Ackley honing instincts in Fall League
Mariners infield prospect sharpening baserunning and defense
Dustin Ackley scored the game's quietest run, and in a 3-2 win, it was hardly unimportant.
The Mariners' great hope at second base, Ackley singled on a nubber to the right side with two outs and nobody on base on Saturday night in the third inning of the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Game.
The hit itself wasn't anything special -- not for a guy hitting an AFL-best .422 through 13 games. On a night when some of the best up-and-comers in pro ball were showcased, that was Ackley's lone knock in two trips out of the No. 3 spot in the West Division lineup.
It's possible that Ackley shouldn't have even been on base. Replays showed that Brandon Belt, a first baseman in the Giants' system, actually beat Ackley to the bag.
It was the hustle that Ackley showed in making the play so close, though, that was impressive. It was the presence of mind the 22-year-old displayed one batter later, when he moved up to third on a throwing error. It was the instincts Ackley showed a batter after that, when he scored -- without a hit in the inning besides his -- on a passed ball.
The instincts are what Ackley has been working on. The hustle has always been there.
"I have never not seen this kid run hard," Mariners Minor League director Pedro Grifol said on Sunday. "That's a big, big part of his game and the way he is and why he's so good. Nothing's going to surprise me of the things he does on the bases."
The run tied the game at 2 for the West Division, and it was the last score for either side until a walk-off homer in the ninth made Ackley and the West a winner.
Baserunning has been one of two focuses for Ackley this fall. The Mariners have asked Ackley simply to be more aggressive -- to, as Grifol said, "go learn and write a library on what he can and can't do on the bases."
Ackley was 10-for-13 in stolen-base attempts between Double-A and Triple-A this season. He's 2-for-2 in the Fall League, and if you stretch back to Ackley's college days, he notched a career-high 19 steals in 2008, as a sophomore at North Carolina.
The other focus for Ackley this fall in his time with the AFL's Peoria Javelinas? Defense.
As he has in the AFL, Ackley in college made his name at the plate. The second overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, he set UNC's career records for hits (346) and runs (227). One time, Ackley broke an aluminum bat, and teammates nicknamed him Roy Hobbs -- also known as The Natural.
But Ackley's pro career didn't get off to much of a Hobbsian start. Through May 3 this season at Double-A West Tenn, he was hitting just .139.
"It was the first time I had played with a lot of those guys," Ackley said. "I had never really played that much baseball in that amount of time. It was playing six, seven days a week, and I was getting out there for early work every day. We were traveling four, five hours after every game. It started to take a toll on me."
On May 16, things hadn't improved much, with Ackley still hitting just .195. By June 16, he was at .252.
"After I got my first month under my belt, I kind of got comfortable with my surroundings," Ackley said. "I started to figure things out and get my rest and get my timing back."
Another month later, Ackley made his debut for Triple-A Tacoma. He homered five times in 52 games for the Rainiers after going deep just twice in 82 games at Double-A. Ackley finished the regular season with a combined .267 average, 51 RBIs and a .368 on-base percentage.
Now in the AFL, where the competition is as stiff, Ackley is raking -- entering Sunday, he had three homers, more RBIs (14) than games played (13) and nearly double as many walks (15) as strikeouts (8).
"My balance has been really good; my timing is probably at the best it's ever been as far as hitting fastballs and offspeed pitches," Ackley said.
Ackley, who has drawn comparisons to Phillies star second baseman Chase Utley, knows his strong AFL can only help his chances of winning a job with the Mariners out of Spring Training.
"Maybe somewhere in the future, they'll think back on the Fall League and [remember] that I did pretty good," Ackley said. "I'm sure it'll help a little bit."
Ackley knows, too, that his fielding is the only thing in question. An outfielder and first baseman in college, Ackley was converted to second while playing in the AFL last season. The fields at the Mariners' Arizona complex were being worked on, so Grifol and defensive coordinator Darrin Garner had to approach the groundskeeping staff to find a field on which they could test Ackley.
"I just needed 20 ground balls, just to see if this can work," Grifol said. "We took him out there. It didn't look great, but it looked like this could happen."
Ackley didn't see game action at second until Spring Training, but he stayed in Arizona most of last offseason, working with Garner daily. Ackley made 18 errors in the 2010 regular season, and he has made two so far in the AFL, including one on Friday.
"I feel a lot more comfortable, as opposed to when I started," Ackley said. "And I feel not anywhere close to where I want to be. I'm getting work here, I'm learning from mistakes."
As can be expected, Ackley said the hardest part of developing has been learning how to turn double plays. He's coupled with Garner again this fall.
"He's made drastic improvement," Garner said. "My question to him every day is, 'What do you want to work on today?' He says, 'As much as I can' -- every day."
Ackley said he'll go home for the holidays and rest up this year before reporting back to Arizona early to get a jump start on Spring Training.
Garner said, to his eyes, Ackley has the defensive competence to take over the Major League job at second if asked to do so. Grifol said he wouldn't be surprised by anything in spring training, and ruled nothing out.
"The character and the makeup and the integrity this kid has -- he's a special kid," Grifol said. "He's not by any means a finished product. But to see where he is now compared to when he first started, it's a tribute to Dustin's work ethic and his will to become a second baseman."