PEORIA, Ariz. -- A year ago, Dustin Ackley was searching. Searching for his swing, searching for his position on the team, searching for answers as to why things weren't going as easily as they always had in his baseball past.
But the 26-year-old former first-round Draft pick looks like a different man in Mariners camp this spring. He looks more comfortable at the plate, which has been evident by a torrid start in which he's gone 6-for-10 with three doubles, a home run and six RBIs in his first four Cactus League appearances.
And if Ackley can continue playing like the guy for whom the Mariners have been waiting the past two years, it will be a huge boost for a club that needs its core group of youngsters to step up and bolster its offense around new additions Robinson Cano and Corey Hart.
Ackley hit .304 after the All-Star break last year to partially salvage a season that started horribly, resulting in a stint in Triple-A Tacoma and a switch to the outfield after rookie Nick Franklin took over his second-base job.
The athletic Ackley played mostly center field, as well as a few games in left, some games back at second and even a little first base when needed. He headed to his offseason home in LaPeer, Mich., not certain of his future role, but new manager Lloyd McClendon wasted no time pronouncing that he wanted Ackley to be his left fielder.
"Because that's where I want him," McClendon said at the start of camp. And that was that.
Ackley has played strictly at that spot this spring. And his comfort level seems to be soaring, along with his early batting average.
"This is a very talented young man," McClendon said. "I think our challenge is to get him in one place and leave him there and let him flourish."
Ackley welcomes the stability, which provides one less thing to worry about for a guy looking to lock himself in at the plate as well.
"I think that's what everybody wants," Ackley said. "Everybody wants to be in one spot and know where they're going to be every day. That's what I want. I want to play every day, I want to be in the same spot and not here and there and all over the place and not really know what I'm doing. So that's my goal this camp, to win a spot and stay there. I think that's probably everybody's goal here."
If Ackley hits as he's capable, he'll keep that job. The Mariners drafted him with the second overall pick in 2009 out of North Carolina because of his pure hitting talent and he quickly rose to the big leagues after just one year in the Minors.
But there is a learning curve for any player, an adaption to Major League pitching and the failures that come with playing against the best in the game. Ackley acknowledges the mental part of his game suffered as he struggled for the first time in his career.
And that makes his strong early start this spring all the more important. Cactus League games and statistics are forgotten as soon as the regular season begins, but the confidence built now can certainly help reinforce all the work that's been done to refine the batting stance he toyed with unsuccessfully last year.
"Sometimes it's like, 'Well, this could just be early bloomers or whatever,'" Ackley said. "But I feel great. Even in live batting practice when I wasn't doing so good at the start, I still felt like I was seeing the ball great, recognizing pitches. I think that's the most important part.
"If you're seeing the ball right and swinging at good pitches and making good contact, I think that's right where I want to be."
Ackley drove his home run to straightway center field on Sunday against the Indians in Goodyear, then laced a three-run double over the center fielder's head Monday against the Rockies in Peoria. Hitting the ball hard, straight up the middle, as well as a crisp opposite-field single Sunday are good signals that his swing is right where he needs it to be.
"I'm letting the ball get deep, I'm hitting the pitches where they need to be hit," he said. "That's as good a sign as I need right now. I didn't expect to be this far along, but I'm excited about it and am just going to try to keep it going."
Outfield coach Andy Van Slyke said Ackley is a guy who works hard to get things right and has been a willing pupil in the challenging drills they've been doing since camp opened. Van Slyke believes in making practices harder than games and working time and again on tough plays against the wall or in the gap that might only come once every few days in the regular season.
That has been a good match for Ackley, who has limited experience in the outfield after playing mostly first base in college due to an arm issue and then transitioned to second base after being drafted by the Mariners.
The experience he does have in the outfield mostly was in center, which is why previous manager Eric Wedge kept him mostly there with his midseason makeover last year. But now that Ackley has time to take in left field, that comfort level is coming as well.
"There's not a huge difference, just the reads off the bat are a little different," he said. "You don't quite get that same jump you might get from center on balls, where you're reading the ball coming into the plate. But it feels good right now. Arizona is a good place to learn how to play, just because the ball carries and goes in the sky and makes it tough. But I'm excited where things are. The drills Andy has us doing make the games seem pretty simple. I like what we've been doing."
And the Mariners like what they've been seeing from Ackley as well, both in the field and at the plate.
"Everybody knows the stories about how he came in last spring and had a different stance," said McClendon. "He just needs to get back to being him and understanding that hitting a baseball is probably the most difficult thing to do in any sport. And from time to time, even the best are going to struggle. It's just a matter of getting back up off the mat and going at it the next day. I think he's understanding that and enjoying the game."
Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.