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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34 Comments on "What Can Nerds Learn From Wedgies?"

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John Autin
Editor

Great spoof, Bryan.

Sabermetrics has become the go-to scapegoat for the intellectually lazy, but I think that’s a good sign. The old guard are scared — not of you and me, but of the new wave of front-office men and managers who are stealing their lunch money.

The irony in this story is that, as a player, Wedge’s single greatest skill was — you guessed it — drawing walks. He averaged 98 walks per 650 PAs in a long minor-league career, and walked in 14% of his MLB PAs.

Timmy Pea
Guest

Was Tony LaRussa intellectually lazy?

John Autin
Editor
Timmy, I don’t think LaRussa was intellectually lazy. But whatever his views may have been, I never heard him use “sabermetrics” as a lame-ass excuse for why a young player didn’t develop. The “intellectually lazy” charge was directed at those who scoff and scorn and dig in their heels without even trying to see if there’s any good in the new wave. I’ve never claimed that any manager has to grasp modern analysis to be successful. But Wedge’s assertion was pathetically weak. And I’m still curious about how he squares his current view with his own playing career, drawing tons… Read more »
brp
Guest

I think Votto is intelligent enough, from everything I’ve read about him, that I’m honestly surprised he hasn’t asked to be moved up in the order. Of course, with Dusty Baker managing, that would never happen. I am quite sure a programmer could write Dusty-Bot baseball-managing artificial intelligence software in about two weeks. “It does everything but chew toothpicks and put small children in harm’s way!”

mosc
Guest
Votto is a perfect example. He’s not a power swinger, though he has plenty of power. He is however the hardest out in baseball bar none and also a very VERY good placement hitter from the left side (perfect for advancing speed on the basepaths ahead of him). Putting him at second instead of third in the line-up will not waste his power and it will lead to an increase in the team’s total plate appearances over the season. Is it possible Votto would react negatively to being moved up in the lineup? Of course. It’s also he’ll react negatively… Read more »
Solace
Guest

FWIW, the Jays have recently had Bautista batting second (currently leading the team in OBP and SLG), mostly because they weren’t getting much from anyone else at the top of the order except Cabrera.

Timmy Pea
Guest

You would really bat Votto second? Have you worked out a formula for the number of times the pitcher will have struck out previous to a Votto PA? BTW the Reds lead the NL in PAs! They’re one only 4 teams to have a significant number of ABs over the league average.

John Autin
Editor
Timmy, I would bat Votto 2nd because: 1. He’s the best in the world at getting on base, and that’s the leading factor in scoring runs. 2. I don’t think he’s a classic RBI man, either in his approach or his results. Since 2012, almost 30% of his PAs with men in scoring position have ended in walks, more than double the NL average. There’s nothing wrong with that — but why structure your lineup to maximize his RISP chances, if pitchers aren’t going to come in to him and he’s not going to expand his zone? 3. If a… Read more »
Timmy Pea
Guest

Well Votto is the best in the world at getting on base, but he also might be the best hitter in baseball. Seems like it goes to waste in the NL having him hit 2nd. I don’t like the “bat control” argument at all. I would definitely not have a problem batting him 2nd when they play in AL parks with the DH.

mosc
Guest

I don’t think the pitcher spot is that big a deal. No first inning effect, little late inning effect. You’re talking about a couple plate appearances a year.

Lets not discount the importance of a good placement contact guy on the left side of the plate in your #2 spot. Votto, for all his other skills, is easily the best in the game on that front too.

birtelcom
Editor

Looks to me like maybe major league pitchers had Ackley figured out after about his first 40 games in the bigs. After his 38th career game, he was at .312 BA/.377 OBP/.565 SLG/.942 OPS. But then for the rest of 2011, in his last 52 games that season, he was .246 BA/.329 OBP/.313 SLG/.642 OPS. Maybe that’s simply regression to the mean, or maybe the league found his flaws.

Hartvig
Guest

Your reasoning sounds a lot more logical than Wedge’s.

Either that or maybe Joe Charboneau was a REALLY early convert of Bill James’.

mosc
Guest

Ask Montero about what happens when guys pour over every swing on video you’ve taken against big league pitching and learn what and where to put stuff you can’t hit. That whole team is filled with AAA standouts that have glaring flaws that are attacked by major league pitchers.

David Hruska
Editor

Eric Wedge must be a man displaced from time. OBP would have been considered cutting-edge saber stuff back in the 1940s and 50s.

PP
Guest

“his troubles were almost a 100% mental” still leaves a tad bit of room for Yogi’s physical half

BryanM
Guest
It strikes me that We may be a little too literal minded as a group here. If we credit Wedge with the wisdom to know that the core of his job is to get the most out of his talent, another possibility is that he sees that Ackley will benefit from having his ML manager believe that he has that talent to succeed at the ML level, and that his 2013 performance. Is due to some bad influences , whether or not Wedge himself thinks this , I wouldn’t care to bet. Tim Pea @10 has the right end of… Read more »
John Autin
Editor

BryanM, Wedge’s remarks go beyond giving his player a reason to still believe in his ability. He took an unsubstantiated cheap shot at an “opponent” who isn’t at the table and gets no chance to counter. It’s the near-final act of a desperate man.

