PEORIA, Ariz. – Dustin Ackley really likes where his swing is right now. But he likes where his head is even more.
If there’s one thing Ackley’s frustrating struggles as a pro have taught him, it’s that the connection between his mental state and his performance is acute.
“I’ve told people, I don’t care how good your swing is, if you’re thinking about stuff, and if your mind’s not 100 percent all in to what you’re doing, you’re not going to be successful,’’ he said.
“That’s pretty much a good example of me last year. My swing, it might have been a good swing, but my mind wasn’t right, and that’s really what screwed me up.”
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Ackley’s epiphany came shortly after one of his darkest moments, when he was demoted to the minors in the middle of last season. While with Tacoma, Ackley happened to be at a bookstore and noticed a book he had heard Mariners teammate Raul Ibanez rave about: “The Mental Side of Baseball,” by Harvey Dorfman.
He bought the book, opened it up and couldn’t believe the connection he felt to the message of Dorfman, who died in 2011.
“It was like the book was reading to me the whole time,’’ he said.
Ackley’s biggest takeaway related to the importance of self-confidence, and shutting off the noise.
“You have to think you’re the best player on the field,’’ he said. “That was something I had kind of got away from. I was worried more about what other people thought, or what was wrong with my swing, or should I swing at the first pitch. Once I started doing that, things started kind of snowballing into something that was not good.’’
Ackley had arrived in Seattle with sky-high expectations as the No. 2 overall pick in 2009, right behind Stephen Strasburg. Initially, he seemed to be living up to the hype, putting up a promising rookie season after his promotion in June 2011.
But amid predictions of impending stardom, Ackley struggled throughout 2012, then showed up in 2013 with an entirely new batting stance. It didn’t click, and as Ackley’s confidence sagged, so did his batting average.
Ackley was hitting just .205 when he went down to Tacoma in late May, not only to work on his hitting, but to learn to become an outfielder. Ackley had lost his position, his batting stroke and the swagger he had developed as an All-American at North Carolina.
“The only person I could be mad at was myself,’’ Ackley said. “It was at the point where something needed to happen. I wasn’t progressing. I wasn’t doing the things I needed to do. It was kind of the same thing was happening over and over again. … Once I got down there I knew it was time to go to work and time to figure stuff out.”
Being away from the spotlight in Seattle helped. So did the lessons he gleaned from Dorfman’s book. Ackley took off at the plate, batting .365 in 25 games with the Rainiers. And when he got the call back to Seattle, the resurgence continued. Ackley hit .304 after the All-Star break, including a .390 mark (30 for 77) in 22 games in August.
Is it the breakthrough the Mariners have been hoping for from Ackley, deemed a can’t-miss prospect and potential batting champion when he was drafted? He’ll have to sustain it to make that conclusion, but Ackley, who turns 26 on Thursday, truly believes he has found the path out of his rut.
“It was definitely a frustrating year for sure, overall,’’ he said. “But I felt like what I did in the second half, and getting back to things how it used to feel and getting that mindset I needed was really important.
“It took a long time to figure out how to do that, and realize it’s not really my swing, it’s all in my head. A lot of it is a mental approach to hitting. That was really the separator for me.”
That realization was accompanied by another important revelation by Ackley: All the tinkering he had done with his swing in an increasingly desperate effort to figure things out became largely unnecessary.
“When I got my mental side right, that kind of got my swing where it needed to be,’’ he said. “I think I was playing tentative, and playing almost kind of scared, in a way … I didn’t even make any mechanical changes. It was just a mental kind of switch.
“As funny as it sounds, it was like my mind got my swing to where it needed to be without having to really do any major changes.”
If Ackley can retain, or even build upon, his late-season success, it would be a big boost for the Mariners offense. They are eyeing Ackley as their left fielder and he could be in the mix to hit leadoff.
New manager Lloyd McClendon, who toured the country after his hiring to meet with players, agreed the key for Ackley is to relax and eliminate the negativity that has plagued him.
“When I visited him this winter, we talked about that a lot,’’ he said. “I think most of his struggles were more from a mental standpoint than a physical standpoint. I think he’s having fun in camp.”
Ackley believes he’s finally passed through the underachieving stage of his career.
“You see a lot of guys you’ve played against, and it’s like, ‘I’m a better player than that guy,’ and that guy is playing twice as good as me,’’ he said.
Now he hopes to emulate the career path of a player like Kansas City’s Alex Gordon. Also a No. 2 overall pick, Gordon fought through early struggles, a minor-league demotion, and a conversion from infield to outfield to become a two-time All-Star.
“I think we have similar paths,’’ Ackley said. “ … You can see how guys can turn it around after a couple of years. It’s not like, if they don’t play right away when they come up, they’re not what we thought they were.
“There aren’t many guys that come right out of the gate like the Mike Trouts, that are just nuts. Some guys have got to transition a little bit.”
For Ackley, the transition was painful at times. But the payoff, if and when it comes, will be sweet.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry