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:

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.

Leave a Reply



  1. Ryan

    February 27, 2014 09:07 AM

    From what I understand, Howard’s knee got jacked up near the end of spring training or beginning of the season. That may have played a role in the disparity although, certainly, the level of competition and small sample size had significant impacts. If I recall correctly, Howard was working on his at bats versus lefties before he got hurt in 2011 (remember that he played a good part of 2011 on a bad ankle before he blew out his achilles, so the beginning of 2011 was the last time he was truly healthy. Whether he can ever be truly healthy again is a good question that we won’t know the answer to until May/June.

  2. joecatz

    February 27, 2014 10:25 AM

    good post Bill.

    the real issue here is that there’s no planning in ST. Pitchers arent worried about where to pitch to a batter, they’re worried about locating pitches, etc.. they’re not worried about sequencing as much as they are working on a certain pitch that day.

    And they’re not constantly banging howard down and away because nothing is on the line.

    If you want to know how Howard is doing against LHP this spring you have to watch each pitch, vs LHP, and see how he does down and away if they throw it there.

    • Phillie697

      February 27, 2014 12:35 PM

      This. It’s like playing basketball with Michael Jordan right after he gave up on baseball and came back to the NBA. It’s still Michael, and you’re still fing scared/psyched to play him, but you know and he knows and everyone knows he’s not THE Michael Jordan yet, and he’s probably rusty and not very good by his usual standards. That’s spring training. It’s why we HAVE spring training. It’s for players to get ready and shake off the rust for the upcoming season.

      I’m sorry Bill, I have to disagree with you. Saying anything less than “making ANY judgment or analysis based on 5 ABs is like claiming you know the winning numbers for tomorrow’s lottery” is pretty much irresponsible IMO. It doesn’t prove or disprove the proposition that Howard is bad at LH pitching, but it’s bad for the mere fact that we are even TALKING about whether it can or cannot prove or disprove of anything.

  3. Mike Lacy

    February 27, 2014 10:55 AM

    Howard has traditionally been strong in Spring Training, only to seize up once the regular season gets underway. Many people often blamed this on the cold weather, but it could be due to pitchers all of a sudden taking a different approach to facing him like you mentioned.

    My philosophy: A strong Spring might not necessarily mean he’s due for a good season, but it’s much preferable than him looking lost and out of sync.

  4. Ed

    February 27, 2014 01:02 PM

    “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”

    Not normally one to grammar police, but this sentence makes zero sense.

    • Bill Baer

      February 27, 2014 01:05 PM

      In other words, in an overwhelming majority of cases, you want to apply a high degree of skepticism when looking at spring training stats. There may be some isolated cases where spring stats can have some limited utility. Essentially, it was worded that way so as to not be so absolute about the uselessness of spring stats.

    • Scott G

      February 27, 2014 08:52 PM

      No wonder you’re not normally one to police grammar.

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