By Kirby Arnold Herald Writer
The official Southern League statistics showed Dustin Ackley batting .211 for the West Tennessee DiamondJaxx going into this weekend’s series against Montgomery.
Sound the alarm?
I mean, this is the player the Mariners drafted with the second overall pick in the amateur draft last June. He’s a guy many people thought might be playing in the major leagues sometime this season.
What in the world of .200-hitting Mariners is going on? If Ackley is hitting just .211 nearly two months into the season at the Class AA level, how alarming must it be to an organization that invested so much in him?
Oh, about as alarming as a paper cut.
Yeah, the average could be better, but the Mariners are emphasizing something more important in the development of their young hitters. By their measure, Ackley is doing fine.
The organization is more interested in quality plate appearances — grinding through an at-bat the wears a pitcher, hitting the ball hard, dropping a successful bunt, hitting behind runners to advance them into scoring position. It’s the little things that can make a big difference in the outcome of a game.
“All of that is the kind of stuff that we consider a good plate appearance,” said Pedro Grifol, the Mariners’ minor league coordinator.
In a baseball world where there seems to be a statistic for everything, the Mariners are putting a number on quality plate appearances in order to emphasize the importance throughout the organization. It’s a program that Jose Castro, the Mariners’ minor-league hitting coordinator, introduced a few years ago.
Minor-league managers and coaches grade each at-bat, determining whether a hitter had a quality plate appearance regardless of whether he made an out or hit a home run. A guy may have gone 0-for-4 in the game but had a 2-for-5 performance from a quality plate appearance standpoint.
“It’s a subjective thing, but it’s something we feel is very important,” Grifol said. “If you’ve got a guy who’s got a .400 average in quality plate appearance, you’ve got somebody special. If they’re over .360, 370, they’re doing a great job.
“We really monitor it closely because it dictates to us how a guy is doing at the level he’s at.”
So, at a time when Ackley’s batting average was at .211, the Mariners saw him as a .375 hitter based on quality plate appearances.,
“It means that 37.5 percent of the time, he’s running a quality at-bat and we’re happy with that,” Grifol said.
The numbers have been impressive at West Tennessee, a team that’s being watched carefully this season because so many of the Mariners’ best prospects are playing there.
Shortstop Carlos Triunfel was batting .293 but his “quality plate appearance” number was .390.
Third baseman Alex Liddi, barely a .200 hitter the first few weeks of the season, had his average up to .289 with a “quality” number of .365. And slugging outfielder Carlos Peguero, who had a dozen home runs and a .331 batting average, was a .465 hitter based on quality plate appearances.
Liddi batted .345 and tied for the California League batting title last year at Class A High Desert, but the step up to Double-A was a little daunting, Grifol said. He was among a wave of players promoted from the High Desert team to West Tennessee.
“Most of those guys were like, ‘Where am I?’” Grifol said. “They were just feeling their way through. Now, they all realize, ‘We belong here and deserve to be here, and it’s time to perform.’”
Ackley, of course, is the most-scrutinized prospect not only because of his draft status but also because of his transition defensively from the outfield to second base.
So far, the organization is pleased. Ackley entered the weekend having gone 4-for-10 in a three-game stretch and hadn’t struck out in a week. In fact, he’d struck out just four times in a 10-game stretch after fanning 20 times in his first 26 games
“The last couple of weeks he’s really turned it up,” Grifol said. “He’s got a good percentage of quality plate appearances, hard-hit balls and walks vs. strikeouts. And at second base he had his best game (last week) when he made some really good double-play turns and some really good plays. We’re really happy with his progress.”
Kirby Arnold covers the Mariners for The Herald.