Dustin Ackley Might Finally Be Adjusting

Dustin Ackley has a strikeout problem. It’s not a problem new to him at this level. Last season in the American League, average hitters struck out on 18% of his trips to the plate. Dustin Ackley did so in 21%. However, it was new to him overall. In the minors, Ackley was terrific at avoiding strikeouts. With Tacoma in 2011, Ackley struck out on 12% of his PAs whilst the average PCL hitter would strike out 18% of the time.

The low strikeouts in the minors made sense. Ackley was billed as a polished hitter with good contact skills and a good eye for the strike zone. And indeed, Ackley has had fewer swinging strikeouts than average at every level, even including his two years now in the Majors.

On the other hand, when it comes to called strikeouts, Ackley has had a tougher go. His patience at the plate, some might deem it passiveness, has seen him post higher than average called strikeout rates at every level, ballooning somewhat in his years in the Majors. Dustin is no Drew Stubbs (10% of Stubbs’ PAs have ended in a called strikeout), but Ackley’s rate was 7.5% last year and is 6.4% this year whereas the average is about 4.5%.

Having visually watched Dustin Ackley for a little over a year now, that is not surprising either. The most vexing problem has been watching him take, and get called, on the so-called lefty strike repeatedly. Ackley has seemed a bit obstinate in accepting that, though technically not a strike by the book, the rule book isn’t the meaningful arbiter, the home plate umpire is.

However, visual evidence is unreliable. Good ol’ fashioned data collection can’t be beat. What I did instead was go through all the pitches captured by pitch F/X that Dustin Ackley has seen as a Major Leaguer, and that the rest of baseball’s left-handed hitters saw as a comparison.

Among those pitches, I picked out the ones that fell into the zone that I deemed to be the lefty strike. That location, based on work done by John Walsh and others including my own look, is a square bounded by the same lower and upper limits as the normal strike zone, but starts from the outside edge of the plate and extends five whole inches outside. That is an area that, technically outside the strike zone, still got called a strike just over 75% of the time since the beginning of 2011.

In case you were wondering if that percentage was being artificially propped up by pitches right on the black, the slice between the third and fourth inch off the edge of the plate still got a called strike call 70% of the time and between the fourth and fifth inch off the outside edge, it was still 56%. It wasn’t until moving beyond the fifth inch did it drop below 50%.

Here’s how often pitches to left-handed batters ended up in that zone.

lefty zone graph

As pitchers got to know Ackley, it appears that he may have developed a reputation that he had a weak spot there and he began to see more and more pitches in that location. It dipped back at the beginning of this season, but quickly climbed back up and has stayed above average for the rest of the season. Pitchers were, intentionally or not, exploiting Ackley’s weakness.

And Ackley refused, or was ignorant of, or whatever, that it was a problem. From those pitches in that five-inch wide quadrant, I also tracked how often they were swung at. Hitters as a group, like pitchers above, displayed a remarkably consistency here.

lefty zone swing graph

Before August of 2012, Dustin Ackley had breached a 40% swing rate on these lefty zone pitches only once, in April of this year, coincidentally (?) coinciding with when he saw them the least often. And he averaged a swing rate of only 35% compared the Major League average of just over 50%.

But now, in August Ackley is swinging at almost 60% of them. It’s a small sample to be sure – the typical month sees about 60 such pitches for Ackley — but the rise is dramatic. Whereas in July Ackley saw 54 pitches in the lefty zone and swung at 19 of them, in August he has seen 63 and swung at 36*.

*An earlier version of this post contained inaccurate numbers written above for how many such lefty strikes Ackley has seen. The rates in the graphs were correct, but the totals listed in the paragraph directly above were too high.

It may be a fluke and even if not, it may not prove successful – Ackley’s overall batting line isn’t much improved in August – but we may be seeing the first steps of Ackley adjusting to reality that is the Major League called strike zone.

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Matthew Carruth is a software engineer who has been fascinated with baseball statistics since age five. When not dissecting baseball, he is watching hockey or playing soccer.

20 Responses to “Dustin Ackley Might Finally Be Adjusting”

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  1. futant462 says:

    Very cool article. Will watch Ackley’s numbers with interest. Seems the next logical step would be to look at his strikeout rate by month to see if there is any effect.

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    • futant462 says:

      Sure enough, his k% is down from ~20-22% to 15%. Taken together with this data it seems that there is some correlation. Unfortunately his BB% has tanked with it from 10% to 3.6%.

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  2. Matthias says:

    This is awesome stuff! Is this pitch data publicly available?

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  3. John says:

    I’m not sure his swing is sustainble, for long-term success.

