What Can Nerds Learn From Wedgies?
Yesterday, Mariners Manager Eric Wedge blamed sabermetrics, “for lack of a better term”, for Dustin Ackley’s failure to perform at the major league level. From the linked mlb.com piece (skip to the bottom to read it yourself):
“It’s the new generation. It’s all this sabermetrics stuff, for lack of a better term, you know what I mean?” Wedge said. “People who haven’t played since they were 9 years old think they have it figured out. It gets in these kids’ heads.”
It’s easy to shrug off Wedge’s quote as another anti-SABR rant from someone who hasn’t analyzed a set of data since he was nine years old, but as a sabermetrician, for lack of a better word, I’d rather try to understand what Wedge means and what validity may be buried in this outwardly obtuse remark.
Could Dustin Ackley actually have performed worse because of advanced baseball metrics? Was he on fangraphs late at night looking at his ground ball percentage and his BABIP and wondering if his successes were flukes or his shortcomings were surmountable? It’s possible, as Ackley is young and plays in a progressive city and just might hear terms like WAR and wOBA tossed around at home and around the batting cage.
More likely, though, Ackley goes about his job largely ignorant of the numbers that claimed he was worthless (though baseball-reference and fangraphs sure liked his defense and baserunning). Like other non-pitchers, he spends time on the field working on turning ground balls into outs and getting himself on base.
And that’s just it. It appears that Wedge’s reference to sabermetrics really runs no deeper than on-base percentage. More from the article linked above:
Wedge was talking about Ackley’s demotion to Triple-A and his mental approach, and he intimated that Ackley might have been too concerned with pitch selectivity and high on-base percentage, leading to a one-liner that hit on one of baseball’s most intriguing ongoing philosophical battles.
Is Eric Wedge blaming the nerds for on-base percentage? After all, the primary focus of Moneyball, or at least the most accessible theory presented in Moneyball, was the idea that on-base percentage is a better measure of a hitter’s effectiveness than batting average. It seems Wedge is boiling decades of work in objective baseball research down to the maxim walks are good. But Ted Williams cared about on-base percentage. Earl Weaver cared about on-base percentage. OBP isn’t some nebulous stat incorporating intangible concepts too obscure for the average fan. It’s basically “how often did this guy get on base without making an out?”. This is how the nerds are ruining baseball?
Rising up through the Mariners system, Ackley was probably told to be patient, try to work counts into his favor, make the pitcher work harder, and take a walk when offered one. Twenty years earlier, when Bill James was still publishing abstracts for a small readership and Eric was trying to wedge himself onto the major league roster of the franchise James would one day work for, the minor league instructors may have put less emphasis on pitch counts and OBP. But surely his managers appreciated the value of a walk and the advantage a hitter has in a 2-0 count. Does Wedge think Ackley would have been more successful had he swung at more first pitches and not taken on 3-0?
There’s little, if any, evidence that Ackley shifted his focus to drawing walks as his career progressed. Not only did his walk rate drop in each of his three major league seasons (from 10.6% to 7.0%), but his strikeout rate dropped as well. If he were trying to work deeper counts and swinging less in the interest of drawing walks, but failing, wouldn’t it follow that he would strike out more? And he walked more in the minors (15.4%) than he ever did with the Mariners.
Perhaps he found himself in more two-strike counts and made more weak contact. It’s true that his line drive rate dropped each year (from 22.3% to 18.5%), and that his ground ball/fly ball rate more than doubled between 2011 and ’13. While he probably doesn’t know these numbers, Wedge knows better than you or I how these numbers were related to any change in Ackley’s approach predicated on pitch selectivity.
We all know Wedge is not alone as a baseball insider questioning the validity of more advanced research and its encroachment on the game, particularly in the front offices from which he receives his marching orders. When outsiders suggest that a team could be better managed by restructuring lineups, platooning more, or using relief pitchers differently, we’re certainly prone to overlooking the impact of these changes on the actual human beings playing the game. I’m sure the Reds would win more games if Joey Votto hit second and Zack Cozart hit… I don’t know… 84th, but how would Votto react to being told he needs to leave what he’s always been told is the “heart of the order”?
But does this insider/outsider dichotomy really apply to Ackley’s situation?
I suppose it’s possible that Dustin Ackley knew he was worth close to 3 WAR in his rookie year (3.7 per b-r and 2.9 per fangraphs), then less valuable in 2012 (2.8 and 1.1, respectively) and basically worthless in 2013, and that knowledge crawled under his skin and robbed him of whatever focus and drive made him a valuable player in 2011. It’s more possible that Ackley was a bit of a mirage in 2011 and when his bat regressed the following season, his career took the same route as so many careers before his, including his manager’s. This outsider thinks sabermetrics played more of a role in Wedge’s bosses’ decision to demote Ackley than in Ackley’s failures.
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