I get that you’re suggesting Wedge didn’t necessarily believe that “sabermetrics” was Ackley’s downfall. But it was classless and insulting. Suppose he had decided to scapegoat women? He needed to choose his remarks more carefully.

No advances in managerial practice will be coming from Eric Wedge in the near future.

Timmy Pea
Guest

I agree with the part about Wedge being a desperate man. I would have him managing my team of worthless players that hang around for whatever reason like John Mayberry Jr. and Sam Fuld.

BryanM
Guest
Really , John? It certainly is possible that Eric Wedge. Is on the way out, maybe deservedly, and I will happily grant that he’s not in LaRussa’s class as a manager , but who could possibly be insulted by his opinion that Sabermetrics had got in Ackley’s head.? Ackley? Perhaps . There is a lot of science in a golf swing , and more golfers than Bobby Clampett have messed up their careers by becoming so analytical that they lost contact with their athletic instincts. But even if we grant that there is no level on which his statements could… Read more »
John Autin
Editor
BryanM, your point about “making it up as you go along press conference drivel” is a good one. But “people who haven’t played since they were 9 years old think they have it figured out” — that’s not something he made up on the spot. You can’t convince me that doesn’t betray a deeply felt resentment. And to the extent that Wedge was expressing a point of view about the legitimacy of sabermetric views, it’s an illogical, inconsistent point of view. I mean, Billy Beane had a better pro career than Wedge did, so by Wedge’s own reasoning, Beane’s views… Read more »
BryanM
Guest

John. “Sabermetrics” and “women” are nouns denoting completely different classes of things; society is rightly far more concerned with insults to groups in the latter class, than the former

Timmy Pea
Guest

Women are stupid, I hate women. There, I said it.

Timmy Pea
Guest

And don’t anybody out there deny thinking that to themselves at one time in their lives! You all have. Don’t get me wrong, every time I see a cute girl in the stands wearing a personalized jersey I fall in love. The guys that marry those gals must thank God every day for being so lucky to find a cute gal that loves baseball.

John Autin
Editor

I agree that “society” is rightly more concerned with slurs against women than against sabermetricists.

How much we should be concerned about slurs against intellectuals — and that’s what Wedge’s statement really was — is something everyone can decide for himself or herself.

Timmy Pea
Guest

John I was just retelling a Bill Burr joke about women, I love women. But Bryan probably has a point. I imagine this kid might have said something to a coach or even Wedge about SABR. I wonder if maybe there is a battle within the organization about SABRmetrics?

BryanM
Guest
John, your analysis and insightful comments greatly increase my enjoyment of a game I have followed for 60 years , so I am reluctant to take issue with you over your interpretation of Wedge’s remarks, and of course each of us is free to find an insult anywhere we see one, but for the avoidance of doubt , since I may not be effectively communicating my points, they are, without Irony. 1. we do well to maintain a distinction between what we do and who we are; wedge referred to “sabermetrics” , not Sabermetricists, a distinction you have elided a… Read more »
John Autin
Editor

I accept the critique from BryanM and Chuck, and admit that I overreacted.

Chuck
Guest
Sigh. You guys live in a vacuum and have developed a built-in defense mechanism against what you believe to be a cheap shot towards “the movement”. In every article I read since the comment came out was “let’s give Wedge the benefit of the doubt”, then it turned into a 1200 ass-whuppin’ against Wedge without having the slightest idea of what he was talking about. Pot=Kettle. Wedge’s comment wasn’t directed at abermetrics, it was directed at Ackley. WAR and wOBA aren’t mentioned around the batting cage, sabermetrics played no part in Ackley being sent down, and I don’t know any… Read more »
Thomas
Guest
I’m a person who really really hates the “if you’re not with us you’re against us” attitude from both sides of this (‘sabermetrics’ v scouts’) argument, but I didn’t see any of it here at all. It seemed to me that Wedge took a bit of a stab at something he doesn’t fully understand (because as mentioned OBP has been around and important longer than Bill James has), and Bryan tried to figure out what he was alluding to and then actually look at that reasonably and discussed why he thinks he was wrong. Unless you’re actually talking about the… Read more »
no statistician but
Guest
I’ve been out of town, so I’m extremely late to this discussion, and I really don’t know enough about the manager and player involved to make any judgment, but could it possibly be that Wedge is trying to say in an inarticulate fashion what Alexander Pope said in the first half of a famous couplet: “A little learning is a dangerous thing”? Half digested concepts, partial theories taken out of larger contexts, etc, can screw you up, and frankly, I’m not sure that too many pro athletes are mentally equipped to drink deep out of that thar Pierian spring called… Read more »
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