After Franklin Gutierrez’s outfield workout didn’t go well Tuesday afternoon, the Mariners were forced into another move.
Summoned from Triple A to replace Gutierrez, Dustin Ackley packed his stuff, bolted Cheney Stadium and began the uphill battle that is I-5 North traffic after 4 p.m.
He may have been Tuesday’s happiest commuter. After being sent down to the minors May 26 with a .205 average in tow, Ackley was coming back to the clubhouse most figured he would never leave after initial arrival.
Ackley, head freshly shaved and beard well-grizzled, was on the first-base foul line in time for the national anthem.
He tore up Triple A. Ackley hit .365 in his 25 games with the Rainiers. Many of his outs were line drives. He went to left, center and right. Mostly, he says, he uncluttered his mind. Ropes to all fields followed.
“I think I probably chilled out more mentally, is really what it comes down to,” Ackley told The News Tribune on Tuesday night. “I think there was so much going on in my head before, I don’t really think it was a major swing thing. I think it was less my swing and more what was going on mentally, just getting up to the plate and mentally worrying about making the first out on the first pitch or whatever it was, and I think once I separated that and just started this tunnel vision on what I needed to be focusing on, I think that’s when things started going really well.”
Ackley had previously moved away from the swing changes he tried to invoke during spring training. He thinks things started to clear up for him right before he was sent to Tacoma.
“I felt like the last couple days before I got sent down, I started to get that right mindset and the right thing, and when I came down, I felt like I was on that right path already,” Ackley said. “After I got the first games under my belt, it felt like everything just took off from there.
“Mentally, I just felt great as far as getting up to the plate expecting to get a hit and feeling great in the box, in any count, ready to hit and I think that’s the biggest thing. When I was here before, it was kind of passive and take a pitch here, take a pitch there, not ready to hit and I think really that’s what separated me from now and before I got sent down.”
Mariners manager Eric Wedge consistently said he thought Ackley’s approach needed to be better. He also had a comment about the influence of sabermetrics on Ackley’s thought process in the batter’s box which inflamed the sabermetrics community, as well as much of the Internet. Ackley again explained he thought passivity was the main culprit in his struggles that produced a .516 OPS.
“I’m just taking it as when I got sent down, I had some stuff to work on,” Ackley said. “I don’t really look at the sabermetric stuff. If you’re not playing well, you’re not playing well. I don’t care if sabermetrics say you are or you’re not.
“To me, I think it’s just a matter of going down and being the hitter that I’m capable of being and coming back up here and being ready to do that. I feel like I’m in a great position now, where I feel great in the box every time I step in there; I don’t feel like I’m an out anymore. I feel like I’m competing up there, where it was before wasn’t necessarily like that. I think I’m in a good spot right now.”
Wedge said Tuesday the Mariners will use Ackley in the outfield, and that they will have “no hesitation” in doing so. He may also see infield work, on occasion. Ackley said having his position switched previously — when he moved to second from first base and limited outfield duty in college — helped with the transition. He said reads and routes were the key things for him to become comfortable with in the outfield, in addition to the increased running and throwing distances. He played nine games in center field and three in left for the Rainiers.
“You’re so much farther away from the action, now the ball is smaller and you’ve got to get those reads right away,” Ackley said. “For me, it’s just getting the time in outfield in BP and the games and it hasn’t felt as bad as I thought it would feel. I thought I would be pretty lost out there. But, it hasn’t felt too bad. I think it’s probably going to continue to get better.
“So, it’s definitely a change, but it’s one that I’m willing to make. Now, I’m here and ready to play where they want me to.”
Really, the Mariners hope the major change for Ackley is with the bat. He was the No. 2 overall pick in 2009 and universally labeled as someone who would hit at all levels. His defense was initially questioned, then he became an American League Gold Glove finalist last year at second.
But, his offensive numbers continued to drop off from his debut season in 2011 when he hit .273 and finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting.
The Utopian comparison for the 25-year-old Ackley would be the turnaround of Kansas City’s Alex Gordon. Gordon hit .215 in his fourth season in the Majors, when he was 26. Gordon was sent down that year before blossoming the following season when he hit .303 with 23 home runs and 45 doubles. He followed that season with another 51 doubles. The Mariners can only hope for that kind of resurrection from Ackley.