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Smoking cigarettes is bad for your health. This is not a secret. Six-year-olds know that. And smoking is not just bad, it's really super-duper bad for you. Yet, tobacco companies aren't going out of business any time soon. There are millions of smokers in the United States and more start each day, even knowing all the risks. Why?


I don't know whether Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge smokes, but he inadvertently illustrated that sabermetrics has the same problem as United States culture. (Full disclosure: I began doing some freelance work with the Cleveland Indians in 2009, which was also Wedge's last year as manager of the Indians. We never spoke.) Last week, in discussing the troubles of Dustin Ackley's 2013 season (and let's face it, his 2012 season as well), Wedge dropped in this curious statement:

"Oh, yeah, I have. It’s kind of the new generation. It’s all this sabermetrics (pause) stuff, for lack of a better term. You know what I mean? People who haven’t played since they were nine years old and think they’ve got it figured out. It gets in these kids’ head [sic]."

Okay, we all had a good laugh at the thought that I (and others like me) somehow destroyed Dustin Ackley (sorry!) Let me attempt to be the adult in the room and take the statement at face value. Earlier in the interview, Wedge suggested that Ackley had become too passive at the plate, not swinging early in the count, and letting himself fall behind too often. He seems to believe that Ackley had heard/read too much about Sabermetrics, particularly the stuff from 10 years ago (i.e., Moneyball) where walks were the Most. Important. Stat. Ever.

(Side note: The lesson of Moneyball was not that if you want to be a good player, you should try to walk more. It was that there were certain players who were already good at (among other things) drawing walks, and this provided value that was not being recognized because batting average treated walks as a non-event. Walk rate is not the cause of success. It's an indicator of a successful approach that was already there.)

As a result of ingesting all of this information, Ackley apparently changed something about his approach in an attempt to become something that he thought he was supposed to be, and in doing so, messed everything up. In fact, Wedge said this the next day:

“The internet and everything else, the information that’s out there, they’re human beings, too. If you’re on it, they’re on it, too, I’m sure. You hear all the baseball experts say you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that. Again, there’s a way to go about doing it where you can have the best of both worlds. You’ve got to be ready to hit. You can be both ready to hit be disciplined at the same time. That’s the mental approach.

“I’m all about getting on base, but I’m about hitting, too. People have to understand: You can’t go up there looking for a walk and expect to be a big-leaguer very long. Nobody’s stayed up here by just walking. You’ve got to hit, too. You can get deep in the count all you want, but eventually you have to hit. It’s just not a black and white thing like some people think. I can’t explain it any better than that.”

Wedge actually makes a good deal of sense here. The whole episode brings up an interesting question that sabermetrics has never really asked itself. It's not that any of the information that Ackley got his hands on was wrong. A walk certainly isn't a bad outcome of a plate appearance, and it has been very undervalued historically. A walk is better than a strikeout, and if Ackley (or anyone) can replace some of his strikeouts or ground outs with walks, he'll probably come out ahead in the deal. Assuming that the problem really is that some misplaced focus on walks (sabermetrically-induced or not) messed up Ackley's head, how did accurate information produce such a bad result?


Perhaps the worst thing that one can do when trying to help someone quit smoking is to make the matter about quitting smoking. Focusing on the behavior alone often gets you nowhere. Plenty of people who smoke know full well that they should quit, and they want to quit. But they don't. Quitting smoking is only tangentially about the smoking. What actually has to change are all of the structures in the person's life that support smoking. Smokers often structure their days so that they can have smoke breaks. They make friends with other smokers and bond with them over cigarettes. You have to change the whole environment, not just one decision.

There are plenty of noble, but misguided, people who begin to try to help a friend quit smoking by finding some inspirational story about someone who was able to quit cold turkey. If that guy can do it, you can too! It's such a seductive message, but it will probably backfire. Most people are not able to quit cold turkey, and when the friend who's attempting to quit has another cigarette, he might very well become discouraged and say, "Well, I guess I'm just not good enough at quitting."

