A Quick Note on Spring Stats re: Ryan Howard
Recently, I wrote about why spring training stats can be misleading. There aren’t many reasons why one should ever need to take a player’s spring training stats with anything less than a gigantic grain of salt, even just to look at strikeout and walk rates, which stabilize faster than most other stats and the only ones to stabilize in fewer than 240 trips to the plate.
I bring this up because there has been some very early optimism regarding Ryan Howard and his performance against left-handed pitching. In an intra-squad game on Tuesday, Howard singled off of Jesse Biddle and homered off of Cesar Jimenez. Clayton Kershaw they are not, but it was encouraging nonetheless. Howard also singled off of J.A. Happ in yesterday’s Grapefruit League opener.
Quickly, the optimism was squashed when fans cited Howard’s spring performance last year. Not to pick on Matt Gelb, who is 100 flavors of awesome, but he tweeted this yesterday:
— Matt Gelb (@magelb) February 26, 2014
There’s also a thread on /r/Phillies putting the kibosh on any hope after five trips to the plate.
I’m not any more optimistic than the next guy that Howard will suddenly turn his performance around against southpaws at the age of 34, but my pessimism isn’t justified with the small sample size that was Howard’s spring last year. Just because Howard had success last spring, then struggled in the regular season, doesn’t mean that the same pattern is any more likely to hold true this year.
To identify that trend, one would have to also identify specific traits the two time periods share. For instance, was Howard’s performance against lefties during spring last year due to an excessive amount of batted ball luck? Was he facing mostly sub-par left-handers? Were those left-handers challenging him, rather than throwing breaking stuff low and away? Has any of that been the case thus far? Is there any reason to believe that any mechanical adjustments Howard has made in the early going aren’t likely to pay off in the long run?
Without answering those questions, and many more, the only thing being practiced here is bad analysis. More specifically, it’s cherry-picking data and ignoring statistical concepts we would otherwise acknowledge in order to support a predetermined position (that Howard cannot succeed against left-handed pitching).
The most likely explanation for the disparity between Howard’s spring and regular season stats against lefties last year is random variation due to the small sample sizes. But we have almost no 2014 data with which to work at the moment, so it is very unfair to Howard to write him off before the calendar has even flipped to March.