Wedge Issue: Why plate discipline has now gone too far
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."
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:
Keep this in mind when MLB holds its annual draft this week. Players drafted out of college are almost three times as likely to be passive-aggressive hitters as players who signed out of high school or as international free agents. The trend is more pronounced the further you examine the spectrum. The five least aggressive hitters all played in college: A.J. Ellis (Austin Peay), Lucas Duda (USC), Ackley (North Carolina), Josh Willingham (North Alabama) and Ben Zobrist (Dallas Baptist).
At the top of the most aggressive side, none of the 11 most aggressive hitters attended college (Pablo Sandoval, Jeff Francouer, Adam Jones, Alfonso Soriano, Yuniesky Betancourt, Josh Hamilton, Carlos Gomez, Torii Hunter, Alexei Ramirez, Miguel Cabrera and Jay Bruce). Only two of the 21 most aggressive hitters attended college (Greg Dobbs and J.P. Arencibia, the only righthanded former college hitter among the top 30 who likes to swing the bat often).
"That's very interesting," Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said when I presented him with the numbers. "What's that old saying among scouts about Latin American players? 'You can't walk off the island.' You hit your way."
Sure enough, nine Latin American free agent signees are among the 30 most aggressive hitters in baseball -- including Cabrera, the undisputed best hitter in baseball. Among the least aggressive hitters, only two Latin American players show up: Carlos Santana and Marco Scutaro.
(By the way, keep your eye on hard-swinging, free-swinging Yasiel Puig, the exciting 22-year-old rookie from Cuba just called up by the Dodgers. He drew just 12 unintentional walks in Triple-A before his promotion. In his major league debut Monday night, he swung at seven of the nine strikes he saw.)
But why would college players be so much more likely to take a passive-aggressive approach? Based on conversations with managers and coaches, here are some theories:
• The metal bat. College players play three or four more years with a metal bat, which is more forgiving than a wood bat.
"The college strike zone is about one foot outside," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "College pitchers throw away much more than they do in because of the bat and the strike zone. The game is played off the plate much more."
Outside pitches must be contacted deeper than inside pitches, so "letting the ball travel" becomes the norm. Johnson said the style teaches a hitter to be patient without learning how to throw the barrel at the ball in front of the plate, which is required for inside pitches.
Johnson was aghast when he took over the Nationals about how his team was beaten regularly on inside fastballs or flat out took them. He and hitting coach Rick Eckstein have worked to change the philosophy in Washington to a more aggressive swing path. Johnson is not even a proponent of the accepted practice of flicking balls to the opposite field during the first round of batting practice no matter where the ball is pitched.
"Everything is cyclical," Johnson said, "but if you look at any great hitter over time, they have the ability to hit the ball out in front of them and drive it with power, not just fight it off and inside-out the ball."
• College players are older when they enter pro ball. "The older you are the harder it is to change the hitter you are," Walker said. "Walt Hriniak [the former White Sox hitting coach] was always trying to get Frank Thomas to be more aggressive, especially with runners on base, but it never really took. We went through the same thing in Chicago with Nick Swisher.
"I will say this: if you're talking about changing a hitter, it's a lot easier to get an aggressive hitter to dial it back a little than it is to get someone who's not aggressive to dial it up."
• College baseball is more coach-dominated than minor league baseball. College catchers need coded wristbands with pitches and plays on them, in the style of NFL quarterbacks, because college coaches have so much control over many aspects of the game. Coaches will practice bunt defenses and first-and-third plays literally for hours. Colleges often have more coaches than minor league teams. Freewheeling, individualized play -- as long as it produces results -- is more likely in minor league ball, especially with the influx of international players, than the structured environment of college ball.
• College players are, by definition, students and thinkers. The passive-aggressive approach tends to be a more cerebral approach than the see-ball-hit-ball approach. Information is good for a hitter. Too much information is bad. Sabermetricians make better pitchers than they do hitters.
"The information hinders the hitter," said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. "It helps a pitcher, absolutely. I think it has a negative effect on the hitter. First of all, if you're up there thinking, you're done. Secondly, hitting is so reactionary. Pitching, nothing happens until you're ready. You size up the situation, you line it up and decide what you want to do with your delivery. As a hitter all you can do is react. As a hitter if you start betting bogged down with the facts -- this guy throws 36 percent backdoor cutters on strike two -- and that's in your mind, I think that's where the hindrance comes in. The best hitters are reactionary hitters."
Johnson is correct in that hitting styles are cyclical, and this one will change. It has to change if only because it is not producing results. The major league batting average is the lowest since 1972. The rate of runs per game is the lowest since 1992. Strikeouts are up for an eighth straight year toward a seventh straight record-breaking rate.
"Hitters today think they have to see a lot of pitches," Johnson said. "But the best pitch they may see sometimes is the first one. You have to be ready for it. The mentality you have to have as a hitter is you're swinging until you're not. You can't be not swinging and then decide when the ball's halfway there."
Said Walker, "I think you go up there hunting the first good strike you see, especially fastballs. Some guys, like Freddie Freeman, take great pride in that. But some guys will take fastballs for strikes and then find themselves fighting against a pitcher's breaking stuff deeper in the count. Sometimes it's not easy for them to change if they've been hitting that way for a long time."
Statistics show that hitters are swinging at first pitches less often -- but that actually may be a good thing. Check out the percentage of one-pitch at-bats in five-year increments over the past 25 years. You will see how it has continually declined, but based on the adjusted OPS of those at-bats, hitters are getting better results when their at-bats end with the first pitch:
That's good news about modern hitting: Hitters are doing a better job at swinging at the first pitch when they can do damage, not just make contact. The bigger problem seems to be the continued passivity after the first pitch. Pitchers are throwing more strikes, as evidenced by the seven-year streak of record strikeouts and a four-year streak of declining walks. Trying to "run up pitch counts" of starting pitchers may not be as an effective a primary strategy as it once was -- not with strikeouts increasing, runs and walks decreasing and not when bullpens are now packed with more high-velocity relievers. When you "get into the bullpen," you're getting pitchers that average 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings (up 17 percent in 10 years) and are tougher to hit (.242) than starters (.259).
Finally, here's one more look at a link between passive-aggressive hitting and the declining run-scoring environment of today's game. Again, it's a look at snapshots in five-year increments over the past quarter of a century, this time looking at the average number of pitchers per plate appearance as well as the average of runs per game per team:
You see a steady increase in the number of pitches in the average major league at-bat. You also see an increase in runs scored through The Steroid Era, but the payoff for all these longer at-bats has disappeared. As at-bats get longer over the past decade runs are going down. Neither trend shows signs of abatement.