Dustin Ackley had a .694 slugging percentage in the final few weeks of 2015.(AP)
Newly-promoted New York Yankees hitting coach Alan Cockrell knows a thing or two about Dustin Ackley, and also a thing or two about the specter of high expectations.
On the latter, Cockrell was an All-American at Tennessee before the San Francisco Giants made him the 9th overall pick in the 1984 MLB Draft, and while he rocketed all the way to Triple-A by Opening Day 1987, it would take almost a decade for him to reach the next level.
Cockrell spent 10 seasons in Triple-A with 5 different organizations, and wouldn't make his MLB debut until September 7, 1996, with Colorado; he played his final game less than a month later, and all the expectations ended with 2 career hits in 9 major-league games and a .278 average in 13 minor-league seasons - while the guy picked right after him, USC first baseman Mark McGwire, bashed 583 HRs in a 16-year career worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.
So, when the untrained eye perhaps saw Dustin Ackley, a .243 career hitter with a .215 average in 2015, as a reclamation project when the Yankees acquired him from Seattle in July, Cockrell saw opportunity. And, after just a couple of batting practice sessions in pinstripes, Cockrell and then-Yankees hitting coach Jeff Pentland saw that maybe there was a mechanical issue behind the swoon in Seattle.
"He was coming off his back side going out to get the baseball, and it's tough to hit when you've got something coming at you 95 (miles per hour) and you're going towards it," Cockrell said earlier this month. "Pent and I saw this pretty much the first BP session, and we were in agreement; we were going to get him to stay on his back side a little bit longer and stay behind the ball a little bit more."
Right after being acquired, Ackley missed about 5 weeks because of a back injury, but once he returned, he hit .288 with a .654 slugging percentage in the season's final month, smacking 4 HRs, 3 doubles, and 2 triples among his 15 hits and driving in 11 runs to boot.
Small sample size, maybe, but to Cockrell, it's a small sample of what could come in 2016 and beyond.
"I think the biggest thing we saw was the need to stabilize his movement going forward, keeping him behind the ball a little bit and giving him some room to let the hands get the barrel to the ball," Cockrell said, "and he literally got it in one or two cage sessions."
As far as knowing Ackley, Pentland was the Mariners' hitting coach when Dustin was drafted in 2009, and while they never officially worked together in the majors, the coach got a good 1st impression.
"He came to Safeco and took BP, and although he wasn't a very big guy in stature, he could impact the baseball, and he was in a good position behind the ball," Cockrell said. "He had good hands and used the whole field, and the ball comes off his bat with a little different sound for a guy his size."
Heading into 2016, the Yankees seem willing to employ some form of a platoon between Ackley and Rob Refsnyder at 2nd base next season, but given his new outlook and the fact that he's a lefty hitter in Yankee Stadium, don't be surprised if Ackley plays his way into the lineup at some position every day.
"He was able to actually be in a position to let his skills play," Cockrell said of Ackley's final month, "and when that started to happen, he was a big bat for us."