For the first three months of the season, it appeared that the Seattle Mariners would look to replace left fielder Dustin Ackley at the trade deadline.
Ackley was hitting .214/.273/.329 on the season entering June. His career numbers weren’t much more impressive, with nearly 1,800 career plate appearances.
It looked like it was time for the Mariners to move on from Ackley or accept that he wouldn’t be much more than a one-win player.
But something clicked in July. Ackley hit .365/.386/.506 during the month with 10 extra-base hits, good for a 153 wRC+.
Ackley has continued to hit the ball hard through the first week of August. So far, he has six hits in 22 plate appearances, including two home runs.
Only MVP candidates can keep up that type of pace, but there are signs that Ackley could continue to be reasonably productive for the rest of the season and beyond.
With the increased line-drive percentage, Ackley has done a better job of hitting to all fields. Ackley said that’s an important factor with the way he is typically pitched, via Greg Johns of MLB.com.
"I'm just staying on balls better. Lately I've been working up the middle and pitches away I've been hitting to left field. I think that's really important. Especially when you're getting pitched that way, that's really the key."
Data from BrooksBaseball.net indicates that Ackley has indeed done a better job with pitches on the outside third over the past month-plus. In particular, Ackley swung and missed at a lower rate at outside pitches in July than he did during the previous three months.
It’s a small sample size, but an encouraging sign nonetheless, as Ackley has struggled with pitches on the outside third throughout his career.
That line-drive rate is slightly better than the one Ackley posted during his rookie 2011 campaign and just over a point lower than in August 2013, the two best stretches of his career.
His walks are down, but if Ackley can improve his plate discipline a bit, something resembling the .304/.374/.435 line he put up in the second half of last year is not out of the question for the rest of this season.
Ackley has made several adjustments in his plate approach during his career, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if something mechanical helped his July performance.
Jason A. Churchill of Prospect Insider noted that Ackley is standing closer to the plate and has narrowed his stance since the beginning of the season.
Watching a lot of Ackley PAs... He's starting more closed now v. April-May. But also closer to plate. April 16 -- pic.twitter.com/obLIEUEzHX— Jason A. Churchill (@ProspectInsider) July 26, 2014
More Ackley: Here is July 24 (you can see he's more closed, closer to plate v April) pic.twitter.com/rupZ2rLHZE— Jason A. Churchill (@ProspectInsider) July 26, 2014
Ackley’s best tools are his quick hands and bat speed, so it makes sense that his adjusted stance would help him reach and drive those outside pitches he’s struggled with so much. Two of his three home runs over the past 10 days have come on pitches on the outer third, including this shot August 2 against the Baltimore Orioles.
It’s critical that Ackley continues to hit well and erase one more hole from Seattle’s weak offense. His skill set makes him a good candidate for a No. 2 hitter, as he could slide in nicely between Austin Jackson and Robinson Cano.
The addition of Jackson and Chris Denorfia plus a resurgent Ackley suddenly gives the Mariners a capable outfield after the position was a disaster just a month ago. As Scott Weber of Lookout Landing highlights, Ackley can help solve a major roster construction problem for the club.
If Dustin Ackley was good he'd solve such a massive problem outfield for this team. Don't stop, sir.— Scott Weber (@LookoutLanding) August 3, 2014
Seattle will also have some flexibility when Michael Saunders returns from injury should Ackley continue to succeed. The Mariners could choose to platoon Denorfia with someone or even move Ackley to first, although Logan Morrison has been hitting well of late.
Ackley is probably due for some regression soon, but there are signs he could continue to produce to the level of his full potential for the rest of the season.
All stats via FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.