May 29, 2013
What If Eric Wedge Was Right?
Late on Monday, Greg Johns, the Mariners beat writer for MLB.com, posted a story that quoted skipper Eric Wedge on Dustin Ackley’s demotion to triple-A. We don’t have the full context of the discussion from which the quote came, but here’s what we do have:
Dropping this quote was like throwing chum in the water for the sabermetric community, and the response was quick and predictable. It was a decidedly non-diplomatic way for Wedge to get his point across and, unfortunately, that point was mostly ignored in the twitter firestorm that followed.
The point is not difficult to parse if you can look past the incendiary language in which it was couched: Dustin Ackley ain’t right at the plate, and the problem is mental. Wedge expressed this in maybe the worst way possible, but that doesn’t make him wrong, necessarily.
Wedge has managed Ackley for the equivalent of nearly two seasons, plus two spring trainings. That’s a lot of time to get to know a guy. Unless you’re related by blood or marriage to Dustin Ackley, Eric Wedge probably knows him better than you do. Ackley is probably a better hitter than his .205 AVG would indicate (although we can argue how much better than that he actually is). And maybe advanced statistics are actually making Ackley worse.
Of course it’s not the stats that are the problem; it’s what you or, in this case, Dustin Ackley, does with them. I’ve talked to a number of ballplayers recently about advanced statistics -- or tried to, anyway. A fairly large percentage of players stop me almost as soon as the pitch is out of my mouth: a typical response is “If it’s about stats, I’d rather not talk about it. Thinking about stats takes me out of the moment of competition, and that’s where I need my focus to be.”
That sounds completely crazy to someone like me, who worships at the altar of Bill James and his acolytes. But then again, I’m not an elite athlete competing at the highest level. If I were, I’d want all of the data. My tendencies, the tendencies of the pitchers I’m facing, defensive data, all of it. But I’m not an elite athlete. I didn’t have the physical gifts or the dedication to the sport to play beyond high school. But probably my biggest impediment (in addition to all the other ones) was between the ears. I couldn’t immediately put failure behind me, as I assume one has to do to be a pro. I couldn’t focus solely on baseball to the detriment of all other things, which I assume is also necessary. I got all up in my head at the plate, trying to anticipate this or that pitch or location. And I can only imagine how much worse this would have been in the age of ubiquitous heat maps and PITCHf/x data. God help me.
Data is never bad; data is just data. But what if the data gets in the way of what you’re trying to accomplish? Maybe that’s what’s going on with Ackley. Or maybe he’s just a middling hitter with a .250 BABIP in a sample size of just 171 plate appearances this season. I don’t know. You probably don’t know. But who knows?
If anyone knows, it’s Dustin Ackley. And possibly Eric Wedge. Ultimately it's Wedge's job to manage his players in this environment, because analysts, bloggers, PITCHf/x experts, internet commenters, hostile tweeters, and writers trying in good faith to make sense of the game aren't going anywhere (whereas Wedge might be).
So yes, Eric Wedge expressed himself in just about the worst way possible, but that doesn’t make him wrong. I encourage you to look past the cheap mom’s-basement-level shot he took at us and entertain the possibility that he’s right. Do it because all of us have more to learn about this game and the exceptional people who play it. And also because no one likes a smug jerk.