I know,” he said. “When you first go up, there’s a lot of pressure on you, and you really don’t know for sure if you can play your game up there. Even if you’re cocky like I was, there’s some doubt there. Sometimes you put pressure on yourself, and until you either break through while you are there, or sometimes, it’s not uncommon for a big-league guy to come back down to the minor leagues for a short stint after he’s been up there for awhile. Even if he’s been up there for a year and a half. Sometimes, you have to come down, regroup, figure out that hey, I can do this. Get that feeling down here and now take it up there.
“There isn’t a doubt in my mind that he’s going to succeed as a hitter in the big leagues.”