An Annual Reminder about Spring Training Stats
Pitchers and catchers are set to report to Clearwater tomorrow, officially kicking off spring training for the Phillies. Soon thereafter, exhibition games will start and players will fight tooth and nail for a limited amount of roster spots. Players’ success or failure in February and March will be decided, in no small part, by their spring training stats.
While there are few more reliable methods to decide spring training winners and losers than by their stats, it is important to keep in mind their flaws and limitations.
- Many players work on specific areas of their game. This can encompass new mechanical adjustments or a goal, like hitting the ball to the opposite field. In this respect, spring training is glorified batting practice. Keep this in mind when, for example, Ryan Howard faces a left-handed pitcher. Lefties will be more concerned with consistently hitting the strike zone than following the preordained strategy of throwing nothing but low-and-away slop to Howard.
- Some players are learning new positions. This was the case with Darin Ruf last spring, as he took his first trip into the outfield. As expected, he misplayed quite a few balls, some of which were scored errors while others were scored hits. If you give a hitter a few extra hits because fielders misplayed balls at positions at which they’re inexperienced, teams might wrongfully be impressed.
- Many spring training at-bats taken by hitters will be taken against pitchers who won’t pitch in the Majors at all, will contribute in the Majors only briefly, or are just plain bad. Aaron Cook, for example, tossed the fourth-most innings among Phillies pitchers last spring with 18 and two-thirds. Jeff Francis, who compiled 70 and one-third innings in the Majors for the Rockies, logged the third-most innings among all starters during spring last year.
- Park and weather effects have a non-zero effect on stats as well. In Clearwater, it tends to get windy. Depending on the direction, this can massively help the batter or it can massively help the pitcher. When the leaders in innings pitched just barely cross the 20-inning threshold and leaders in at-bats don’t even get to triple digits, one good or bad inning or at-bat can have an outstanding impact on a player’s spring stats.
- It’s a small sample. Obviously. 20 innings for a starter is roughly four starts. A reliever might make 10 appearances, which is one-fifth to one-seventh of a full season. 50 to 100 at-bats is at most one-tenth of a season. You don’t make conclusions about a player after he completes April, and that’s all spring training is: one month. Very few stats stabilize after one month’s worth of playing time.
The Phillies were smart enough to see through Yuniesky Betancourt‘s .447 spring average in 47 at-bats last year. He went on to post a .595 OPS in 409 plate appearances for the Brewers, as expected. On the other side, Ruf didn’t exactly have a great spring but he ended up being a valuable part-timer to the Phillies during the regular season.
Enjoy spring training, but don’t give the stats too much credence.