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  4. Daven says:

    It’s interesting to me that the lefty strike that isn’t is called such so consistently, while in a recent arricle on mlb.com, a person involved with the grading of umpires calling balls and strikes stated that even when closely reviewed,umpires almost never call balls and strikes wrong and quite frequently go entire games without a single incorrect call… It would seem they must be very generous in their grading.

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  5. Average_Casey says:

    It’s such crap that Ackley has been punished so much because he has a better idea of the strike zone than the umpires. I wish they would just start using a live version of pitch fx to call balls and strikes it would be nice to get rid of the arbitray zone and see reality.

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  6. Noel says:

    Sorry, nit-picky correction: “bit obstinate in accepting that, though technically a strike by the book” should probably read “…though technically NOT a strike…”

    Good stuff, though! We’ll see what the pitchers respond with.

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  7. Noel says:

    Sorry, nit-picky correction: “bit obstinate in accepting that, though technically a strike by the book” should probably read “…though technically NOT a strike…”
    Good stuff, though! We’ll see what the pitchers respond with.

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  8. Noel says:

    Also: 1) Speaking as a lefty, looking at the lefty strike zone, I’d like to argue for ROBOTS. Grrr! and 2) I have found a bug in the FanGraphs mobile theme. Please feel free to delete one or both of my previous comments (which the mobile site staunchly told me it couldn’t post – then I popped in via my PC and saw both. D’oh!)

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  9. Patrick says:

    Are these totals in the 300′s including pitches in the actual strike zone and the “lefty” zone? Looks like too many to be just the lefty zone, since he’s only seeing a little more than 400 pitches a month total. Or I might have read it wrong.

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    • Um, neither actually. The rates were all correct but I made a join error in the query and ended up with duplicate counts so the numbers listed were a factor too large. The post has been updated now.

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  10. Westside guy says:

    The whole “lefty strike zone” thing bugs me no end, but I understand to succeed these guys have to play the game as it’s defined by the officials on the field…

    BTW this may be a dumb question, but – is there a corresponding “righty strike zone”? Or do the umpires cover that side of the plate better because of their typical positioning?

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  11. King of Diamonds says:

    Very interesting and clearly presented article, and I’m impressed you seem to have figured out this specific issue! I’ve been a fan of Ackley for a couple years and have had him on my fantasy squads the last 2 years, so I’m encouraged and optimistic to see him adjusting and improving, for both real-life and fantasy purposes. I can visualize a future with an electronically monitored strike zone, but I haven’t decided if I’ll like it better or not.

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  12. Balthazar says:

    Dave C. put out contact maps for Ackley earlier in the year elsewhere which conform to your analysis of the problem, Matt. While those showed Ackely had a separate problem with going after the high strike (which he had little facility to hit with his swing path), he wasn’t just holding off on the ‘lefty strike’ he was giving away _the entire outer half of the plate_. Opposing pitchers would be crazy NOT to pound him there since he wouldn’t swing, and then having gotten him down in the count they could do with him what they wished. Ackely just didn’t want to swing away, period. And as I recall watching him, there was a reason why: he pulled the pitches I did see him swing at, resulting in weak ground balls. And yes, to my eyes he looked frightfully passive during too many early season ABs.

    Assuming Ackley has made the decision to at least protect the outer part of the plate, that is sure to be a positive. I’ll be convinced he can be an effective major league _hitter_ when he starts to take outside pitches the other way. Ackley’s got a lot of retooling to do to hit major league pitching with authority. His eye at the plate could be a major asset, but we need to see him do something postitive with pitches outside of the sliver of the inside part of the plate where he can turn on a pitch. I’d like to think that we won’t still be debating ‘progress’ for him a year from now, but . . . .

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  13. Greg says:

    remember the article here about a year ago where some writer proclaimed Ackley as >>> Strasburg? You would expect a site like this wouldn’t jump so fast on conclusions by small sample sizes. It’s embarrassing the MSM is better in that regard because they would never have had Ackley better than Strasburg based on 1 half season fluky performance that of course regressed in the future.

    Ironically Ackley might make the playoffs so his value could be higher than a Strasburg shut down in the playoffs.

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    • I personally don’t, and don’t care to look it up since you didn’t either, but I assume the writer’s conclusion was not based on “1 half season fluky performance that of course regressed in the future” as you so poorly put it.

      My hunch is that it was based mostly on hitters tending to have more stable value than pitchers and Strasburg being already under the knife for Tommy John surgery and thus likely to cost the Nationals a lot of team-controlled value.

      Not to mention that “of course [Ackley] regressed” is ludicrous

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    • DowntownChico says:

      Let me get this straight….

      You’re attacking the site’s credibility because they make conclusions based on small sample sizes.

      And you’re basing this on that one time somebody at the site wrote an article about a year ago.

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