SEATTLE — The phenom was supposed to make a quick jump to the big leagues, put up All-Star numbers and lead his team into a pennant race within a few years — and by 2012, he did every bit of that.
It’s a statement that rang true for one major league baseball team who added talent at the top of the 2009 amateur draft. In flame-throwing pitcher and No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg, the Washington Nationals have become a first-place team this season and look like the kind of young club that might stay in the race through many Augusts and Septembers to come.
In Seattle, where the Mariners had the second pick in that draft and took a hitter with almost as much can’t-miss potential, it’s been a different story so far.
In his first full season at the major league level, Dustin Ackley has fallen short of expectations. His .232 batting average is nowhere near where fans expected him to be at this stage of his career, and the 24-year-old second baseman from North Carolina knows he’s not yet lived up to the hype.
“It’s tough,” Ackley said on Friday afternoon, while in the midst of a six-game surge that has seen him go 10-for-25 and raise his average 12 points. “You really don’t know what it’s like until you get up here.
“Last year, I had quite a bit of success when I first got up here, and then I struggled toward the end of the year. And this year, I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. So I don’t think anybody’s capable of just coming in and absolutely dominating year after year after year. We’re all going to experience those down times. It’s just a learning experience, all of it.”
What might make Ackley’s pedestrian 2012 season hard to take is the presence of two other players from that 2009 draft who have essentially made it look easy. Strasburg has overcome Tommy John surgery to lead the Nationals into that city’s first pennant race since the franchise was in Montreal, while No. 25 pick Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels is putting up MVP numbers (.343 batting average, 24 home runs, 70 RBI).
As the No. 2 pick in that draft, Ackley was expected to be a big part of the Mariners’ turnaround. The franchise is still struggling to be anywhere close to competitive, while Ackley has rarely looked like the phenom everyone expected him to be.
For now, he carries the tag of No. 2 overall pick like a hair shirt, although Ackley himself doesn’t think of it that way.
“I think once everyone’s drafted into pro ball, it’s just a level playing field,” he said. “You’ve got to earn your spots, and you’ve got to earn your right to be here. I’m just trying to get better and not think: ‘Oh, I’m supposed to be doing this,’ or, ‘There’s a guy drafted behind me who’s playing better.’ I think I’m past that point of worrying about what other guys in other organizations are doing.”
He admitted that his season got off to a rough start when scouting reports and opposing pitchers found it rather easy to feed him high fastballs, which he chased too often and fell behind in counts. He has since corrected that part of his game, although Ackley had a horrific July, batting .173.
What makes his first full season even more baffling is that he’s been a much better defensive player than anyone expected while struggling to get much production out of his big-league-ready swing.
As shortstop Brendan Ryan said last week: “It’s definitely not the swing. The swing is beautiful. There are just a couple of things that he’s working on, and he’s going to be right where he wants. And all those expectations, I’m sure, will be filled.”
Manager Eric Wedge said Ackley’s struggles at the plate have been rather typical for a young player learning the game, and whatever expectations were out there are still there for the taking. This season could end up helping Ackley in the long run, Wedge added.
“It’s just not that easy,” Wedge said. “These players are the best in the world. I think he learned a great deal this season. I think this season is going to be a part of his DNA. He’s still got a long way to go. He’s learned a great deal about himself, about the major league game, about the overall feel and awareness.”
Wedge might not have helped Ackley by moving him around in the batting order — he opened the season as Seattle’s leadoff hitter, got dropped down to second in June and lower in the order before returning to the leadoff spot — but believes that shuffling the order is all part of the young team’s evaluation process.
“What people have to understand with young players is, you have to move them around; you don’t know what the hell you have,” Wedge said. “There’s no track record. There’s not a year, or two years, or even a month of success to tell you: ‘OK, this guy’s a leadoff, or a 2 or a 5 or whatever.’ That’s why you have to kind of cut and paste until you get enough time to get a sample size.”
Ackley’s ample sample size as a hitter has been underwhelming, and fans are wondering what’s been going wrong. The affable player with the slight Southern drawl admitted that he may have lost his confidence and been pressing too hard earlier in the season, but he believes he’s finding his way.
“From a hitting standpoint, I feel like I’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “I haven’t been really consistent, but I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned a lot about my swing, and I’ve learned a lot just about offense in general. I think it’s going to make me a lot stronger down the road.”
Ackley wouldn’t have scripted his first full season in the big leagues to look this way, but he believes it will help him in the long run.
“I think this time right now is more important than if I was doing great, hitting great, everything’s going perfect,” he said Friday. “These are the most important times.”