Did Moneyball ruin a baseball prospect's game?
When in doubt, blame the nerds
On Monday, the Seattle Mariners demoted former top prospect Dustin Ackley to the minor leagues.
The team's reason for the move? Nerds.
More specifically, Mariners manager Eric Wedge blamed sabermetrics and those who espouse its teachings for convincing Ackley that he was doing everything wrong. That, Wedge suggested, made Ackley second-guess his approach to hitting, and try to shoehorn himself into an unrealistic mold of a numbers-based ballplayer.
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.
"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." [MLB]
Footage of his comments quickly made its way onto the web:
Ok, so that's not Wedge. But his shot across the bow of statheads and their analytical approach to the game prompted plenty of chuckling from those corners — and plenty of pushback against Wedge himself.
"I can't figure out exactly why Dustin Ackley became broken and why he's continuing to regress across the board. I can't understand it because I stopped playing baseball when I was 10 years old, and that invalidates my opinion," Lookout Landing's Scott Weber joked. "Eric Wedge has been playing and coaching baseball for his entire life, and he can't figure it out either."
Fangraphs' Dave Cameron took that criticism further, pointing out that Wedge has had a fairly miserable record of success, and therefore might not be the best authority on the subject.
As Cameron noted in a follow-up post, the statistics that got Wedge so steamed don't even bear out his point. Sabermetricians, using data on Ackley's at-bats, have written that he should swing more often. And Ackley is not, contrary to Wedge's assertion, getting on base more frequently through an increased walk rate.
"His focus on drawing walks and getting on base has caused him to not draw walks nor get on base," Cameron said. "We're ruining everything!"
Ackley, the number two overall pick in 2009, debuted in the majors two years later, finishing sixth in Rookie of the Year voting. But he took a step back last year, and started this season off even worse, forcing the Mariners to send him down for the time being.
Sometimes, a little breathing room is all a player needs to clear his head and get his swing back. Sabermetrics can hardly be considered some sort of insidious bug that burrowed into Ackley's brain and screwed up his entire game.
"When I think about Jackie Robinson, and the things that might have gotten into his head if he'd let them, I wonder just how dangerous sabermetricians really are," said SB Nation's Rob Neyer. "Let us assume, further, that Ackley really did let sabermetrics get into his head. Aren't Eric Wedge and his staff paid a good deal of money to get all those terrible things out of Dustin Ackley's head?"
Even more traditional baseball analysts found Wedge's remarks puzzling. CBS' Jon Heyman, for one, said Wedge's remarks "made no sense" and were likely just tossed out as an excuse for the Mariners' all-around failure to live up to expectations.
"Managers sometimes will try to protect players by finding fault elsewhere, and if that's the case, maybe Wedge's heart was in the right place," he said. "But the reality is, the next best place to look after Ackley would be the Mariners' staff, including Wedge."