A Cautious Approach to Spring Training

Pitchers and catchers report on Wednesday, officially kicking off baseball as we know it in 2013. Phillies fans had grown used to an endless supply of optimism going into every season, but this marks the first spring in a long time in which fans can realistically expect their team to miss the playoffs. This is due to two reasons: the first being the tremendous improvements made by the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves — Jayson Stark cites Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projecting “a decent chance” that the two teams could each win 100 games; and the lackluster off-season the Phillies have had, adding veteran retreads to baseball’s oldest roster.

As spring training approaches every year, you can expect to read quite a few articles penned by Saber-savvy writers about why you shouldn’t pay attention at all to spring training, particularly the statistics due to the small sample sizes. Jon Bernhardt did so eloquently at Sports On Earth today. And I’m normally one of them, but not this year. Prior to 2012, the Phillies knew their starting personnel before the end of January. In the infield, the Phillies could count on Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Placido Polanco. Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth/Hunter Pence rounded out the outfield. There wasn’t a whole lot to get worried about. The Phillies never truly solidified their corner outfield over the winter, though, so they go into spring training with lots of question marks involving Delmon Young, Domonic Brown, John Mayberry, and Darin Ruf. Even an infield job is up for grabs: aside from Howard, Utley, Rollins, and Michael Young, the Phillies will audition several players as back-ups in the event of an injury.

Why should we pay attention to spring training and be cautious? GM Ruben Amaro and manager Charlie Manuel showed last year they have no problem giving a significant amount of playing time to insignificant and incapable players if they feel it is necessary. Non-roster invitees last spring included Juan Pierre and Kevin Frandsen, who played their way into regular playing time. Others included Pete Orr, Hector Luna, Lou Montanez, and Scott Podsednik. Pierre and Frandsen, of course, performed well, but the likelihood of the Phillies catching lightning in a bottle with one more NRI — let alone two in the same season — is very low.

Pierre finished with his best offensive output since 2009, thanks in part to a .327 BABIP, one of only four seasons in his lengthy career in which his BABIP was .325 or higher in a full season. ZiPS projects his batting average and BABIP to decline from .307 and .327 to .284 and .301, respectively. PECOTA, the Baseball Prospectus projections which were released today, see him at .278 and .290, respectively. Frandsen also had a career year, finishing with a .338 average and .366 BABIP. ZiPS projects him falling to .273/.293 and PECOTA agrees, putting him at .259/.278.

Hopefully, those in the know in the Phillies organization are able to recognize how lucky they got with Pierre and Frandsen, and to realize how unlikely they are to find similar fortune with their latest batch of NRI’s, which includes Yuniesky Betancourt, Andres Blanco, Josh Fields, Matt Tolbert, and Joe Mather. Betancourt poses the biggest risk to the Phillies because he can play shortstop, something few of the Phillies’ available infielders can do. Betancourt has a career .296 wOBA. Among players with at least 3,000 PA since 2005 (the year he made his debut), Betancourt’s wOBA is the fourth-worst, behind only Jack Wilson, Omar Vizquel, and Jason Kendall. And it’s not like Betancourt brings anything else with him as he has received negative marks in defense in six of his seven full seasons and negative marks in base running in four of seven, according to FanGraphs.

Delmon Young is also someone to keep an eye on, though he isn’t a non-roster invitee. Due to off-season ankle surgery, he will likely begin the season on the disabled list, but could find his way into the Phillies’ lineup soon after he returns. Despite gaudy post-season numbers, Young’s .305 wOBA over the last two seasons is sixth-worst among all outfielders and, like Betancourt, he doesn’t bring any additional tools with him such as defense or base running. Still, the veteran could be taking valuable playing time away from better, more capable players — such as Domonic Brown — sooner rather than later, just like Pierre did.

The Phillies, possibly more than any other team, have a high percentage of spring training invitees and role players who could end up getting significant amounts of playing time in 2013. It’s true: you shouldn’t put any stock in spring training stats at all, but the folks making decisions have used spring stats in the past and will continue to do so going forward. As such, I will be biting my nails if someone like Betancourt has a .350 average near the end of March.

