Spring Training Stats to Keep an Eye on that Actually Matter
Baseball is back in our lives! The A’s and Mariners kicked off the spring training action rain-shortened game Thursday.
The bad part, though, is that we are still a month away from having baseball games that actually count return. We’ll take what we can get for now. But as the players take to the field in Florida and Arizona, what should we take away?
We’ve heard for a while now that spring training statistics don’t matter. Considering it’s such a small sample size it’s true…in a way.
See, spring training is tough to judge with the expanded rosters, limited innings pitched, and limited opportunities at the plate. It’s hard to see the results that are happening and get excited about them translating over to the regular season, but yet, we do it.
Remember when Jake Fox turned heads because of his big spring training in 2011 when he hit 10 home runs or how about when Juan Nicasio became “fantasy relevant” after a nice showing with the Pirates in 2016? Who can forget everyone panicking over Shohei Ohtani in 2018 when he struggled during this time. There were people actually ready to label the 2018 Rookie of the Year a bust and suggest that he should only focus on either pitching or hitting and start the season in the minors.
Every year, the same thing happens. A lot of it is confirmation bias (or Confirmation Baez if you’re looking for a good fantasy team name; you’re welcome). For the players that we like, if they are performing at a high level, we can point and say “and so it begins…a big season is coming his way.” But if they struggle, we can say “It’s just spring training. If anything, this is good, because he will come cheaper on draft day.”
But on the flip side, for a player we don’t like, if they do well we will laugh and say “Good. Drive up that draft day cost. Let someone else take him and get excited.” But if they struggle, you’ll see, “and this is only the start of bad things to come for [enter name here]. Avoid at all costs.” It’s the nature of fans, and it’s the nature of our opinions. But how do you, the fan, determine whose spring performance is real or a mirage?
Don’t Look at the Numbers
Looking at the traditional 5×5 categories during spring won’t provide you with much context. It’s a limited sample that you’re basing it on and it’s not even equivalent to a months’ worth of data during the regular season. A pitcher’s numbers will look terrible after one bad outing.
Not only is it wrong to base your opinion off what the numbers are in the spring, but you don’t know what the players are working on. This is the time that a pitcher will work on a new pitch. They might try a new grip on their fastball to maximize the movement on it or they might be trying to show that the third pitch they need to work on so badly is ready for a big-league challenge.
On the other hand, seasoned vets are just trying to get their timing down, get their arm strength built up, and prepare for another marathon season. I’m not by any means saying the are coasting through, but the effort in Florida or Arizona isn’t going to be the effort you see throughout the season.
One useful stat that you can use to examine how a player is performing spring is their strikeout rate. This goes for both pitchers and hitters. Strikeout rate is a good indicator of performance, and unlike ERA or batting average, it normalizes more quickly.
This goes for the regular season too. Traditional numbers are going to fluctuate well into the second half of the season.
A pitcher with a high strikeout rate in spring training is bringing forth his “stuff’ that you hear so much about. Strikeout rate and swinging strike rate (SwStr%) gives you an idea of how dominant a pitcher is with his repertoire.
The same goes with hitters. With teams having more emphasis on launch angles, more and more players are going to be tweaking their swings. Last season, there was a 3.5 percent increase in hard-hit rate across the league. That doesn’t just happen overnight. Seeing which players can adjust without sacrificing power for strikeouts is key.
Similarly to strikeout rate, walk rate is a good indicator to look at for pitchers and hitters. If there is a pitcher I like a lot, but I’m worried about his command and control, then I’m keeping a close eye on their walk rate.
There’s never been any doubt to the dominance that they can have on the mound at times, but the high walk totals really hurt them from a fantasy standpoint. Robbie Ray had a walk rate higher than five percent last year and it was a big reason that he regressed from his 2017 season.
This spring, someone I’m watching is Caleb Smith. Smith has a similar profile to Ray, and walks are also a part of his game that he needs to work on.
Offensively, as more and more players are selling out for power, walks are becoming an increasingly useful skill — especially in any type of OBP league or leagues that reward walks — for a batter to possess. Keeping an eye on a hitter’s walk total is big, especially for someone like Rougned Odor, who showed signs of improvement in that area last year, but could use more walks to up his value.
Watching Adalberto Mondesi at the plate this spring will be interesting for this reason too. Mondesi is allergic to walks, and if he shows that he is willing to take a pitch here and there, he has a chance to return value at his early ADP.
The Eye Test
It sounds very “get-off-my-lawn(-ish),” but really, one of the best ways to evaluate a player you like is to watch them play. Watch them this spring, identify what you want to see from them, and give your own evaluations. Compare your notes with the rates on FanGraphs and the breakdown from analysts to adjust your rankings accordingly.