Two years ago, the top two picks in the June draft were pretty obvious – Stephen Strasburg was going to go #1 and Dustin Ackley was going to go #2. Strasburg was the best pitching prospect in the draft’s history, while Ackley had comfortably settled in as the low-risk college position player option. Because of the enormous difference in perceived potential, there was no real question that the Nationals would take Strasburg #1, even with the greater chance of risk associated with drafting a pitcher. I made the case for Ackley at the time, but even I admitted that, given the #1 pick, I’d take Strasburg too.
Now, though, a lot has changed. Strasburg had a remarkable ascent and debut in the big leagues, but then also had to go under the knife and has spent the last year rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Ackley, meanwhile, had some pedestrian numbers in the minor leagues, took longer to get to the show, but has made a pretty nifty little splash since he got there.
In fact, I thought it might be interesting to point out that Ackley’s performance in the big leagues is roughly comparable to what Strasburg did in his time in the Majors before his arm gave out. Strasburg made 12 starts for the Nationals last summer, throwing 68 innings in those dozen appearances. The number of innings essentially represented about 1/3 of a full-season, as the Nationals would not have let him rack up more than the 204 innings that would project out to over 36 starts. In that 1/3 of a season, Strasburg was worth +2.6 WAR, or a +7.8 WAR full-season pace.
Since arriving in the big leagues in mid-June, Ackley has racked up 150 plate appearances in 37 games, about as close to a 1/4 mark of a full-season as you’ll get. He’s shown far more power than expected and has handled himself pretty well at second base; his .311/.373/.556 line has been worth +1.9 WAR so far. Multiply that out to a full-season, and he’s on pace for +7.6 WAR, basically an identically valuable season to Strasburg’s debut pace.
Of course, what made Strasburg’s debut so remarkable wasn’t his results but how he got them, throwing 100 MPH fastballs with ease and breaking off sick 90+ MPH breaking balls and changeups. He was a pitching freak, doing things with his right arm that we had never seen before. Ackley, on the other hand, is still a slender guy who barely looks like a Major Leaguer, and he’s producing his value through doubles, triples, and a lack of strikeouts. It’s not nearly as sexy, and he simply isn’t the kind of must-see-TV that Strasburg was last summer.
Still, though, whether it’s as physically impressive or not, it should at least be noted that Ackley has essentially matched Strasburg in terms of production during their first summer in the big leagues. The argument for Strasburg over Ackley was always that there was an enormous difference in potential upside, and that the gulf in reward made up for the expected differences in risk as well. When Strasburg dominated the league last summer, it was seen as confirmation of his ridiculous talents. I’m guessing that what Ackley is doing now is seen as more of a small-sample fluke, a hot streak that he just won’t keep up. The difference is the lingering power of perception.
Strasburg has great talent, Ackley has low risk, and if Mr. Low Risk happens to match Mr. Big Talent in performance, well, it won’t last. But, perhaps when considering which one we’d rather have going forward, we should at least consider that when put to the test against big league opposition, there hasn’t been much of a difference between the two in terms of production. Perhaps we underestimated the upside of Mr. Low Risk.
Given where we are now, with Strasburg headed out for a rehab assignment soon and likely to be back on the hill in a month or so, I’m curious about who you’d rather have in your organization. I just ranked Strasburg #26 in the Trade Value series, while Ackley didn’t appear anywhere on the list, so my perception is that most people will still strongly prefer the elite arm and take the extra risk associated. Given how well Ackley is performing, and how much more likely he is to stay healthy long term, though, I wonder if that’s the right call.