Hard To Profile

Unusual Ackley leaves scouts grappling for comps

RALEIGH, N.C.—For most of the 2009 season, North Carolina All-American Dustin Ackley has eschewed pregame infield practice. At least the infield part of it.

Ackley and the Tar Heels know what he can do at first base. They want to know what he can do in the outfield, and as much as Ackley means to North Carolina—as the team's top hitter the last three years, he means a lot—the scouts who flock to North Carolina's games want to know even more.

"If he's an outfielder, the value skyrockets," said one area scout, echoing the consensus.

Dustin Ackley (Photo by Robert Gurganus)
For most of the season, scouts had to be satisfied with watching Ackley shag flyballs with the outfielders in pregame, as he rarely lines up in the infield in pregame anymore. But until North Carolina visited rival N.C. State—a series the host Wolfpack won—Ackley had made only one college start in the outfield.

But a concussion that sidelined outfielder Mike Cavasinni prompted North Carolina to shift Ackley to center field for the final two games of the series.

Most first baseman don't move to center when they go to the outfield; more typically they shift to a corner spot. But Ackley is hardly the typical first baseman, a fact he is well aware of.

"I know about the profile," Ackley said, "and I've heard that from scouts before, that they see me better as an outfielder because of my speed. You don't see a lot of first basemen with speed, or a lot of 6-foot-1 first basemen, and I know they're looking for power over there."

Plenty To Offer

This year's first-base class doesn't come close to last year's, when six first basemen went in the first round, but Ackley hits enough to be the best first baseman in the country and in the draft. He hit his 16th homer in the series finale against the Wolfpack, leaving him one shy of his total during his first two seasons. He's all over the Atlantic Coast Conference leader board during his .401/.510/.746 season, leading the conference in hits (79), ranking second in OBP, third in slugging and second in home runs.

Ackley's bat stays in the hitting zone a long, long time. One ACC coach said his ability to hit for average was the best he's seen in the conference in 15 seasons—better than Nomar Garciaparra, better than J.D. or Stephen Drew, better than Ryan Braun, Mark Teixeira or Matt Wieters.

Another seemed surprised to have to answer a question about how he does it: "He's an unbelievable athlete, he squares up everything and he's got amazing hand-eye," the coach said. "What more do you want?"

The complete package leaves scouts fumbling for comparisons. Some have tied Ackley to Jacoby Ellsbury; Ackley prefers Chase Utley, though he doesn't play second base.

Players like Ackley—guys who are truly unique—are the ones who usually become stars. They're also hard to pigeonhole, because they don't fit stereotypes, or the profile. I'm no scout, but I've thrown a young Tony Gwynn around as a high-end possibility because of Ackley's hitting ability and speed. Most scouts have run from that, but I did find one taker.

"You hate to compare a guy to a Hall of Famer," he said, "but a batting champion who runs well, yeah, crazy as that sounds, it makes some sense."

Finding A Fit

Ackley's athleticism, however, is what separates him as a prospect, and it's why scouts want to see him in center field. He's a 70 runner on the 20-to-80 scouting scale, making routine groundballs anything but. Scouts want to see that speed play in center field, and in his second and third college starts there, Ackley showed why. He tracked balls easily and showed above-average range. N.C. State's coaches were still talking about his diving catch he made in the second game of the series, and he cut off a ball in the left-center gap with ease in the series finale.

While scouts admit that arm strength ranks near the bottom of the tools profile for center field, Ackley's arm still gives them pause. He didn't let any throws go in his two starts, never cut loose. An infielder at North Forsyth High outside of Winston-Salem, N.C., Ackley first injured his elbow pitching in the state high school playoffs and finally had Tommy John surgery last fall. Scouts have questioned whether he has returned to full strength since the surgery.

Ackley admitted to some soreness after the N.C. State series, saying it was normal for alumni of the surgery but also saying playing in the outfield had prompted some different throws that might have led to some pain.

He also knows more outfield play is in his future. From the sound of it and the look of two games, he's looking forward to it.

"I'm expecting that I'll play outfield, just because of the speed and how that could play defensively," he said. "My arm will be fine. I just need to get used to it."