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36 comments

  1. Jonny5

    February 11, 2013 12:35 PM

    Please let me assure you that Betancourt will NOT have a .350 avg. near the end of March. I’m from the future and this is fact. Ok, maybe not, but if I were a betting man…..

  2. Jonny5

    February 11, 2013 12:49 PM

    LOL!!!Yes, I guess you have an excellent point there. Anything CAN happen in a small sample size.

  3. Dan

    February 11, 2013 04:02 PM

    Spring stats are of course meaningless, but it seems crucial at this point that Domonic Brown absolutely tears up the month of March. That’s pretty much the only way he’ll be assured a starting job come April. He’s been victimized by hitting poorly in small samples for the past few years; maybe he can turn the team’s outlook on him around with a great spring.

  4. Joecatz

    February 11, 2013 05:59 PM

    Dan,

    I think it’s more important that brown can actually stay healthy all spring and not end up on the DL to start the season. That’s been the biggest derailing for him the past two years. For Dom not to start on opening day three things would have to happen

    1. He’d have to be hurt and
    2. If he was healthy hed need to go something like 2-60 with a bajillion errors in the field And
    3. Ruf would have to have the most insane spring in the history of mankind.

    If he is making solid contact, driving the ball, and adequate in the field hell be in one of the corners.

  5. Phillie697

    February 11, 2013 06:36 PM

    @Joecatz,

    No offense, because I would love for what you say to be true, but may I ask how did you come to that conclusion? I am more expecting good old Cholly to bench him when he doesn’t jump 12 feet to rob Mike Stanton of a HR at the wall, or perhaps, *gasp*, takes a walk instead of swinging at that “meat” fastball that’s “only” 6 inches outside of the strike zone. “How dare you have such discerning eye!!!”

    Think about this. Let say he gets only 2 hits in 60 PA but 25 walks (it could happen; so that would be what, 2-35?), what do you think Cholly will do? Exactly.

  6. hk

    February 12, 2013 06:48 AM

    Joecatz,

    The following quote by RAJ in Bob Brookover’s recent Inquirer article suggests that Dom needs to do more than just stay healthy in Spring Training to win a starting job:

    “We were hopeful that Domonic [Brown] would lock down one of those corner outfield spots,” Amaro said. “He did not do that. He still may do that . . . but we can’t necessarily count on that to happen. Because of that, then we were kind of filling all three outfield positions.”

  7. Richard

    February 12, 2013 10:00 AM

    I think Joe’s point is that, if Dom Brown is healthy, and plays even acceptably (which, not being healthy has mainly prevented in the previous STs), the job is likely his. I think he’s right. We shall see.

  8. Pencilfish

    February 12, 2013 10:26 AM

    hk,

    So RAJ would like Dom Brown to be healthy and perform enough to convince the decision-makers that he deserves a starting job in the OF. Is that unreasonable?

  9. Phillie697

    February 12, 2013 11:03 AM

    @Pencilfish,

    I object to his characterization that Brown “did not do that.”

  10. hk

    February 12, 2013 11:44 AM

    Pencilfish,

    I put very little stock into what happens in Spring Training since it is a small sample size of appearances and the quality of the competition varies so much. Look at last year’s Spring Training statistics and tell me what JMJ or Ty Wigginton did to deserve getting 839 regular season PA’s between them.

  11. Dan

    February 12, 2013 12:36 PM

    All I’m saying is, the best thing the Phillies can do is to make Dom Brown a full-time outfielder. If it takes them being “tricked” by spring training statistics to do so — and I believe that is what it will take — then so be it.

  12. Pencilfish

    February 12, 2013 12:47 PM

    Phillie697,

    Brown’s triple slash line over 492 PA’s is .236/.315/.388. His wOBA from 2010-2012 was .260 (70 PA’s), .322 (210 PA’s)and .309 (212 PA’s). According to Bill’s post on Feb. 8, the average LF/RF has a wOBA between .323 and .331. So far, Brown has the stats of a slightly below-average OF, and that’s for a guy RAJ refused to trade away.

