Misguided Early Spring Training Analysis: 5th Outfielder Battle

Spring Training statistics are just short of utter meaninglessness. This likely isn’t news to you as a reader of Crashburn Alley. Bill Baer made it a point to provide an annual reminder of this fact on these very pages. That first link offers a particularly comprehensive reason for unreliability of Spring Training statistics. To start, the length of Spring Training is such that all sample sizes are small. Added to that are considerations such as players working on weaknesses rather than playing and competing as they would in regular season play and quality of competition.

In the first five games of 2017 Spring Training, we have seen all of that. Obviously, five games is a minuscule sample. We had reports yesterday of Clay Buchholz only working at 80 percent effort, which, presumably, would inflate the stats of hitters facing him. Phillies hitters have likely faced similar non-100 percent efforts from opposing pitchers. Early in the spring, especially, low-level minor leaguers see time in Grapefruit and Cactus League games, diluting the quality of competition even further than the spring on the whole. All that is to say that none of what follows matters much at all.

Even so, as a Phillies-centric site, it behooves us to focus on what is perhaps the only truly interesting roster battle in camp for the glorious role of fifth outfielder.

Early in February, I declared Chris Coghlan the favorite for the fifth outfield spot. The Phillies brought Coghlan–fresh off a World Series run with the Chicago Cubs–on a minor league deal, presumably to add some left-handed depth on the bench to compliment a righty-heavy lineup. Just two days later, I looked at Cameron Perkins and Brock Stassi, among others, as contenders for the final roster spot. Less than a week into the spring, it might be time to take the latter two outfielders more seriously.

Changing the assumption to putting all three in the running for the same roster spot, none of the three enters with  prohibitive advantage. All three are non-roster invites to major league camp, meaning that their addition to the Opening Day roster would require some maneuvering with the 40-man roster. None would have a starting spot at any other level in the Phillies’ system, so the idea of Perkins or Stassi getting more work in the minors is folly. The only potential non-performance-based factor is handedness. If the Phillies are desperate for a lefty, the race is between Coghlan and Stassi. Let’s set that aside for the time being.

I’ll start by throwing two tables of stats at you. The first is 2016 performance. In here, we have to consider that Coghlan’s performance took place at the MLB level while Stassi and Perkins were at AAA. The second table contains 50th percentile PECOTA projections for all three.

2016 Statistics

PA AVG OBP SLG K% BB%
Chris Coghlan”}”>Chris Coghlan (MLB) 300 0.188 0.29 0.318 24.3 11.7
Brock Stassi (AAA) 422 0.267 0.369 0.437 17.2 13.6
Cam Perkins (AAA) 433 0.292 0.329 0.419 13.6 4.8

2017 50th Percentile PECOTA

PA AVG OBP SLG K% BB%
Chris Coghlan 328 0.238 0.322 0.388 19.5 10.7
Brock Stassi 250 0.239 0.322 0.397 19.6 10.8
Cam Perkins 250 0.246 0.289 0.397 20.4 5.2

PECOTA, as any projection likely would, sees Coghlan’s 2016 struggles as a one-year blip. In fact, that’s entirely reasonable. Much of Coghlan’s statistical troubles came from his terrible performance with the Oakland Athletics in the early months of the season. After returning to Chicago in a June trade, he hit .252/.391/.388 in 128 plate appearances.

You’ll also notice that Stassi’s PECOTA projections peg him as essentially the same player as Coghlan in 2017. That’s notable because, at just over four years younger than Coghlan, Stassi potentially has future value to the Phillies that Coghlan doesn’t.

Defensively, Stassi is a bit of an unknown. Throughout his minor league career, he’s been used as a first baseman, and it’ll be a tough sell for him to make the team exclusively in that capacity. He’s only travelled to the outfield for 39 games in his entire professional career. The Phillies are working on his outfield defense in camp, and a lot will hinge on his ability to be passable there.

At the same time–and a seeming contradiction (more on that in a bit)–Cam Perkins’ well-regarded outfield defense shouldn’t give him much of an advantage over Coghlan and Stassi. With Aaron Altherr locked in as a fourth outfielder, the Phillies already have a defensive replacement-type player. They don’t specifically need another strong outfield defender. As long as Stassi (or Perkins, or Coghlan) meets a minimum standard of playability, ny additional defensive value will probably only be a minor consideration for the job. Though nominally a battle for fifth outfielder, this is, in practice, a spot as a bench bat. If that’s the case, it’s hard to sell Perkins as a definitively better bat than the other two.

The early returns on the Stassi v. Coghlan battle are obviously in favor of Stassi. In seven plate appearances this spring, he has four hits (including a double and two home runs) and a walk. Meanwhile, Coghlan has no hits, a walk, and two strikeouts in the same number of appearances. Quality of competition is obviously an issue here with Coghlan mostly facing major leaguers as a Spring Training starter and Stassi facing minor leaguers coming off the bench in later innings.

It’s certainly too early to say that Stassi has taken the lead in the race for fifth outfielder/bench bat–we’re only five games into this thing–but it isn’t too early to say that he has put himself solidly in the race. Given Coghlan’s age (32) and struggles in 2016 along with the near-identical projections between Stassi and Coghlan, it’s likely that Spring Training performance–included in that is Stassi’s acclimation to the outfield–will ultimately decide who gets that roster spot. In a spring unusually light on roster battles and storylines, Stassi versus Coghlan, and, maybe, versus Perkins, is worth following if only because the criteria they’ll be judged on figures to be transparent.

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