The diagnosis on Dustin Ackley isn’t mechanical. It’s mental.
The Seattle Mariners drafted Ackley No. 2 overall, right behind Washington Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg, in 2009 because he was a hitter, evidenced by his record-setting career at the University of North Carolina.
Then Ackley batted .205 in 45 games with the Seattle Mariners this year after hitting .226 in 2012.
The issue? A confidence crisis brought on by pressure and over-thinking at the plate, Ackley said.
“I was just thinking too much up there,” he said. “About not getting out, not doing this and not doing that when I should have taken the thoughts out of it.”
Since his demotion to Triple-A last month, Ackley’s hit .417 in 14 games.
“Just relaxing and taking my mind off the failures I had in the big leagues has been the biggest thing,” he said. “There’s no pressure to do anything like there is at the big-league level and that’s really the mentality I have to take here and then continue to take up there.”
Never before has Ackley had to cope with badly shaken confidence. His .412 average in three years at UNC is the best in school history and he holds the record for most hits (28) in the College World Series.
Ackley was a natural at the plate. His pure swing had the Mariners eager to select him No. 2 in 2009. By June of 2011, he was in the big leagues.
He batted a promising .273 with a .348 on-base percentage in his first look at major-league pitching.
But for the first time since leaving North Forsyth High School, Ackley regressed instead of progressed. And it happened against the best competition, in the brightest lights and on the biggest stage.
“I think anybody you talk to realizes baseball is a game of failure,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “The greatest hitters fail seven times out of 10. It’s how you handle it, how you make adjustments.
“What happens when you get into certain habits and there is nowhere to go, you are on a big stage, in front of everybody, and you’ve got to work your way through it? Sometimes you may be able to and sometimes you have to take a step backward.
“In this particular case, that (step backward) is what was needed for Dustin.”
It’s a move that sometimes backfires, further depleting a player’s confidence, but that clearly hasn’t happened to Ackley. He’s hit the ball hard and walked more times in Tacoma (14 in 14 games) than he did in 45 games in Seattle (12).
“I’ve gone through slumps and failures and things like that, but I’ve always worked out of them,” Ackley said. “But those were kind of different. This year it’s been more of a mental thing than about my swing, and just trying to think too much. The times I’ve hit well in my career, I’m not thinking about anything other than hitting baseballs, so I think that’s really what I’m trying to get back to right now.”
It’s not an uncommon experience for young player, but, with Ackley, expectations are greater. He’s supposed to be a staple in the organization for years to come, especially since Zduriencik came to Seattle heralded for his player development. Ackley was his first draft pick.
Rainiers manager John Stearns — like Ackley — was drafted with the No. 2 pick (in 1973) and eventually made four all-star teams with the New York Mets, but not before making his MLB debut only to be sent back to Triple-A.
“I went down and played mad the whole time,” Stearns said. “I wanted to show them what I could do. I felt like I was playing at 110 percent. That’s how I went about it. You just got to go down with the mindset that you are going to get your game together and get yourself back up to the big leagues. I see a lot of that in Ackley.
“Sometimes guys just have to regroup. The next time he goes up, I expect him to stay up.”
He just might not go up as a full-time second baseman.
Nick Franklin has played well since replacing Ackley at second in Seattle, prompting the Mariners to decide to move Ackley to the outfield. He started in left field for the Rainiers on Wednesday — the first time he’s played outfield since college.
Zduriencik said Ackley was amenable to the position change.
“He has natural gifts,” Zduriencik said. “But they’ve been masked through this whole process that he is going through. In the end, what he’s going through now will be the best thing for him.”
Said Ackley: “I’ve worked my way out of mechanical slumps and things like that, but this is the first kind of mental thing that’s really ever wore on me. I think if I climb my way out of this one, hopefully I’ll be good for the foreseeable future.”