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The Trouble with Spring Training

by Tim Muma                                                           3/8/2013
(Twitter: @brewersblend)                                        6:00am



The beauty of Spring Training lies in the hope and belief that your team has shot at the playoffs, the cold winter is fading and the greatest game on Earth has begun its movement into our lives on a daily basis.

At the same time, the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues provide teases that toy with our psyche, trick our minds and create all sorts of false senses of excitement and/or worry.

For all the terrific aspects of Spring Training, there are some issues as it relates to player performance and predicting future success.


Small Sample Size: 

It doesn't take a mathematician to understand that judging a hitter based on 100 plate appearances (PA) or a pitcher on 40 innings is rather foolish - everyone is capable of putting together a handful of great games. Prime examples include...

Jeff Suppan's 42 IP in August of '08: 5-0, 3.00 ERA, .232 AVG/.279 OBP (career 4.70 ERA)

Yuniesky Betancourt's 99 PA in July/August of '11: .376/.394/.570/.964, 4 BB (16 total), 21 RBI




Logan Schafer's solid spring stats alone
won't get him a job in Milwaukee
This is part of the reason the MLB season is so long - it gives the statistics a chance to accurately average out, illustrating the long term performance of each player. Seeing a guy hit .400 in spring is great if he's fighting for a job, but it actually means little if you're assessing talent. Similarly, a pitcher could have a few bad innings and see all of his stats balloon and look horrible, creating panic in fans especially.



For example, if you look at a pitcher who tosses 30 innings and faces 135 batters...
  • Allowing 30 base runners and 9 earned runs =  .222 OBP and a 2.70 ERA
  • Allowing 40 base runners and 14 earned runs = .291 OBP and a 4.20 ERA

As you can see, the rate stats jump significantly with just a few poor frames. Typically, to get a solid understanding of what a hitter or pitcher is, you need about 500 PA and 500 batters faced respectively.


Talent Disparity:

Numbers in the 90's and no names tend to
illustrate a lack of talent at the present time
The fact is, you consistently see Major League talent squaring off against minor leaguers - and many times from the lower levels of an organization like single-A. Thus, MLB hitters often get fat off mediocre to bad pitching while big league hurlers shut down the inexperienced, still developing bats.

Again, of course, you'd prefer to have an OPS around 1.000 or a K/9 rate near 10, but on top of small samples one must consider the competition.



Baseball Reference has tried to quantify the opponents' value with the "quality of opposition" stat, assigning point values to the level of player faced (e.g. 10 for MLB, 7 for AAA, etc.).

Typically, the grain of salt here exists when a guy is performing extremely well and feasting on inferior foes. If your starting right fielder has a sub-.600 OPS, it looks bad no matter who he's facing - but even in that case - it's only Spring and it's a small sample size.


Experimentation:

You hear all the time about a pitcher working on a new pitch or a batter trying to hit the ball to the opposite field. While it often may sound like an excuse (and sometimes it probably is), players who already know their spot is essentially locked up will definitely use the spring to improve in specific areas.



Mark Rogers has struggled with his control and
command this spring, but there's time to work it out
Since the stats don't count and the win-loss record is pointless, it's the perfect time to throw nothing but fastballs for 2 innings in an effort to hone one's command all over the zone. There's no harm in a batter trying out a new stance as he tries to develop more power or create added contact - it makes no difference in the real standings or in his numbers.

As the schedule nears Opening Day, these trials fade into the sunset and guys gear up for the real thing. However, even then their numbers might look awful thanks to a few bad innings of learning a new grip for the sinker. This one leans toward ignoring negative statistics as a function of learning.


Winning and Losing = Who Cares?

Do you expect an athlete to always strive for victory?  Of course, but playing to win and valuing the actual outcome are two completely different things. No wins carry over to the regular season, there are no bonuses or awards for the most spring victories and there's an understanding that health comes first, followed by improving skills, then teamwork and finally, do what you can to win the game.

Steve "Sparky" Fifer of 1250 WSSP in Milwaukee made a good point that if a club is a losing organization - one that has been under .500 consistently for a number of years (Royals, Pirates) - then winning games in the preseason could possibly add value mentally for those guys by helping to create a winning attitude and culture. However, that's purely speculation.

(For the record, of the 10 playoff teams in 2012, exactly half had a winning record in spring)


The Royals started the 2013 spring season
with an 11-1 record....Doesn't matter.
Buster Olney shared a great story that exemplified how most players couldn't care less about the W and L columns. In the late 90's, the Yankees were struggling a ton in the spring and compiled a horrible record. The Yanks' poor mark made owner George Steinbrenner furious and he wanted to address the team. With tons of media gathering early in the morning in anticipation of Steinbrenner's outburst, outfielder Bernie Williams asked, "What's going on?"

When reporters told him that "King George" was upset at their awful record, Willams asked, "How many games have we lost?" Williams literally had no idea they were losing a bunch of games and it showed how much players cared about their record in spring - little to none.

Miscellaneous Factors
For whatever reason, Wily Peralta always has trouble
during Spring Training
  • Certain ballparks heavily favor hitters
  • Split squad games disperse a club's talent
  • Starting hurlers are pitching in relief
  • This year, the World Baseball Classic throws everything off
  • Curveballs don't have the same snap in the dry air in Arizona
  • Players aren't put in ideal situations like they would be during the season
    • For example, LH relief pitcher isn't facing many left-handed hitters
  • Starting pitchers are building up innings, arm strength and battling "dead arm"
  • Young, inexperienced, less talented players are deciding games late
  • Starting position players play a few games a week and only 4-5 innings most times
  • Some guys are slow starters and always struggle during Spring Training


The point to all of this...

Unless you get a chance to see players on video or live in Arizona or Florida, it's extremely difficult to actually determine where they're struggling or succeeding, what they'll contribute during the regular season and who deserves to be on the Opening Day 25-man roster.

Ultimately, don't get too fired up about great numbers and try not to freak out about ugly stats - it all needs to be consumed, analyzed and evaluated in conjunction with the "eye test," career performance in contests that count and unbiased (as much as possible) reports from "baseball people."



 

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