Dustin Ackley, the Seattle Mariners outfield, and the center field position

In the past couple days Dustin Ackley has played left field for the Tacoma Rainiers, this after a lot of time and resources went into making Ackley a second baseman. Ackley is a very good second baseman, far better than passable, but his value as a player and a prospect is rooted heavily in the production of his bat.

There’s no reason to believe that becoming out outfielder will have an inherent impact on Ackley’s bat in the positive direction. He’s played outfield before, but unless we’re delving into some sort of theoretical psychology of players’ unquantifiable comfort at a position correlated with his offensive production, any argument about this helping his bat is silly. I’m not going to make that argument, and I’ll probably remain skeptical of it even if I hear it from the horse’s (Ackley’s) mouth. Too many people are spewing absolutes based in biases, as opposed to facts and data.

That in mind, there is no doubt that moving to the outfield will actually devalue Ackley’s bat. Positional adjustments call left field basically the third easiest position to play, while second base is the third hardest. Considering the amount of positions and the amount of ties in these positional adjustments, these may not seem that far apart—in fact, as far as their order goes, left field and second base are right next to each other. But in the WAR formula, over a full season, there is about a 10-run difference in defensive value between a league average second baseman and a league average left fielder.

We know that Ackley’s good at second base. He’s got 2370.1 innings at second base and has amassed +9.5 runs compared to an average second baseman in that time. We don’t know if he’s good at left field, and even more so, we don’t know if he can ever handle center field considering his arm strength (center field happens to have the same positional adjustment at second base).

But Ackley moving to the outfield is much less about maximizing his value, and more about career preservation. Nick Franklin has been very good so far, and if he continues to be very good the Mariners have little reason to move him off second base, especially considering Brad Miller‘s superior defense at shortstop and emergence as a hitter.

So for Dustin Ackley, it’s entirely possible that, without a position change and regardless of his success, he’ll be blocked at second base. If that’s the case, Ackley doesn’t even really make a good platoon partner with anyone in an infield that could soon include left-handed hitters (as well as Franklin being a nominal switch hitter) at second base, third base, and shortstop.

Meanwhile, the Mariners just traded Vinnie Catricala and Francisco Martinez, both of which seemed likely to man outfield spots if they reached the bigs with the Mariners.

The team just drafted DJ Peterson and Austin Wilson, both college bats who could make fast ascents to the big leagues. Peterson is a nominal third baseman, but more likely to end up in a corner outfield spot or at first base, while Wilson is a big-bodied, athletic corner outfielder.

While Ackley may not be an ideal center fielder (though I think he could be one), one of the caveats to all the information given by scouts is their hearts, flesh, blood, and brains that can potentially lead to biases. Scouts – at least in my opinion – tend to focus on specific deficiencies and attributes, and generally do a poor job of quantifying a player’s aggregate value. If you have to make inferences about a player based only on a single game, or a short series of games, the success rate of a scout’s opinion will outpace stats every time, or most the time if we’re running this theme of statistical quantification and accuracy.

In a sea of data, the opposite is almost always true.

That’s less bothersome when scouts are identifying things that players need to work on, perhaps installing the street signs on the path to player development. It’s not as effective when the risk of impeding a player’s development – a ship that has likely sailed for Ackley – is no longer a factor.

Dustin Ackley played outfield the other day, and then he played outfield again. He’ll probably continue to play outfield. He’s not an ideal center fielder, but in an organization that is void of most outfield talent, and outfield that has only Michael Saunders under contract next year, and that has a farm system that has employed Darren Ford and Corey Patterson in their Triple A affiliate for much of the past two years, beggars can’t be choosers.

  • maqman

    As you point out the ship has sailed on Ackley’s hold on 2B and he missed the boat by not producing enough to stay on the big club, let alone at a position of his choice. The Ackley/Franklin quandary in regard to manning 2B was always going to be in the cards if they both could hit. Ackley had seniority and he blew it, now he’s the guy that has to move. Personally I think he will be fine in the OF, including CF, but that’s just a subjective evaluation. Objectively he has played in the OF more than Franklin has and Tacoma’s manager has said he looks good, SSS is obvious. The club is also going to be forced to make decisions about Erasmo and the big club rotation and probably about Ryan and Miller at SS. At some point this season Smoak may well seal his big league fate. It is against all logic that the Bonderman/Saunders/Harang triumvirate will continue to pitch the way they have recently. If so I guess they just will have to trade one of them, two if The Incredible Hultz needs to be called up to The Show. At some point, not necessarily this season, Romero and Morban may need to be accommodated in the OF; Tenbrink and Thames are long shots but not impossibilities. Our farm depth is not an apparition as some would lead us to believe. We are just rich in potential but momentarily short on production, that will not prevail.

  • Marinersareajoke

    I have to chuckle whenever I read some posts defending the failure of a MLb Franchise. Ackley is a bust as of right now, he could get better but at the mlb level he has been a bust. Smoak, projected to hit .240 8 hr 22 rbi is defended non-stop by the garlic fry nation with their rose-colored glases, is another bust. Montero had one decent half season in NY and then is traded for a good young pitcher, thats a sound move and another bust so far. Saunders hitting under .200 and not producing is another prospect that is failing. One could go all day naming failed prospects in the Mariners system yet some think that somehow next year will be different, wait it must be June, which is when we are out of contention again and hyping of prospects begin.

    • Matthias_Kullowatz

      I don’t get the sense that Casey is defending the M’s franchise with this piece. He’s simply saying that Ackley now has to play somewhere defensively where he is unproven, and where his already-subpar bat is valued even less if it’s left field. The hope is that he can man center field adeptly, as he did second base, so that he doesn’t lose further value on that side of the mound.