Spring Training Statistics That Matter (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
Man, does it feel good to have Spring Training going down again! After a 2020 season that was completely derailed, fantasy managers are more anxious than ever to get back to a normal 2021 season. Spring Training games are about to get underway, which means we can begin overreacting to March statistics again! Welcome back!
This year, more than ever, we may find ourselves in the overreaction boat. We already have the challenging question of how seriously to take the stat lines from the 60-game 2020 season, which makes the interpretation of Spring statistics even more difficult. We need to put in extra effort to control our reactions and keep our focus restricted to things that have been proven to be predictive. Here are a few things that you should put your priority on when paying attention to Spring Training.
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. While this is completely anecdotal, we did see this in 2019 with Travis Shaw. He 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. Now fast-forward two years and Shaw is no longer a relevant fantasy name. The first sign of that coming may very well have been that wild strikeout rate in his spring games.
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. When Gerrit Cole first joined the Astros, for example, he had a noticeable uptick in velocity, and that came with a ton more strikeouts in spring games. That was very important information to know, and it turned out to be very indicative of his massive improvements.
We saw this a bit in 2020 as well before Spring Training got shut down with Dylan Bundy. After joining the Angels, he made some major changes to his arsenal, reducing fastball usage and throwing a lot more sliders. This proved to be a massive upgrade for Bundy, and it started to become evident in spring. In 11.1 innings, he struck out 16 batters and allowed just four hits and two earned runs. The fact that these improved results over 11.1 innings came with a significant change in how he was pitching made it much more believable.
When you see a pitcher dominating in spring, you should take it much more seriously if there are also reports of a change in “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, Nick Madrigal hits leadoff for the White Sox 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.
Here is the breakdown of how many plate appearances each spot in the lineup averages per game:
So to continue the Madrigal example, he would be expected to average 1.01 more plate appearances per game by going from the nine-hole to the leadoff spot. That’s 163 more plate appearances in a 162-game season, a massive difference. That’s an extreme example, but even someone that was expected to hit seventh moving up to fifth adds 45 plate appearances over a full season. Your fantasy team’s counting stats are dependent on opportunity, and spring training batting orders give you an idea of which players are set to see an increase or decrease in opportunity.
This is even more important this year, given how little of the league’s starting pitchers we saw last year. There are questions surrounding a lot of very impactful fantasy names heading into 2021. Guys like Blake Snell, Dinelson Lamet, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Frankie Montas, and many more come to mind. Any report of elbows or shoulders not being exactly right should really give you some pause on drafting a certain player. You need to be paying very close attention to the injury news that comes out.
Base stealing has been pretty inconsistent year-to-year, with the league generally trending toward running less. However, every year, 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.
Happy Spring Training everyone!
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