Again, the message isn't incorrect. If one is able to quit, that's a good thing. It's just not that easy. There are plenty of other variables to address. Information can be misinterpreted, and things that seem sensible can backfire. It's not enough to have good information. It has to be presented in a way that makes the person want to make a change. How does one get from "smoking is bad from you" to the actual behavior of becoming smoke-free?


I don't believe that the sabermetric movement has properly grappled with this issue either. Thankfully, sac bunts and three-run saves don't increase the risk of heart disease, but if there's one thing that sabermetricians like to whine about (myself included), it's that even when we show the run expectancy matrix and control for all the confounding variables, people don't buy the overall idea that we're trying to push. Maybe worse is that sometimes the conclusions are misinterpreted (and if the Ackley story is true, that would be a good example).

Are we presenting the information to people in a manner that speaks to the way in which they understand the game? If not, can we really be surprised when our theories aren't more broadly accepted? The way in which a message is presented tells a lot about the way that the speaker (or writer) conceptualizes the problem. When Sabermetricians speak, we often frame our answers to questions in terms of numbers. When I hear scouts speak, I often hear them talk in the language of geometry (arm angles and planes and such), and it's clear that many of them see players in terms of mechanical principles. The body parts and motions fit together to produce a result. It's all very visual-spatial, and my wife will tell you that I have no visual-spatial intelligence. And there are times when scouts get really into it that it sounds like it's in Russian. I have to wonder if I sound the same way.

This is why I would propose that sabermetrics needs to engage in something that's known as translation research. If we believe that the ideas that we have are good ones (and we should always be humbly open to the idea that they might not be), and we want people to change in some way as a result, we need to take it upon ourselves to present the information in a way that can be easily understood by the people whom we want to reach. It's not a matter of dumbing things down or doing shoddy work. We need to think more clearly (and perhaps research) who needs to hear the information that we discover, and beyond just showing the run expectancy chart, how to present it so that it makes the most difference.

It sounds like Eric Wedge believes that Dustin Ackley would have been better off not hearing about the sabermetric fascination with walks. He might be right.

Thank you for reading

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I agree wholeheartedly, but just saying that we should adopt new language is the easy part. What should we change, and to what? The problem is that the numbers are the crux of most of the arguments. Just about every wrong/weird idea that baseball tradition holds has some truth to it, but they get the relative significance completely wrong. E.g. "clogging the bases" is a real thing, it just only costs a team like 2 runs per year. How do you convince someone who already thinks Adam Dunn or whoever costs his team a lot by inhibiting steals that they're wrong without pointing to the numbers? The whole point is the numbers.
There will always be room for "Show me the numbers" and eventually, there will be numbers. But, the standard model that we've employed over the years is a number dump, followed by exasperation that people didn't read the number dump. You have to package the message. It's something that we've been ignoring too long.
This is not true at all. The standard model has NEVER been a number dump. That's an insult to all of the terrific writers that have appeared at BP and at the many very good other outlets. The model has always been strong writing with statistical evidence. Even the heavy stat/number crunching stuff of Craig Wright and Clay Davenport were well-written. Nate Silver has been able to package his math well enough, it seems. Go back and read Bill James and tell me that his studies weren't well packaged. Go read the Baseball Prospectus Basics series. That's ridiculous, you need to apologize to Joe, Rany, Wolverton, Derek Zumstig. Christina Kahrl, Number Dumper.

Can we be done with the mea culpa's on Wedge being a jerk now, please.
Of course, this "translation" problem works the other way, too. I think that sabermetricians are assuming that Wedge was being honest and are ignoring the context of the quote. Wedge was talking to the press and was engaging in spin. An honest appraisal of Ackley's problems (that he can't hit outside pitches and that pitchers have been exploiting that weakness) would have been brutal to the player's psyche. Better to diffuse the issue, take some heat from the "nerds," and move on.
Wedge's comments to me say more about the Seattle coaching staff's inability to use the numbers for their hitters' benefit than the numbers themselves. Unless Dustin Ackley is sitting up nights sobbing over his Fangraphs page.
One simple TV thing that I've seen casual fans stumble on is 3-sig-fig decimals instead of percentages. Most people don't think of a probability as "OBP = .383", even though it is accurate. They think "38.3%", which is equally accurate.

