It’s do-or-die time for Justin & Dustin
With a new Skipper in the dugout, Lloyd McClendon, there seems to be a new swagger lurking its way through the Seattle Mariners‘ spring training complex in Arizona.
Despite my initial hesitation in the Jack Zduriencik selection of McClendon as the new M’s manager, I must admit I really like the tone he has set so far in his brief Mariners managerial career.
One of the things that seems clear to me, and I’m sure is crystal clear to some of the Mariners’ younger players this year, is that if you don’t perform, McClendon is going to find someone else who will. Those words must be ringing true to two Mariners in particular this spring: The M’s first baseman of the past few seasons and the newly anointed left fielder.
In all honesty, I thought Dustin Ackley was going to be traded at the deadline last July. The M’s were still reasonably in contention at that point and Ackley had been struggling all year. Zduriencik ultimately did not make any late season moves, in a bizarre decision that left many, including me, wondering why he didn’t either try to make a run or sell off disappointing players in a bid to be better in 2014.
Ackley was demoted mid-season last year to learn CF after spending the past couple of seasons at second base. While the move gave rise to Nick Franklin to play second, Ackley never really looked comfortable out there in center despite having played the position in college.
Arm strength is clearly an issue for Ackley in CF, as is his range to play center. Those are the reasons I think McClendon made a brilliant decision to name him as the LF for the 2014 Spring Training season. By moving to lefteft, Ackley’s arm strength is no longer an issue and he has plenty of range to play a corner outfield spot as opposed to center.
Ackley, for his part, started to change his game at the plate after getting sent back to the minors. After the All-Star break Ackley finally started to hit again. He wound up hitting .304 after the All-Star Game and looked much more like the player the M’s had envisioned when they drafted him second overall in 2009.
The Freak from Goose Creek, Justin Smoak, is in a nearly identical situation as Ackley. Smoak arrived in Seattle as the key piece in the deal that sent Cliff Lee to the Rangers. Expectations have always been high for the big switch-hitter since he was drafted by Texas with the 11th-overall pick in 2008.
Despite the promise, Smoak has struggled at the plate the past four seasons. His highest batting average in any of those years was .239. Strikeouts have been a big problem for Smoak, too, as he has fanned over 100 times in each of the last three seasons.
Defensively, Smoak has been pretty close to brilliant. He can pick the low throws out of the dirt and has more range at first than most would ever like to give him credit for. In fact, he’s committed just 21 errors over the course of four seasons.
Smoak has had the tendency the past few years to put up big numbers in one half of the season while struggling mightily the other. Last year was no exception to this trend.
Pre All-Star game, Smoak hit .272 with 13 doubles, eight homers and 22 RBI. His Ops was over .800 and OB % was close to .400. Then it all fell apart.
After the break, Smoak managed to hit just .203 with six doubles. His Ops plummeted below .700 and his OB % dropped below .300. On the plus side, he did hit an additional 12 homers after the break.
In addition to the strikeouts, I think those second-half number are very telling about Smoak as a young player. He had to have gone into the break feeling pretty good about himself last year. It’s almost as if he starts trying to do too much at the plate at times and has a hard time coming back to earth once he struggles.
I say that because of the HR totals Smoak put up in the second half of 2013. He hit 12 homers post All-Star, while batting just .203. It seems once Smoak gets going with the bat a bit he starts to swing for the fence too often. This leads to just a few more homers but a lot more strikeouts along with a much lower batting average.
The 1500 AB Plateau
I’ve long been a proponent of the theory that it takes around 1500 Major League at-bats to really see what you’ve got in a young hitter. Ackley is currently sitting on 1324 at-bats. He appeared to have finally figured out his bat in the second half last year and now he’s also in a defensive position that is much better suited to his talents. Can he carry his 2013 successes into 2014?
I say yes. Put simply: Dustin Ackley is ready to breakout in 2014. I look for Ackley to hit near .300 this season and do so for the entire season.
Justin Smoak has a few more ABs in his career than Ackley. Smoak is sitting at 1712. McClendon has stated this spring that he thinks Smoak can lead the majors in doubles. This is yet another brilliant move by McClendon.
Lloyd sees what I see. He sees a young hitter who gets going, gets cocky, and then thinks he can hit the ball out of the park on every pitch. By telling the world that Smoak can lead the league in Doubles it’s given Smoak something else to focus on instead of hitting dingers.
I foresee Smoak hitting in the neighborhood of 40 doubles this year. He’s also going to bat for a better average as a result. Watch for something around the .270-.275 mark for Smoak.
The other thing Smoak will finally learn this year is that you don’t try to hit homers, they just happen. As a result, Smoak crosses over into the 25-30 HR range for 2014.
This it for Ackley and Smoak in Seattle. It’s do-or-die time, as both will be well over 1500 ABs by the All-Star break. If either of them struggles yet again, I guess I’ll be writing about who Seattle can get for them at the trade deadline in July.