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May 29, 2013

BP Unfiltered

What If Eric Wedge Was Right?

by Ian Miller

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:

"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."

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.

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

Related Content:  Dustin Ackley,  Eric Wedge

26 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Dan McKay

That last graph -- exceptionally well-said.

May 29, 2013 11:36 AM
rating: 4
Brady Childs

I think to assume that statistics caused Ackley's below par Major League career is just jumping a bridge that is so far away from needing to be jumped. From our angle, there are so many things to look at before you look at mental problems that are quantifiable and don't require speculation. And besides, it's up to the player whether or not they intake this information. That's Ackley's problem, not Seattle's stat departments.

May 29, 2013 11:36 AM
rating: 0

How do you know that the Mariners haven't already performed that analysis? Ian addresses this exact point in his article.

May 29, 2013 15:21 PM
rating: 0

Haven't players obsessed over stats as long as box scores existed (recall David Ortiz's bizarre tirade about wanting his fucking RBI). If it weren't these darn sabermetric bloggers, then it would've been pretty round number HR or RBI totals that got into Ackley's head.

While I agree with Ian's general premise, this might be just one more example of the survivor of the fittest, cut-throat nature of professional sports. Not everyone can overcome the physical and mental challenges to succeed.

May 29, 2013 11:53 AM
rating: 5
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

For the record, I agree. As I at least attempted to say, the issue isn't with the data, it's what we do with the data. But maybe Ackley is all messed up mentally, and maybe he's overthinking things at the plate. Maybe he ends up washing out because of it, as many who have gone before him. If you strip the antagonism away from Wedge's statement, that's what you're left with (or at least I was).

May 29, 2013 12:26 PM

What baseball player (at any level) plays the game with no regard to statistics? It's how we measure ourselves in the game of baseball. Is there an advanced statistic for weak mental make-up?...

May 29, 2013 12:08 PM
rating: 1
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

You'd be surprised. I know I was.

May 29, 2013 12:21 PM

Real excerpt from Q&A at Safeco BP event last Saturday.

Q to Baseball Ops team
"Do you sit down with coaches to go over Sabermetric stats?"

"We dont' 'sit down' with coaches...we provided stats to them in forms of information to help them make decisions"

Fair to say that there are numbers guys in Mariners org, but not necessary "heavily emphasized". My impression is that they started look at stats side in recent years, but not in the way some orgs (Rays/Padres, even Astros) relied upon.

May 29, 2013 12:24 PM
rating: 1
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Thanks for the lecture, Dad.

May 29, 2013 12:45 PM
rating: -8
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

You're welcome. Now go to your room, you're grounded.

May 29, 2013 13:05 PM

Everybody who dings me just proves my point. If you say something ignorant and mean, you get minused. Wedge was ignorant and mean and he's getting minused...even if through some intense mental gymnastics you can come up with some possibility of truth in the statement. Did anybody check to see if Ian is actually my Dad? No? Then you did exactly what Ian encouraged us not to do. Did you look past the way I said it AND what I meant to see if there was any truth?

Either Wedge meant what he said, or he's not a good enough public speaker to handle the duties of a MLB manager. And he chose to insult people while making a fool of himself.

When did we decide that mean, stupid people shouldn't be held accountable? And when did it become BP party line to NOT stick up for itself. Wedge doesn't deserve to be abused, but I see no reason at all why we can't have some fun with it on twitter or why the stats community needs self-reflection on the matter (which, btw, has been trying to figure out why Ackley's struggled for ages)

BTW, Ian, I really like the vast majority of your stuff.

May 29, 2013 14:24 PM
rating: 4
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

"Either Wedge meant what he said, or he's not a good enough public speaker to handle the duties of a MLB manager."

This is something of a false dilemma. Those aren't the only two conclusions we can draw. Wedge could have been having a horrible day and said something flip and immediately regretted it. I bet even Joe Maddon has bad days and says dumb stuff sometimes. But no, one poorly worded comment doesn't mean he's unfit for the job. I really wish we had the full text of the interview, because more context is always helpful.

It's not my job to hold stupid people to account, nor to defend BP. We don't need defending, firstly, and secondly, a lot of the "defending" I see comes off as strident and smug. Which is fine, but it's not how I operate. Individual people will come around to advanced stats or they won't. All I can do is let them know there's water over here; it's up to them whether to drink or not.

I'm not interested in being an Eric Wedge apologist here, although I know it looks like from this exchange. My only goal is to deepen my understanding of the game, which often comes from discussing it with people who know more about it than me. And when I tweet or type or say "Eric Wedge is an idiot," the dialogue stops.

I'm suggesting is that we don't take the nerd-bait and see if there's anything of value in his statement. I thought there was; many (most?) others disagree. Which is totally cool.

