The change had to be changed.
After nine games and 33 plate appearances, Dustin Ackley looked at what he was trying to do at the plate and made the decision to try something different. What he was doing simply wasn’t working.
It wasn’t just the numbers, which were anemic — a .100 batting average (3-for-30) with no extra-base hits and four strikeouts. It was also how he felt at the plate at times — unsure, behind, focusing more on getting his swing started than actually hitting the ball.
Last Thursday, he was given a day off from game action. Mariners manager Eric Wedge called it a “work day.” And work was what Ackley did, putting in a marathon session in the batting cage, by himself and also with hitting coach Dave Hansen. It was part soul-searching, part swing-searching.
Ackley scrapped the early part of his swing where he would almost face the pitcher with his chest pointing toward the mound. As the pitcher delivered the pitch, he would slide his shoulders back parallel to the plate and then begin the swing. It was a mechanism he started in his offseason work in hopes of being more balanced and less prone to lunging or pulling off pitches after posting a .226 batting average with 124 strikeouts in 153 games in 2012.
“It’s a little modification,” Ackley said. “I think I knew what I needed to do. It was just a matter of what kind of style I needed to make it work the best.”
The Mariners won’t say whether they helped nudge Ackley to the change or if it was all him.
“A little bit of all the above, not to be too evasive, but it was for good reason,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “All of those players in there, it’s their career. And the choices they make, they have to be all in on because it is their career. It’s our job to help steer them in the right direction and give them our two cents’ worth. And then let them decide what they are going to do.”
It’s safe to say that Wedge and Hansen knew something had to change.
The results, and the process leading to the shoddy results, were flawed.
“He made the decision himself,” Hansen said. “He felt that it was time. He was 30 at-bats into it. I think he got to the point where he made the decision that some changes needed to be made. I just gave some suggestions along the way.”
So what did Ackley change?
On Friday night when he stepped to the plate, all that pre-swing movement was gone. He started with his shoulders parallel to the plate and kept them there. It was a return to something simpler, something more reminiscent of his swing from previous years.
All that movement to initiate the swing often left Ackley’s timing off. If he was just a bit tardy in returning his shoulders to parallel, he would be late with the swing.
“Something was a little off with the timing of it,” he said. “When guys were throwing from the stretch, or guys were quick-pitching, I would just feel like I couldn’t get the timing right.”
A baseball swing that starts off wrong or late isn’t likely to improve as it progresses.
“You can do whatever, but you have to be on time to hit a fastball,” Hansen said. “And he felt like he wasn’t on time.”
It got to the point where Ackley got so focused on finding the timing to start it that making contact became secondary. And that can’t happen.
“It is about being ready to hit and not having to feel rushed or worrying about other things than just hitting the baseball,” Hansen said.
The whole process seemed to make things more complicated.
“There’s a lot to be said for simplifying things,” Wedge said. “I’m a big believer in that. The game is hard enough, and the last thing you need to do is make it harder. Sometimes you can outthink yourself.”
While on the surface it may seem like Ackley made a major change, Hansen labeled it as “trimming a little out of it.”
All that has changed is the movement. Ackley still has a wider base in his feet than last season and a slightly open stance. He still gets to the same hitting position. There just isn’t all the movement in front of it.
“What I was doing (Saturday), it felt like the same thing without having to do a bunch of the timing before it,” Ackley said. “It’s still trying to accomplish the same things. It’s really not that big of a difference. It might be 6 inches from where I started before. It’s not like I’m changing my swing. It’s still the same swing, but I just don’t have the timing of getting it started.”
The early results seem to be positive. On the first night of the changes, Ackley singled in his final at-bat. It was a crisp, hard shot to right field. On Sunday, he drove in the winning run with a sharp single up the middle.
“The first two at-bats on Friday didn’t feel great,” he said. “For me in that last at-bat, I felt as good as I have in a couple years.”
And that’s what the Mariners want Ackley to return to — the promising hitter of two years ago, the player, who looked like a future .300 hitter after hitting .273 in 90 games.
“What we want him to do is be in the hitting position like he was when he first got to the big leagues,” Wedge said. “Dustin has decided to make a few adjustments and hopefully get back to some of the basics that got him to the big leagues.”