By Todd Dybas The News Tribune
SEATTLE — When Franklin Gutierrez’s outfield workout didn’t go well Tuesday afternoon, the Seattle Mariners were forced into yet another roster move.
Summoned from Class AAA Tacoma Rainiers to replace Gutierrez, Dustin Ackley packed his stuff, bolted Cheney Stadium and began the battle that is northbound Interstate 5 after 4 p.m.
Ackley just might have been Tuesday’s happiest rush-hour commuter. After he was sent down to the minors May 26 with a .205 batting average in tow, Ackley was coming back to the clubhouse most figured he would never leave after his initial arrival.
Ackley, head freshly shaved and beard well-grizzled, was on the first-base foul line in time for the national anthem. He’s only pinch-run during the two games he’s been back with the Mariners, but he is likely to be in the outfield today, and for good reason.
He tore up Class AAA with his hitting and the Mariners have been in dire need of better hitters.
Ackley hit .365 in his 25 games with the Rainiers. Many of his outs were line drives. He drove the ball 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 said. “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.
“After I got the first (Class AAA) games under my belt, it felt like everything just took off from there,” Ackley said. “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 (with the Mariners) 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 batting approach needed to be better. He also made 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 don’t really look at the sabermetric stuff,” Ackley said. “If you’re not playing well, you’re not playing well. I don’t care if sabermetrics say you are or you’re not.
“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.”
Wedge said Tuesday the Mariners will use Ackley in the outfield, and that they will have “no hesitation” in doing so. He also may see infield work, on occasion. Ackley said previously experiencing a position change in college — moving to second from first base and limited outfield duty — has helped with his current transition.
Reads and routes are 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. Tacoma manager John Stearns called Ackley’s outfield defense “adequate,” adding he thought it could become above average.
“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,” Ackley said. “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 base.
However, 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 question now is can the 25-year-old Ackley turn around his hitting at the major-league level? Can he be like Kansas City’s Alex Gordon? Gordon, also a former No. 2 pick, hit .215 in his fourth season in the majors, when he was 26. He was sent down that year before blossoming the following season when he hit .303 with 23 home runs and 45 doubles and then followed that season with another 51 doubles.
The Mariners can only hope for that kind of resurrection from Ackley.