Around this time every year, most announcers say something like “we all know spring training stats don’t matter..but” and then go on to rattle off positive stats for the team (or even worse, talking about the team’s Cactus or Grapefruit record). It seems like everyone “knows” that Spring Training statistics don’t matter, but we like to quote them anyways. Here I want to show some reasons why Spring Training statistics bear basically no predictive value.
Let me give some examples:
I love Kila Ka’aihue, but he led the MLB in Slugging in Spring Training in 2011. He is not the best slugger in baseball, no one thinks that. Chris Davis was 5th in Slugging in the MLB for Spring Training, but slugged just .402 during the season, below league average (and because of his terrible fielding, he had a negative WAR). Travis Buck was 5th in OBP in 2011 in ST, but is struggling to make the lousy Houston Astros this year. Erick Almonte had the 4th best batting average in 2011 ST, even though he is a career .233 hitter in the big leagues. In the Spring Training of 2010, Mitch Maier led the MLB in OBP and batting average. Again, you will not find a bigger Maier fan than me (I love his really long at-bats), but he is not the best hitter in the Majors. Marcus Thames had the worst OBP out of qualifying hitters in 2010. During the 2010 regular season, he had a .350 OBP, quite a bit above average. Dan Uggla, Derek Jeter, Elvis Andrus, Carlos Pena, and Adrian Gonzalez all had OBPs in the .270 range, which is awful. In 2006, Kevin Mench led the league in Slugging during Spring Training. The Rangers ended up trading Mench halfway through the season, and he had a 87 OPS + for the year between the Brewers and Rangers (again, a negative WAR thanks in part to bad defense). Lyle Overbay slugged a measly .241 in ST that year, but ended up with an OPS of .880 and Slugging of over .500 in the regular season.
For pitchers, the record is pretty similar. In 2011, Kyle McClellan was the 2nd best pitcher according to ERA in Spring Training, right in the middle of Halladay and Verlander. McClellan had a 87 ERA + during the regular season. John Lackey had the 4th best ERA in the 2010 Spring Training, and we all know how his 2 seasons in Boston have been. Wandy Rodriquez had the worst ERA that Spring, and no matter what your take on Wandy is, no one thinks he is the worst pitcher in the league (C.C. Sabathia had a 7.23 ERA that spring). In 2009, Zack Grienke gave up as many homers as some guy named Josh Geer in Spring Training (Geer hasn’t been in the big leagues since 2009, where he had a 5.96 ERA. Geer made 2 horrible starts in AAA in 2011). Grienke also had as many strikeouts as Robinson Tejeda. Jo-Jo Reyes had the best batting average against in spring training in 2011. Enough said.
So why do Spring Training Stats suck? It is probably a combination of things, such as small sample sizes, different levels of competition (that is, you may face a AA pitcher one day, and then Roy Halladay the next. If your day off was against the AA pitcher, but you had to play against Halladay, your numbers are going to suffer.), players may be working on stuff (such as throwing a bunch of change-ups in a start to get better feel of the pitch), and the fact that when you are just looking at batting average and ERA , you are looking at the wrong statistics anyway. In the end it really doesn’t matter why Spring Training Statistics provide very little predictive value, as long as we realize that they don’t.
So what should we go on instead during Spring Training? Track record is the most important obviously. If Roy Halladay strings together 3 bad spring training starts, Phillies fans (or management) shouldn’t jump off a tall building. He is Roy Halladay, and if he is healthy (which Halladay always seems to be), he will be flipping awesome. Another tool you can use is Pitch F/X, provided by BrooksBaseball.net. This is for pitchers, and it allows you (for many spring training games, not all of them though, usually depending on the stadium) to view the pitchers’ locations, velocity, etc. If Pitch F/X says that Lincecum is at the same velocity and still putting the change-up where he usually does, it doesn’t matter what his pitching line is. Finally, watch the damn games when you can. Don’t expect to really learn anything by reading box scores. See how players look: How are there swings? Do they look healthy? Are they running at the same speed?
So how about some players’ whose 2012 springs (ST is not technically over, but its getting close) don’t mean anything (and provide some more examples of the silliness of looking at Spring Training statistics)
Blake Beavan: I have a Mariner bias since I write about the team at other places, so this is one that jumps out to me. Beavan has “earned” himself a spot in the starting rotation with a 2.35 Spring ERA with 4 times as many strikeouts as walks. Too bad we already saw last year that Beavan doesn’t miss any bats. Also, his pitch locations have been pretty poor, and he pitched a grand total of 15.1 innings in the spring.
Jared Weaver: Who believes that Weaver will have a 5.84 regular season ERA? *crickets*
Trevor Bauer: The Diamondbacks pitching prospect struck out 9 and walked just 1. However he gave up a .297 batting average against. Also he threw 10 whole innings.
Jeff Francis: The oddly coveted free agent pitcher (I think I heard him linked to every single team in the offseason) struck out 8 batters and walked 0 with an ERA of 2.77. I think I just lost brain cells writing that.
Chris Young: Young is currently leading the MLB in ST OBP. He has a career OBP of .319.
Alex Liddi: The guy is slugging .714 so far, even though he has a career minor league Slugging of .462.
Travis Snider: His big spring is cute, but he has had a pretty frustrating MLB career.
Mike Moustakas: He has had a terrible OPS this spring. I guess its time for the Royals to move on.