Spring Training Statistics that Matter (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
It is finally that glorious time of year when professional baseball players are playing baseball games again. Happy spring training season everyone! Today we will try to answer the timeless question: “Do spring training statistics matter?” The answer to this, as is the case to any tough, often debated question, is “yeah, but…”
The answer is not yes, but the answer is not no. When the Rockies traded Troy Tulowitzki and came into the 2016 season needing a shortstop, Trevor Story mashed in spring training and earned the job. Those stats mattered because they were indicative of his real ability, and that ability translated into him becoming one of the more valuable fantasy players in the league. Of course, this is hindsight. The stats only mattered because they ended up mattering — not a really helpful thing for me to tell you. When Jung Ho Kang led the majors in home runs last spring, that obviously did not matter; he followed that up by hitting .169 in 185 regular-season plate appearances. When Robinson Cano hit .441 to lead the league in spring training hitting, that didn’t end up translating to the actual games. He hit for a paltry .256/.307/.428 in 423 regular-season plate appearances.
What I am saying here is that the base level statistics that you will see this spring training really should not matter much at all to you, because it is impossible to know which ones are real and which ones are fake. And definitely do not give any credence to what kind of shape players say they are in either. Nobody should care about that … ever. All that said, there are some things to take from spring training, so here’s a list of factors I find most valuable in February and March.
There is a lot of rust being shaken off in the early stages of spring training. Hitting a ball thrown by a professional pitcher is tough and requires some extraordinary fast-twitch muscles and vision. If those things are lagging behind even a little bit after a few months off, you will see some decreased performance. However, when a guy is striking out 40% of the time over a three-week span while facing a ton of minor league-level pitchers, that is something to worry about. We saw this last year with Travis Shaw, who struck out 25 times in 59 at-bats while drawing exactly zero walks. It was a pretty good bet at that point that he was going to stink in the regular season, too, and that turned out to be true. The goal of a hitter in spring isn’t always the same as in the regular season, as hitters might just be working on different things or trying new approaches, but I do not see a world where a hitter would not try hard to make contact with the ball. I would give a little pause to drafting any player who has a massive strikeout rate in the spring.
Most of the spring training narratives you get from Twitter will be dead-end roads, but if you hear from a reputable source that a pitcher looks really different than the previous year, that’s something to note. We saw this with Gerrit Cole in his first spring with the Astros. They overhauled his game and made some changes that gave him massive velocity and spin rate boosts, both of which were quickly evident to some onlookers. That kind of skill change is absolutely meaningful. Results are somewhat random in baseball, especially in exhibition play, but the skills are not. A pitcher adding a few miles per hour to his fastball or getting a ton more whiffs is really interesting, important stuff.
Some players have their fantasy value tied tightly to their spot in the batting order. A hitter with a good on-base percentage and speed is going to be way more valuable for fantasy when leading off as opposed to hitting in the bottom third of the lineup. If for some reason Byron Buxton hits leadoff for the Twins all spring, you will see his draft stock soar — and rightfully so. Not only would he get more plate appearances at the top of the lineup, but he’d also have more opportunity to score runs and get better pitches to hit with more competent hitters directly behind him. Manager Dave Martinez said he might consider moving Trea Turner down to third in the Nationals’ lineup, which could have some real implications on his steals projection. These things matter.
There will be a ton of eyes (mine included) on Max Scherzer’s back and Chris Sale’s left elbow this spring. The only thing holding those two guys back from being easy top-five fantasy pitchers this year is health. With how hard it has become to find dominant starting pitching in the age of the long ball, it is all the more important to locate pitchers who will throw 180+ innings this year. While that is never possible to predict, you can potentially avoid some bad situations by paying attention to health reports and workloads from spring training games.
Base stealing has been pretty inconsistent year-to-year, with the league generally trending toward running less. Every year, however, we see a few guys start running more than they have in the past. Often times, the first evidence of that comes in the spring. Managers want to give them practice reps in real game situations. If there’s a player the skipper wants to see attempt more steals this year, they’re going to start that process right away. It’s better to look at total steal attempts (SB + CS) rather than just successful stolen bases; that gives you an idea of how aggressive a player/team may be moving forward.
Every year a few players hit for high batting averages or a ton of home runs in spring, and that inevitably leads to their draft stock rising. I recommend not falling into the box score trap. Do not move a guy up in your ranks just because his spring stats look good. Focus on the skills, team context, and the “does this make sense?” of it all.
Or hey, just draft your team based on spring training All-Stars and forget my advice. This is just a game for fun at the end of the day. Happy spring, baseball fans!