May 29, 2013 14:46 PM

Ian - I enjoyed the piece and agree with what you are trying to say. I did not read it as stating that any and all criticism of Wedge's statement is wrong, which appears to be how most of the dissenters interpreted it. I read it as saying, "You can disagree, but be civil - start a discourse, if you can, a dialogue, instead of just shouting people down, because even when someone is mostly wrong, you might still learn something from them instead of just vice-versa".

Sabermetrics, despite its origins, is just as capable of evolving into the role currently occupied by traditional thinking as it is to remain the community that thinks outside the box. Knee-jerk shout downs just take us closer to that possibility. So, even if we disagree with someone, even if we strongly disagree with someone, it needs to be civil instead of a lynch mob - you have to let people retain their dignity and composure if you want them to listen to you or learn; otherwise they just turn away.

May 29, 2013 15:26 PM
rating: 1
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

well said, and thanks.

May 29, 2013 15:30 PM

With whom are we going to have this discourse? The people that would know what's inside Dustin Ackley's brain can't talk or, as Wedge showed, when they do seem less interested in civil debate than throwing out cheapshots about mother's basements...sorry, never playing the game.

You know who is having the discourse about Ackley's struggles? The Sabermetric community; the thing that Ian is asking to happen is exactly what is happening. For a few hours everybody gets pissed because these same stupid arguments come up again (honestly, can anybody be mad at Neyer for being hyper-defensive at this point? The poor guy is a genius and takes, as Harry Redknapp would say, dog's abuse). Then there is the regroup and the studying. By 4 pm on Tuesday, Brian Kenny was on whatever-the-name-of-that-terrible-show is on MLB Network saying 'if some analyst is messing up Ackley's head, that is unacceptable and the organization needs to change.'

Take a look at Hosmer, tons of number based articles have been done. Perhaps I've missed it, but the two best breakdowns of Hosmer's struggles have come from Sam Miller and ESPN's top scout-side writer, Keith Freakin Law. A few weeks ago on EW, the Dynamic Duo (Gruesome Twosome?) discussed the Reinhart-Rogoff scandal and decided that it probably won't happen bc there is so much cross-checking done by the community on it seem. Statheads are our own ombudsman. Who the hell is fact checking Harold Reynolds?

Also, I think it is your job to defend BP - you write for this brand and this brand means something, it is your job to defend that something. As for not holding stupid people to account - isn't that what this post is? You saying to all the stupid people who abused Wedge that they are being stupid?

I don't why this issue bugs me so much (take a look at my other comments, I'm not a negative guy) but with this following Colin's piece about Heyman-WAR, I just don't get why there is this urgency to dull the blade. Rany, Joe, Bill, Rob, Tango, MGL, Huckaby, Thorn, Palmer and all the other people I forgot - these guys had to scrap every second of the day to help get stats to where they are now - are we so sure that we don't need to go in two-footed anymore? I still have to watch Mitch Williams and Dan Pleasac every night, yet Sheehan got dumped from the Top 10s.

I think it's really just twitter, god that place is a cesspool - like that garbage dump in Star Wars. It has to be the worst place in the history of human existence.

Life is short/
So you choose your battles/
It's sometimes all you can choose/

Don't let them get away with it/
Don't give them satisfaction/
Fall in but don't fall for it

Sorry this is so long...

May 29, 2013 19:08 PM
rating: 3
Pat Folz

The "problem" really is Twitter, because any time something like this happens every single person decides they need to weigh in on the issue in 140 characters or less, so there's this sudden deluge of snark from thousands of people. And then other people (like, ahem, the Dead Man in Houston. Subtweeting!) get all bent about "the crusade" or "groupthink" or what have you in the sabermetric community. This community is the most civil, most open to discourse and dissent, and most willing to have the exact same conversation over and over again with those unwilling to listen, that I have ever seen. I think we're frankly too kind and generous to Heyman and Wedge and those that are completely obdurate about learning basic facts. In my head I do believe that is a good thing and the right way to be, but damn do I ever not need to be told to "be civil and engage in discourse!" every time something like this happens. That's true at all times, but THEY are the ones who need the extra reminder :p

May 29, 2013 20:02 PM
rating: 0

At the high school level we do not show our players their stats during the season to prevent this. The only statistical feedback we give them is Quality At Bats comprised of hard contact, walks, executed bunts, ect. While high school players are naturally quite a bit weaker mentally than an MLB player we have found it helpful to keep the focus process oriented instead to outcome based.

Thanks for the piece Ian.

May 29, 2013 18:22 PM
rating: 3

He was a better metal bat hitter than a wood bat hitter. He was awesome in college. He has yet to adjust to the wood bats. Some players adjust and most don't. For every Barry Bonds (ASU) there are a 100 Brett Wallaces (ASU). Dustin Ackley is Brett Wallace.