Or just round off the (largely meaningless) third sig-fig and go with "He gets on base 38% of the time". .376 and .384 are largely indistinguishable in terms of skill, especially in June.

This simplification works for PitchFx on my local broadcast. They put up how often a pitcher throws each pitch (60% fastball, 20% slider, etc.) and/or the speed of each. It's an information-rich profile for the experienced fan, but a casual fan can make sense of it once they know the names of the various pitches. (Offer not available for Yu Darvish games... "He has thrown a double-reverse rising fork-curve... once.")
Marlins TV color commentator and former player Tommy Hutton was making the same argument as Wedge the other night (yes, I'm the guy who still watches Marlins games) and I wanted to throw my shoe at the screen. He was arguing that runs are down because too many hitters are being passive and not swinging early in the count because they want to draw walks and increase pitch counts.

If that's the case, then don't blame the sabermetricians, but the hitting coaches. Early in the count, I am assuming major league hitters are looking for strikes in a specific zone where they rake and avoiding pitches that they are going to tap weakly to short, even if they make contact.

I don't know why runs are down -- my guess would be drug testing -- but hitter passivity is probably not in the Top 10 of reasons.

Well that's clearly not the case. I mean seriously, what color is the sky on Planet Hutton? As a matter of fact, I'd argue that the opposite is true; rising home run totals led more batters to swing for the fences more often, which, in turn, has led to an increase in strikeouts that has benefited pitchers to the detriment of hitters. The numbers do seem to bare me out, don't they?
One does not exclude the other. The keyword here is "specific zone." Even writers here have pointed out that the average MLB at bat has one, maybe two good pitches to hit, so if you're overly picky you're hurting yourself. I don't know that it explains why runs are down, but I have seen at bats where the hitter is getting too cute by half.
The idea of "translation" is great, because the numbers really just speak about results generated to some degree by the mechanics of a player, whether he's a pitcher or batter. The key is in getting a player to accomplish the desired results, or numbers, through the appropriate mechanics for that particular player. That's on the player and the coaching staff, not the sabermetric community.
Hitters shouldn't be trying to walk, they should be trying to not make outs and leave runners on the bases.
Maybe the Sabre crowd needs Edward Tufte to help out with presenting its data in its most useful fashion.
As Ring Lardner wrote: "'Shut up' he explained."...There's a wondrous game out there behind the numbers, which often distort as much as explain values...Sabremetricize, if you will, the Jeter Play in Oakland...This is a game that questions, not one that answers
Stan Musial presented the key to good hitting better than anyone I believe. "Pick out a pitch you like and knock the S*** out of it." Not swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. Crushing pitches in your happy zone. That is the key to hitting. Walks are a byproduct of a guy who is really good at the pitcher-hitter confrontation. Wedge is correct in saying if a guy is just up there looking for a walk, he will get in trouble (behind in the count) quickly and will tend to not swing at,"his" pitches and end up with a batting line like Ackley's. The real question is, is that the reason why Ackley stopped hitting or is it something else?
I didn't get my work done today. I think I'll blame the sabermetric community as well.
Great article Russell, and something that I think about frequently when writing for Hockey Prospectus. We can identify results that bode well for winning, but we (meaning statistical analysts in sports) struggle identifying the processes that tend to lead to good results. OBP is very "big picture" but is limited because different hitters will have different paths available to them to raise their OBP and one size will never fit all.
In hockey, we say that good possession metrics will correlate very well with winning, but we don't have much in the way of studies that will give players/coaches ideas about how to improve possession, other than identifying players that already are good at it for acquisitive purposes.
I think it was you, Russell, who once wrote that the the next wave in Sabermetrics is to move away from large sample numbers in analysis. I think you're right.
There are several "next big things" in Sabermetrics. But I'm convinced that one of them is moving away from the large-N data model and into understanding each player as a unique data set.
Can you team up with Doug Thorburn to quantify the relationship between spine tilt and pitching performance? It would require some effort to label the data but would give you some insight on individual performance.
Doug? You in?