    Yes, I know he was injured, the Phillies mis-handled him, he was jerked back and forth from the minors, yada, yada, yada. I don’t disagree with any of these attenuating circumstances. If you want to make an argument he deserves a chance to prove himself, fine, but he shouldn’t just be handed the job. He hasn’t locked down one of the corner OF spots as RAJ said.

  13. Richard

    February 12, 2013 12:50 PM

    Pencilfish – but compared to whom? It’d be one thing if Amaro brought in, dunno, Justin Upton or Nick Swisher or anybody worth playing at all and Brown was then just the odd man out. But he’s brought in Revere (who I like) and some garbage, to go with the other questionable guys already on hand, like Mayberry & Ruf. Compared to that lot, sorry, yes he has indeed played well enough to just be “handed” one of the corner jobs.

  14. Pencilfish

    February 12, 2013 12:56 PM

    hk,

    I mostly agree about ST stats, but they are not altogether useless either. Look at Halladay last spring. There were signs he was not right even last spring, and he had a rotten year.

    It will be difficult to justify giving Brown a starting job, if he stinks in ST. He needs to step up beginning in ST.

  15. Richard

    February 12, 2013 01:01 PM

    Pencilfish – noticing “signs he was not right” are not the same as relying on Spring Training stats. The thing about Halladay last Spring (which, admittedly, many pooh-poohed) was his declining velocity, not his stats. If he’d had a high ERA (or whatever), but his velocity had been normal, no one would have said anything.

  16. Pencilfish

    February 12, 2013 01:14 PM

    Richard,

    That’s an interesting point. You agree that he’s a slightly below-average OF, but he deserves the job because he’s better than the alternatives. So you are open to the idea that if an opportunity to upgrade comes up (via trade or from the minors), we should replace Brown. Should Ruf be given the chance to prove he’s a better player?

  17. Richard

    February 12, 2013 01:36 PM

    That’s not what I said. I don’t agree that he is a slightly below-average OF. I think he’s much better than that, though I’d concede that he’s demonstrated, at worst, that he’s slightly below average, and he’s certainly better than all of the alternatives. The Phillies are not going to find someone better. On the off chance that Darin Ruf, who has demonstrated even less, is worth playing, and is better than Mayberry, you still have the other corner spot, don’t you?

  18. Pencilfish

    February 12, 2013 01:40 PM

    Richard,

    I didn’t advocate “relying on ST stats”. You misunderstand. I said they weren’t altogether useless. It can be a factor in deciding who is included in the 25-man roster, for example.

    Halladay’s declining velocity issue precedes last ST, but it began to affect him more and more last spring. His inflated ERA and generally poor performance last ST was a sign of things to come. As I said, ST stats are not altogether useless.

  19. Richard

    February 12, 2013 01:45 PM

    Halladay’s declining velocity was not an issue prior to last ST (note that I’m not saying he wasn’t showing any signs of declining velocity prior to then – all aging pitchers do). It wasn’t his ERA or poor results that were the problem. He could have had that poor performance without any problem, so that the stats themselves, in such a situation, would be altogether useless.

  20. Pencilfish

    February 12, 2013 01:48 PM

    Richard,

    Not find someone better? They tried in 2011 with Pence, right? The Phillies enter 2013 about 10 million under the luxury tax threshold. Why shouldn’t RAJ look for a OF in July if Brown continues to play to the tune of .236/.315/.388?

    Darin Ruf has raked in AA, 37 AB’s in Philly and winter ball in 2012. What has he done for you to doubt his abilities? Also, you are forgetting Delmon Young. It’s entirely possible Brown and Ruf are competing for a single spot.

  21. Pencilfish

    February 12, 2013 02:07 PM

    You misunderstand (again). His ST stats were not the only red flag. He was not very sharp either, leaving balls in very hittable locations. The stats, declining velocity and sharpness were all factors indicative of his problems. Stats are much more than just ERA. Look at the number of pitches he threw everytime out last ST. Compare the type of pitches (4-seamer, 2-seamer, etc) with previous ST’s. As I said, these stats are not altogether useless.