May 29, 2013 18:31 PM
rating: 1
Pat Folz

Yeah... I can't really agree here. If Ackley really is over-obsessing about drawing walks that's a problem. But as Dave Cameron pointed out, dude's taking a bunch of pitches in the (de facto) zone and if he read up on sabermetrics and took away the lesson that he should take a bunch of called strikes, that's his fault, not "sabermetrics's".

Randolph is absolutely right. If Wedge really does blame sabermetrics for Ackley sucking (which is literally what he said) then his ire is just as misguided as Ackley's plan at the plate, and we are right to point that out publicly.

May 29, 2013 19:21 PM
rating: 1

Don't know if posting links is allowed but Eric Wedge clarified his comments in this article. He makes some good points.

May 29, 2013 19:52 PM
rating: 1
Pat Folz

So I guess his idea is that Ackley, and others, are looking to walk instead of hit because they learned some sabermetric ideas? I guess it's possible, but if that's true, as I said in the other post they're greatly misunderstanding something (also, he needs to give more data to back up that assertation). The enormous advantage being ahead in the count confers on the hitter/pitcher is one of the oldest sabermetric ideas (and, just, basic baseball logic). And Wedge seems to think that "sabermetrics" = "walking a lot instead of hitting"... giving the benefit of the doubt, it does make me wonder if there's a better way to phrase or convey the "message," as it were (which is: get ahead in the count and don't swing at bad pitches and try to get on base by any means possible, which is: like, the basic concept of baseball).

Also, I love love love that he seems to think that "hitting" and "getting on base" are two different things. Good lord.

May 29, 2013 20:26 PM
rating: 0

I agree with Pat here, and to take it one step further - for years coaches have encouraged hitters to "get ahead in the count and don't swing at bad pitches and try to get on base by any means possible" - and Sabrmetrics have taken that concept and measured it and confirmed that it the coaches were right.

But that doesn't mean you watch a first pitch cookie go right down the pipe because 1-0 is a better hitters' count.

Frankly, (IMHO) a batter going into the box looking to take a walk is too passive to be successful. Willing to take a walk if you don't get good pitches, sure.

May 30, 2013 09:44 AM
rating: 0

Opinions are like belly buttons (I cleaned that up for the BP crowd). Some are "Innies" and some are "Outies", but they are, ultimately just belly buttons.

May 30, 2013 08:51 AM
rating: -2

I don't know...Wedge can't really manage as far as I'm concerned, but he may have a point...You can't walk your way to baseball immortality and if thinking about hitting the perfect pitch is taking something out of your natural aggression than we probably have a problem. Ackley is still young and may yet blossom, but it's unfortunate for him that he's in the situation he's in...Seattle is full of youngsters trying to figure out the game on the fly at the Major League level; Smoak, Montero (until recently), Seager, Saunders, etc...He's basically got Raul Ibanez to look up to there...Ackley needed to go clear his head without question, but what was in his head is hard to quantify...See the ball, hit the ball, hit relative strikes and if you are any good the results will eventually surface...I was never completely sold on Ackley, but the hype at the time was ridiculous...He'd have to hit like Dustin Pedroia out of the chute to justify that much chatter...How many guys this side of Robinson Cano can actually do that three years in?...Not many...The Sabermetric argument has gotten about as nasty as your typical Democrat-Republican discussion...I mostly tune out for that reason, but both sides have plenty of merit...Hitting is really hard...I like to think of Sabermetrics for pitching to cold zones and defensive positioning more than trying to make a hacker a patient man at the plate...Guys who don't walk can contribute to a ballclub in short spurts, but eventually they wind up hurting you in my opinion...They are the ones that get themselves out most often it seems...And no I don't a single stat to back that up...The difference between a struggling Josh Willingham and a struggling Ichiro Suzuki is about 20 walks...Forget about opportunity and power, knowing that, does it surprise anyone that Willingham has scored seven more runs than Suzuki even though he's hitting about 40 points less?...One guy has Justin Morneau hitting behind him and the other has Chris Stewart, I get that, but you get the idea...And suddenly Nick Swisher isn't looking so bad anymore in RF for NY either with his 28 runs scored and 23 walks is he?...As a long time Roto Geek I love the numbers and the idea of taking pitches and walking more, but I leave room for the idea that Ackley might be a little bleeped in the head (whether that is Sabermetric related or not) from so many people telling him how to hit. I'm not an Eric Wedge fan at all, but I don't care how he said it; I think there might be a grain of truth in what he said. Just my two cents...

May 30, 2013 11:17 AM
rating: 0

Nick Swisher at the plate over Ichiro, but I think it's getting overlooked that the Yankee OF defense is greatly improved this year and having an impact on their "surprising" success.

May 30, 2013 18:36 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Ian Miller
BP staff

Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment. You've given me a lot to think about!

May 30, 2013 14:06 PM
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