During the ninth inning of a game that found the Seattle Mariners trailing by a run Wednesday night, Dustin Ackley grabbed a bat and did something worthwhile. He made contact on a two-strike pitch, hitting a ball to left field that tied the score at 3.
Ackley enjoyed a dugout reception suggesting his sacrifice fly was heroic — the Mariners had no way of knowing their bullpen would give up the winning run a few minutes later — and the broadcasters lauded the veteran’s gritty perseverance in the clutch.
Amid the fist-bumping celebration for Ackley, it was easy to forget the sacrifice fly increased his season RBI total to five.
That’s right, five.
More is wrong with the 2015 Mariners than Dustin Ackley. The bullpen, so trustworthy last season, is plodding through an inevitable regression phase. Aside from Felix Hernandez, the pitching rotation has struggled to get through the sixth inning. Base-running miscues, shoddy defense, an absence of timely hitting — no wonder the Mariners returned from their recent trip with the fourth-worst record in baseball.
Still, five RBIs from somebody who is virtually an everyday player at a position associated with offensive production — Ackley has started 17 games in the left field — indicates at least one of the ideas manager Lloyd McClendon settled upon during spring training is not working.
The plan was to give the left-handed-hitting Ackley the brunt of playing time when opponents are scheduled to start a right-handed pitcher, which translates into roughly two starts every three games. Ackley has answered the task by hitting .180 against right-handers. His on-base percentage against them is .212.
Such feeble numbers would be understandable if Ackley were a kid rushed to the majors on a fast track, as former teammate Justin Smoak once was. But this is Ackley’s fifth season with the Mariners. Called up from Tacoma in the summer of 2011, he finished among the top 10 rookies in every offensive category that matters.
Touted as a future star as a 23-year-old, Ackley should be in his prime at 27. He’s not. He looks like a shot fighter.
A pivotal Tuesday night sequence against the Los Angeles Angels underscored Ackley’s indecision. With the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the sixth, he watched a 3-0 fastball thrown across the middle of home plate. No problem: The pitcher is having trouble locating, hey, you take one.
But Ackley kept the bat on his shoulder for a 3-1 strike, and then a 3-2 strike. The bases-loaded threat was squashed because a five-year veteran didn’t swing at pitches a five-year veteran should mash.
Ackley, I should point out, isn’t a standard-issue five-year veteran. He was the first position player selected in the 2009 draft — No. 2 overall — and the Mariners had reason to believe the hitter who set several College World Series records at North Carolina brought pillar-of-the-franchise potential in Seattle.
What happened? How is it possible that one of the most accomplished players in the history of college baseball — a left-handed hitter with a polished swing destined to crush right-handed pitches — owns a .212 on-base percentage against right-handed pitchers?
Ackley’s scuffling is consistent with a team that has failed to develop position players under general manager Jack Zduriencik, a lifelong scout. Since Zduriencik was hired to overhaul a barren Mariners’ farm system in October of 2008, six drafts have produced five variously regular position players: Third baseman Kyle Seager, catcher Mike Zunino, shortstop Chris Taylor, utility man Brad Miller, and Ackley.
Seager scuffled through April but figures to return to All-Star caliber any month now, but questions persist about Zunino, a fundamentally sound backstop with a swing-and-miss approach to hitting. They persist, too, about Taylor, valued solely for his glove, and Miller, who has some pop in his bat but had problems converting anticipated outs into actual outs at shortstop.
McClendon envisions Miller as a super-sub in the mold of retired Mariners’ utility player Mark McLemore and current Oakland A’s jack-of-all-tradesman Ben Zobrist. I’m on board with the premise, but McClendon has more pressing needs right now than a super-sub.
He needs a left fielder who hits with occasional power. (He also needs a center fielder who hits with occasional power, but one thing at a time.) Miller can hit with occasional power, and playing the outfield will help mitigate his only defensive deficiency: an arm with rifle velocity and scatter-shot accuracy.
A lineup card that generally replaces Ackley with Miller in left field won’t solve the Mariners’ many other woes, but the manager needs to make a statement more urgent than “I like my team” and “this is a very good ballclub built to win.”
McClendon’s ballclub includes a starting left fielder who has five RBIs on May 8. How do you build a winner out of that?