  22. Phillie697

    February 12, 2013 03:23 PM

    Brown was 22. Nobody should have been expecting him to be freaking Matt Kemp or Ryan Braun. The ONLY reason why we weren’t “happy” with his performance is because of the obscene expectations we had of him. A .320 wOBA at age 23, are you kidding me? Most team would have been like “okay that’s good enough for us, stick him in there and see what happens.” But no, instead, in Philly, he was labeled a bust. We Phillies fans are insane, there is no other word to describe us.

  23. lefty32

    February 12, 2013 10:51 PM

    I don’t believe amaro could tell a good of from a bad one. He is supposed to be supportive as a gm. He has done nothing but heap pressure on Brown since he first arrived.

  24. 50-year Phan

    February 13, 2013 02:58 PM

    “… the first spring in a long time in which fans can realistically -expect- their team to miss the playoffs…”

    Horse dung. I expect these millionaires playing the kids game to go out there and play their fannies off and get into the playoffs to win the whole thing.

    And I -expect- nothing less.

  25. Pencilfish

    February 13, 2013 05:22 PM

    Phillie697,

    Expectations for Brown are (were) high because RAJ refused to include him in any trades, and Brown played so well in the minors. Maybe we shouldn’t have such high expectations for a 20th round pick.

    If he fails to develop, and we see guys like Domingo Santana, Anthony Gose or Michael Taylor develop as above-average OF’s, then RAJ should be rightly blamed for keeping Brown through all the trades.

  26. Phan analysis

    February 14, 2013 11:35 AM

    The simple fact that Delmon Young will, in all likelihood, start the season on the DL. In that instance, if Cholly isn’t a total shlub he will let Brown start the year playing RF playing every day. Which is one reason why Bill says if Brown stays healthy throughout spring training, he will be starting in RF on April 1st.

    I just really hope he shows signs of significant progression this spring and hits the ball hard. If he does that, and doesn’t totally disappoint defensively, Charlie should continue the chance after Young is off the DL.

  27. Phillie697

    February 14, 2013 11:36 AM

    @Pencilfish,

    However management values a player and his potential when it comes to trades should not change how they groom him or their expectations of his performance. A prospect is a prospect, and when you start letting your emotions cloud your judgment about his development (see Amaro, Ruben & Brown, Domonic), that’s when something goes horribly wrong (again, see Brown, Domonic). So I’m sorry, NONE of this was Dom’s fault; he didn’t fail to perform as a baseball prospect; he just failed to perform as the baseball demi-god we all for some reason expected him to be.

  28. Phan analysis

    February 14, 2013 11:39 AM

    Health and consistent playing time in RF is what Brown needs in order to succeed this year, both offensively and defensively.

    If he gets the time he needs to adjust, I truly believe he will do just that. Although it might not be as fast as some would like.

  29. hk

    February 14, 2013 11:48 AM

    …not to mention, one of the reasons we all expected him to be a baseball demi-god is that the front office felt he was such a hot prospect that they would not include him in the Halladay deal. It is unconscionable that they treated (and continue to treat) a prospect who they once deemed untouchable, even in a trade for one of the greatest pitchers of this generation, in the way that they’ve treated Dom.

  30. Jonny5

    February 18, 2013 09:48 AM

    I’m just shocked that anyone in Philly is pining for Brown to have that OF job. He isn’t a + defensive player even with his cannon of an arm. He’s a bad fielder to be more blunt. He’s also shown nobody in this town that he can hit major league pitching at a rate to make up for his lack of defense. I’d rather put Mayberry out there honestly. His ML OPS is better and He’s wayyyy better of a fielder. Brown is a bust.

  31. hk

    February 18, 2013 11:19 AM

    Jonny5,

    Prior to Chase Utley’s age 26 season, he produced an OPS that was 90% of the league average over 439 plate appearances.

    Prior to Brown’s age 25 season, he produced an OPS that was 90% of the league average over 492 plate appearances, which were accumulated over three seasons while he was either recovering from injury and/or being jerked around by the FO.

    Now, I get that Utley played a premium position and did so better than Brown has played in the corner OF, but I just don’t understand why anyone would label a 25 year old a bust without at least giving him one full season to prove himself.

  32. Phillie697

    February 19, 2013 02:02 PM

    @hk,

    See above for your answer.

    “We Phillies fans are insane, there is no other word to describe us.”

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