Evolving Information Symmetry in Baseball

One of the strangest, albeit minor, stories of the baseball season so far occurred a few weeks when Seattle Mariner Eric Wedge attributed the struggles of Dustin Ackley, a one-time top prospect, to SABRmetrics. "It's the new generation. It's all this SABR-metrics stuff, for lack of a better term, you know what I mean?...People who haven't played since they were nine years old think they have it figured out. It gets in these kids' heads." SABR is an acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research, but it has become short-hand for advanced quantitative study of baseball.

Wedge's view that a young hitter's approach to hitting has been damaged by people who have given him bad advice is, in broad terms, certainly possible. There are numerous cases of players receiving bad coaching advice or trying to make adjustments that were ill-advised, but the leap from that to blaming people who are either writing or talking about baseball or helping the Mariners front office make decisions through smarter use of data, is a strange one. It is hard to imagine Ackley poring over SABRmetric oriented websites and deciding to, for example, take more pitches, or deciding that he was going to change his whole approach because he was worried about his WAR.

The significance of Wedge's comments are not that a manager is blaming fans and writers for a player's poor performance, but that something is changing in the relationship between players, coaches and managers on one hand and fans and writers on another. During the last 30 years, due to better research and technological advances, the asymmetry of information between baseball insiders and outsiders, while still real, has been reduced dramatically. Teams today still have advanced statistical methodologies, software and video that is not available to most fans, journalists and bloggers, but this gap is much smaller than a few decades ago.

Twenty years ago, no fans had access to, for example, the data about pitch type and speed that is now relatively easily available, even decent video of major or minor league players was hard to come by. Thirty years ago up to date data of minor league games was unavailable for most fans. This made is possible for insiders to either know more than most fans, or by alluding to hard to get information, pretend they had more information than most fans.

Baseball insiders benefitted from this information asymmetry because it made it easy for them to explain decisions about players, trades or signings. They could simply suggest that they did things based on information to which ordinary fans had no access. There was, of course, ample second guessing of managers and team executives, but at least the baseball people had a defense.

The extraordinary increase of information available to regular fans has also changed the relationship between fans and many sportswriters. Writers covering teams still have more access to players, coaches and managers than most fans, bloggers and others, but other than that, their insider status means a lot less than it did in 1985 or so. This means that the people writing about baseball are no longer only insiders either.

It is still common to hear ad hominem attacks on more quantitatively inclined baseball writers, often involving their mother's basement. These critiques, including Wedge's, are at least as much about bemoaning loss of status then they are about substance. This is not to say that more access to information means that ability to analyze that information is equal. There are many more people writing about, for example, scouting and player development than ever before, but many of these people have no particular expertise or experience. Similarly, for every rigorous quantitative analysis of baseball, there is one that misuses or misunderstands a statistic like WAR or BABIP.

Baseball people will nonetheless need to adapt to this new information environment, as many already have. Wedge's comments should not be taken too seriously and reflect frustration as much as serious analysis. Somebody should remind Wedge, however, that the reason baseball is a multi-billion dollar industry from which he has made a very good living is not because of some natural law, but because of fans who buy tickets, watch the game on television and the internet, buy souvenirs and, yes, write blogs, often very informed ones, debating the finer points of the game. For the most part baseball has done a lot to embrace this change, making more data and video available and even bringing newer perspectives to the MLB network and websites, so they seem to understand what Wedge does not. Dustin Ackley is a young man who could have a good future in baseball. Many fans probably hope he reaches that potential and has a solid career, but am not sure they feel that way about his manager.