By Dave Cameron
(Editor's note: Dave Cameron of USS Mariner writes a weekly column for the Brock and Salk blog focusing on baseball from a statistical perspective. Salk will be writing for USS Mariner as well).
Last week, I defended Justin Smoak, pointing out some comparable players who also had some rough transitions to the major leagues and asking that we practice patience with our new young first baseman. Today, I want to do something similar, yet perhaps with a player that many of you have not yet seen play. I want to talk about Dustin Ackley.
Even though he has yet to reach the majors, you probably know at least a bit about him. He was the consolation prize for missing out on Stephen Strasburg as the guy the Mariners selected with the second pick in the draft last summer. Renowned for his keen eye and surprising speed, he is generally considered one of the best young pure hitters of any prospect in the minors. He has a great eye, works the count, and uses the whole field. What he does not do, however, is hit the ball over the wall, and given the current major league team's lack of thump, I know some fans are questioning why an offensively challenged team is relying on a young player who fits into a similar mold of what the team already has.
However, I will once again advise against a rush to judgment. It is completely true that Ackley currently possesses almost no home run power (he is averaging one home run for every 144 trips to the plate this year), and I know a lot of scouts who don't think he ever will, considering his slender body type. I'd like to suggest, though, that history gives us plenty of reason to think that there's more upside beyond just a slap hitter who tries to draw a walk. Below are the comparable Triple-A performances of four players who shared a similar profile to Ackley at this stage in his career.
Derek Jeter, 1995, age 21: 558 plate appearances, 2 HR, 61 BB, 56 K, .317/.394/.422, (BA/OBP/SLG), 25% XBH (extra base hit rate)
Darin Erstad, 1996, age 22: 401 plate appearances, 6 HR, 44 BB, 53 K, 305/.385/.447, 31% XBH
Brian Roberts, 2001-2003, ages 21-23: 760 plate appearances, 4 HR, 95 BB, 80 K, .284/.376/.370, 21% XBH
Joe Mauer, 2003, age 20 (AA): 310 plate appearances, 4 HR, 25 BB, 25 K, .341/.400/.453, 23% XBH
Jeter, Erstad, and Mauer were all very similar in pedigree to Ackley. Highly drafted, highly thought of prospects that showed every big league skill besides home run power in the minors, and got to the big leagues without much in the way of developed power. Roberts was the odd duck. He wasn't considered much of a prospect, being a 50th round draft choice and one who scouts thought lacked enough juice in his bat to make it in the big leagues, but a guy who performed rather similarly to the other three and has been quite successful in his own right.
All of these low or no power guys developed significantly more power in the big leagues. Roberts is the only one of the three who hasn't recorded a season with at least 20 home runs, but while he topped out at 18, he's the league's most prolific doubles guy, notching 50+ in each of the last two years while also posting double digit home run totals. No one thinks of power when describing a hitter like Jeter or Erstad, but both were able to grow into their bodies enough to get around on a fastball when they guessed right.
These are just a few examples. There are quite a few more that didn't make the chart because they stayed in the minors until they developed power. Local legend Edgar Martinez fits that bill, as does current Boston slugger Kevin Youkilis, among others. There is an old cliche in the scouting community that power is often the last thing to develop, and it's become an adopted part of the scouting lingo because of the numerous examples of players with this set of skills: great hand-eye coordination, bat control and the ability to hit to all fields. When guys who display those skills at a young age grow into their frames, they often show significantly more power than they did in their early 20s.
Dustin Ackley is 22-years-old and can't weigh more than 170 pounds soaking wet. He's not a home run guy right now, and he'll never become Adam Dunn, but don't look at his minor league numbers and slap the David Eckstein label on him. Ackley can hit, and given a few years to down some calories he very well may find himself regularly depositing balls into the right field seats in Seattle.