Spring Training stats don’t matter. You hear the phrase uttered by broadcaster and bleacher bum alike. For rookies and grizzled veterans trying to make a big league roster for the first (or last) time, having a “good” spring is very important. Putting up good numbers during spring training is an important part of winning a job, but hitting .400 is just as meaningless as hitting .125 once April 1st comes around. Major Leaguers who aren’t trying to win a job use the spring as a “tune-up.” Starters will work on a specific pitch, relievers will try and get better at pitching in certain situations, and hitters will tinker with their swings. If these tinkerings work and a player puts up good numbers then great, but for the players themselves, they could care less about their final spring numbers, because everyone goes back to 0 once the season starts.
Let’s take a couple case studies. Brandon Belt has been having an awesome spring for the Giants and he looks primed for a breakout. He is currently raking with a .410 batting average and 8 homers. So, he must be about to have a breakout season right? Well it turns out the Baby Giraffe has done this every spring. In 2012 he hit .378 and in 2011 he hit well enough to win the job, as shown in the Showtime series The Franchise. Maybe Belt will have a breakout year, but it’s more likely to come from not having to challenge Aubrey Huff for playing time and less because of confidence heading into the season.
How about we look at 2012’s Spring Training batting title champion? No, it’s not Albert Pujols or Joey Votto, no Mike Trout or Ryan Braun. Ladies and gentlemen I present to you…drum roll please: Munenori Kawasaki. The shortstop made the jump from the Japanese Nippon league to the MLB easily in Spring Training and put up a .455 batting average. However, once the season rolled around Kawasaki batted under the Mendoza line at .192 and only appeared in 61 games for the Mariners. A great spring training did not translate into good season numbers for Mune, likely because while it was easy enough to wrap singles against inferior competition, the regular season brought on the best pitching in the world. Major league pitching is a tough adjustment for any player, especially one coming from a different country. Though he never quite figured it out with the bat during the regular season, Kawsaki remains the single most gifable player in the bigs and the best bench warmer any team could ask for.
Chris Sale and Stephen Strasburg both posted ERAs over 4 in Spring Training last year and went on to Cy Young-caliber seasons (or ¾ seasons). Pitchers often will work on a specific pitch or the timing of their delivery during spring training games, since bloated ERAs and losses don’t matter. Pitchers can also suffer from bad numbers thanks to the strict innings limit placed upon them. A starter may only pitch through a few innings for most of Spring Training so as to protect their arm and ward off injury.
In professional sports it is never a good thing to lose. A culture of winning is something to be fostered, and for baseball players, that culture starts in the spring. Winning Spring Training games can help a team to find their identity and some teams can carry that culture into the season, but this matters more towards the last few weeks of ST. For the first few weeks, players are getting back in the groove, meeting new teammates for the first time, and trying to work on certain things. A player can go 0 for 4 and still have a great day because they learned not to swing at a curveball on a certain count. Spring Training is just that, training. It’s a necessary part of the business, but has no real effect on the real thing. I, for one, am glad baseball is back for real. Happy Opening Day everybody!
It’s easy to say that spring training stats don’t matter. Players are returning to the game in various mental and physical states, and coaches are shifting lineups and splitting squads. With all this variance, it becomes hard to interpret stats and easy to disregard all spring training numbers. But there are certain “player-centric” stats that can be reliably used to highlight strong/troubled players, a fact that is especially valid at the beginning and end of a player’s career.
I use the term “player-centric” to describe stats that are influenced by the least number of players in the game. The fewer number of people that can influence that particular stat, the greater the individual player’s control is over that number. The difference between wins and quality starts displays the discrepancy between these two types of stats. Wins depend on the pitcher’s performance, the team offense, and the team defense. With more people involved, a pitcher can be robbed of a win with a poor team performance, ultimately masking a pitcher’s abilities. In comparison, quality starts rely solely on the pitcher’s ability to dominate hitters, and becomes a more accurate way to judge a season.
Some of the more reliable “player-centric” stats to quantify spring performances are K and BB percentages. Mike Podhorzer at Fangrpah.com did some regression analysis on these stats for pitchers and found that they are both correlated to regular season performance. This gives fans and scouts the ability to use these numbers to evaluate pitchers and pick better fantasy teams.
He goes even further to speculate that really strong performances should be valued higher than poor performances. His explanation being, “You cannot fluke your way into striking out a high percentage of hitters, but pitchers work on new pitches or their mechanics in the spring all the time and can easily explain a weak performance.”
While his regression model didn’t confirm this notion, another blogger found this speculation to be true. William Juliano at The Captain’s Blog looked at K/IP and K/BB ratios from the 2011 preseason and identified players with stats above a certain threshold as “potential breakout candidates.” A similar list was compiled of players that had spring stats below a threshold. They were labeled “potential breakdown candidates.”
Juliano found that the “breakout candidates'” stats translated better to the regular season. Based on the stats alone, his model correctly identified the breakout seasons of Craig Kimbrel, Ian Kennedy, and Justin Masterson.
BB and K ratios are also useful stats when it comes to hitting. The prime example being the Cuban minor leaguer, Yasiel Puig. The Dodger’s outfielder was relatively unknown prior to this year, since he missed most of 2012 with a staph infection. However, he recently left Glendale, Arizona with a .527 batting average in 55 at bats. With that number, he easily becomes one of the best outfielders in the game, but he lacks plate discipline. Puig struck out 15 times (27% of the time) and only walked four times, yet the Dodgers cited these numbers as a reason for sending him down at the end of March.
Still, in his 25 games, Puig made a name for himself and developed a reputation, indicating a greater importance on stats for the rookies. For rookies, these stats appear more significant. This is the first time that these players are able to face major league talent, and the baseball community winds up giving more weight to their numbers. This was the case with Julio Teheran, SP, Atlanta Braves, who in 6 games, posted a 1.04 ERA 3.89 K/BB ratio. At the beginning of spring, talk was he would wind up back in AAA, but a strong month proved to be enough, earning him the 5th starter role.
Players who are exiting their prime also see their stats heavily scrutinized. Roy Halladay is one player whose stats indicate a potential problem. He has seen his fastball velocity drop even lower than the already reduced high 80 fastball he had last season. It seems unlikely that his velocity will rebound during the season, which has fans worried throughout Philadelphia.
Players in their prime are usually immune from this scrutiny because their “player-centric” stats are traditionally in line with their career norms. But this isn’t always the case, as Tim Lincecum has recently been criticized for having velocity issues also. His fastball speed has been down and his pitch location isn’t as strong as it used to be, leading to speculation that his 2013 is going to look a lot like his 2012.
The degree to which these “player-centric” stats are useful depend on the career arc of the player. The players whose stats receive the most scrutiny, justifiably so, are those player’s in their first couple of spring trainings and those exiting their prime. At the same time, they can confirm regressive tendencies with players in their prime.
As nice as it would be to disregard all preseason stats, certain spring training stats prove that they cant be ignored. It seems that spring isn’t just a time for celebrities to play baseball.