Wedge Issue: Why plate discipline has now gone too farDustin Ackley couldn't translate his great hitting from college to the majors and was demoted.
As baseball executives play the usual game of hit-or-miss with the First-Year Draft on Thursday, the story of what happened to former college standout Dustin Ackley stands as the most recent warning of the fickle nature of the draft. Ackley was a great hitter at North Carolina (hitting .402, .417 and .417 in his three seasons) and the number two overall pick of the 2009 draft, but merely a good hitter in the minors (.280) and then such a bad hitter in the majors (.237, including .205 this year) that the Mariners recently demoted him to Triple A at age 25.
Seattle manager Eric Wedge took some heavy criticism for "blaming" sabermetrics for Ackley's troubles. Ackley was lost at the plate mentally, letting pitch after pitch go by. Out of 171 plate appearances this year, Ackley swung at the first pitch for a hit only twice while taking that first pitch for a strike 74 times. On counts without a strike -- 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 -- Ackley had only four hits all year. He let the pitcher dictate his at-bats.
Wedge got himself into hot water with the sabermetrics community when he said, in part, "People who haven't played since they were 9 years old think they have it figured out. It gets in these kids' heads."
Uh-oh. Wedge's long discussion with reporters about Ackley quickly was reduced to the shorthand narrative that Wedge was a Neanderthal of a manager who has no use for numbers, nevermind that he has embraced statistical analysis since his days managing the number-crunching Indians.
Where Wedge slipped on a verbal banana peel was using the term "sabermetrics" as a catchall term. Wedge actually was making a very good point about the down side of the modern passive-aggressive approach to hitting, but he distracted from it by using the hot button term of "sabermetrics."
JAFFE: Ackley isn't Mariners' biggest problem
He later clarified his comments about sabermetrics, saying to reporters, "That's not the reason Ackley was having issues at home plate. What I'm talking about is this recent generation of players that has come up in the sabermetrics world . . . What you can't do is play this game with fear. You have to go out there and play and when you get your first good pitch to take a whack at, you have to take a whack at it. People stress so much getting deeper into counts and drawing walks, it's almost a backward way of looking at it."
Bingo. I have been writing and talking about this exact trend in baseball. When you go to a baseball game today you will see, on average, more strikeouts, more pitches without the ball in play and fewer hits than at any time since the designated hitter was introduced 40 years ago. Ackley became a proxy for what happens when good ideas go bad because they are taken to extremes. Those good ideas include "drive up the pitch count," "let the ball get deep," and "keep your hands inside the ball." The batter is the one with the bat in the hand -- the one by definition who is "on offense" -- but the modern hitter often cedes control of the batter-pitcher confrontation to the pitcher. He lets the pitcher dictate terms of the confrontation by "giving" him too many strikes.
Don't blame this trend on sabermetrics, which have enhanced our understanding of the game and shot down some conventional wisdom that turned out to be, well, unwise. (I do agree, though, with Vernon Wells of the Yankees, who told me in spring training that the increased attention to measurables -- especially the ubiquitous pitch count -- has influenced young hitters' approaches.) Obviously something is going on here as games get longer and slower but declining offense is a troubling trend for the game's appeal. You can't watch hitters night after night take 2-0 fastballs with runners on base and not wonder where hitting is going. (Ackley was a mind-blowing 1-for-20 after 2-0 counts.)
So, I began to ask: Where are the Dustin Ackleys coming from and how they did they get this way? Is there a common thread in the hitters who most favor this passive-aggressive approach?
The first thing I did was to take a look at hitters on both ends of the aggressiveness spectrum at the time Ackley was demoted, as measured by the percentage of times they swing the bat. Imagine a Bell curve and disregard two-thirds of all everyday hitters -- the ones in the middle. The other one-third includes the extremists on both ends: the 30 most aggressive hitters and the 30 least aggressive hitters. Something immediately jumped out. Take a look at the percentage of hitters in each category according to when they were signed:
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Read More: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/mlb/news/20130604/dustin-ackley-eric-wedge-sabermetrics/