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.