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Dustin Ackley 2.0 Reloaded With a Vengeance

Dustin Ackley, looking like a good hitter
Lloyd McClendon anointed Dustin Ackley the starting left fielder in spring training and Ackley has done nothing in camp to relinquish the spot. McClendon's announcement was a minor surprise at the time, given the M's seemed to acquire corner outfielders (or at least definitely not center fielders) in Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, and Ackley played center field last year after getting moved off of second base.

Ackley is one of the more interesting pieces to the Mariners 2014 puzzle now, especially given a sizzling spring training where he has sprayed hard line drives into the outfield gaps with a regularity unseen since his rookie campaign. What might he be as the Mariners regular left fielder? Can he be more than a spring training mirage?

I think so. There are reasons to believe that this is the year Dustin Ackley finds a home in the majors.

Let's start with Ackley's big spring training. Neil Payne at the re-launched FiveThirtyEight investigated spring training stats and found that they do have some predictive power. Payne's model suggests that especially hot (and icy) spring trainings warrant updated projections. He identified a handful of players at the extremes this year, and Ackley falls in the "extremely hot" category.*

*Along with Brad Miller. Crazy legs could be very good this year. Enjoy saying you knew how good he was before everyone else finds out.

Payne uses Marcel projections for a player's offensive output, which put Ackley at a .316 wOBA (below average). His spring puts him at a projected .323 wOBA (almost average).

Hitting isn't the whole story though. There's also Ackley's base running and defense. He routinely grades out as an above average baserunner (2.0-ish BsR per year), and in limited left field action last year looked bad statistically (-10.3 UZR/150). So, I went looking for a 2013 left fielder with about a .323 wOBA, 2.0 BsR, and -10.3 UZR/150 to see how valuable he was.

The best I came up with was Michael Brantley, who strikes me as a decent comparison beyond statistics. Like Ackley he has marginal power with good speed. Brantley had a .320 wOBA last season with 3.1 BsR and -10.8 UZR/150. That amounted to 1.7 WAR. Roughly 2.0 WAR is considered an average everyday player by rule of thumb.

So, given Ackley might hit just a bit better than Brantley but run a level below him on the base paths, with roughly the same defense, I'd pencil him in for a projected 1-1.5 WAR. That would make Ackley a below average left fielder but at least a contributor.

However, a 1 WAR left fielder would be a real victory for the Mariners. Neither Raul Ibanez nor Jason Bay ran a positive WAR in the outfield last year, despite all their combined home runs. Moreover, Casper Wells is the only Mariner since 2009 to log any time in left field and post a WAR over 1.0 (he got up to 1.2 in 2012, though split time in center and right too).

There's also the matter of Ackley's -10 UZR defense. It's based off of only 81 innings in left field - literally only 9 full games worth. It's worth remembering these are games Ackley played in left field after practicing second base full time for the better part of four years. Even with little practice and a sudden change in mid-season, Inside Range metrics suggest Ackley made the expected plays in left field at a 95% rate and never faced the sort of marginal ball which could have been used to show where his range compares to other left fielders. So really, it's arguably more accurate to say Ackley's left field defense is an unknown.

Left field profiles well for Ackley's skill set, especially in Safeco Field. He has the speed to cover left field's ground in Safeco and he won't face the long throws that would be demanded of his below-average arm in center and right field. The only matter for turning his speed into good outfield defense is developing his ability to read fly balls and take direct routes to where they land. That's probably a matter of work more than anything else, and Ackley worked himself into an above average second basemen from scratch once he was drafted. Ackley was an outfielder and first basemen at North Carolina. He could be a decent left fielder and beat the below-average projection I used. Even if he ends up at 0 UZR that would add 1 WAR to his projected total.

Coming up with Ackley's projected 1-1.5 WAR is the result of forecasts built on top of forecasts. That means there is a large margin for error, especially in a sport already as variable as baseball. However, it's safe to say that more theoretical outcomes end up with Ackley being a positive contributor than not, and at a position where the Mariners haven't had a regular contributor for quite some time.

Also, if Ackley's scouting reports and production as a prospect are still worth something, then it seems his spring training is more a return to what he should be than some inexplicable leap forward. His athletic talent and work ethic suggest that he could be a decent defender in left field too. Projecting 1-1.5 WAR might be conservative for Ackley, and something closer to league average, or maybe even above, is a real possibility.