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Spring Training Statistics Should Not Make Decisions

So it’s that time of year. The first workout of spring is today, and while it only involves the pitchers and catchers, apparently everybody is already in camp. Well, everybody but Jason Kendall who is in Los Angeles getting his shoulder checked out. Let’s hope he’s a few months away from returning. I expect to see a good deal of stories talking about how this Royals team is different because everybody is already in camp and ready to go. As much as I would love to believe that would make the difference between a 70 or so win season and a 95 win season, I just can’t. Being to camp on time is great and extremely important. Being to camp early is also fantastic, but it doesn’t mean anything in the long run.

Super awesome segue time!

You know what else doesn’t typically mean a whole lot in the long run? That’s right, kids; spring training statistics. I say typically because there are indicators in spring training stats that can help us determine if a player has turned a corner in a given area. The first thing to think about is something that is often said early in spring training that I’m just not sure is true anymore. Announcers always talk about the pitchers being ahead of the hitters in the early part of the spring. I think that was probably true a few years back, but without having anything to back this up, I feel like that axiom comes from the days when players had to hold winter jobs and weren’t necessarily ready to go at the drop of a hat. Today’s players train year round, and, barring injury recovery, are probably in baseball shape or at least 90% of baseball shape the whole time. I just don’t think that anybody is ahead of anybody at any point during the spring.

The difference between Florida and Arizona is also something that is important to focus on. Statistics simply cannot be prepared between the Cactus League and the Grapefruit League. Arizona is a much better hitter’s environment in the thin air than Florida is, and the statistics bear that out. While Major League teams are playing at these facilities and they’re nicer than many minor league parks, it is still ultimately a minor league park. The infield in Arizona is harder because it’s so dry while the infields in Florida are softer because of all the moisture in the air. Pretty much everything in Arizona favors the hitters while everything in Florida favors the pitchers.

Let’s talk about some of the exceptions that we can look for in the spring training statistics that can help us determine how good of a season someone is going to have. Here’s a hint – the statistics to look at here are almost perfectly aligned with those to look at when determining if a season was a fluke. For pitchers, strikeouts and walks are the things to look at. The strike zone does not change from spring to the regular season. A typical indicator that we look at in the regular season has to do with home runs and fly ball percentage. You can’t look at those things in Arizona because the air is just too thin. More home runs are hit, and it’s not a fair comparison to look at for pitchers from spring training.

For hitters, it’s pretty much the same story. Strikeouts and walks are a huge indicator of things to look at, but the big thing to remember is that the sample size is just so small that every statistic has to be taken with a grain of salt. Think about a starter who plays in maybe 25 games. The odds are that they’re going to get just two to three at bats per game which adds up to about 60 for the entire spring. To try to determine anything from 60 at bats is a fool’s game. From the casual fan perspective who can’t be there with the team, the best you can do is read reports from people not associated with the team talking about how the player looks. And now we’re in a slippery slope of scouting versus statistics that we’ve discussed over and over and over again. Are you seeing now how bad it is to look at spring training statistics as a harbinger of success?

From a Royals perspective, two specific examples come to mind of them basing a roster spot on spring training success, actually in the same spring. The first was at second base with Ruben Gotay. I don’t have the statistics handy, and they’re truthfully not all that important in this space, but he had just a fantastic spring in 2005. Now, to be completely fair, this was coming on the heels of an okay late season audition (.270/.315/.375). Anyway, Gotay absolutely tore up the Cactus League and won himself the second base job on the strength of that fantastic spring. He opened 2005 as the Royals starting second baseman and was most certainly part of the reason the Royals won only 56 games that year, hitting .227/.288/.344 in 317 at bats. Add to that the fact that he was well below average defensively, and that’s the makings of a train wreck season. I think Gotay could have been a really nice player in the league for a few years, but that 2005 just wrecked his career.

On the other end of the spectrum, though, was Emil Brown. Allard Baird was coming off the high of resurrecting Raul Ibanez’s career, and thought he could do it again with another corner outfielder. Brown was brought into spring training and was thought to be a strong candidate to break with the team, but definitely had to earn his spot, and earn it he did. He hadn’t played in the Major Leagues since 2001 and was a career .200/.289/.302 hitter to that point. In the minors, though, he got steadily better, and the Royals were a terrible team who needed bodies, so they gave him a chance. It looked like all he needed was that chance as he had two straight almost identical seasons where he was one of the best offensive players on the Royals (talk about damning with faint praise).

The point is that sometimes looking at spring training stats to make a decision works, but the fact is that it’s not something to make a habit of. This is important because I get the feeling that the Royals are going to use the spring to determine if Melky Cabrera or Lorenzo Cain should break camp with the Royals or if Mike Moustakas is ready to start at third base on Opening Day (highly, highly, highly unlikely). The Royals should look no farther than their current left fielder who was brought to the majors on Opening Day in 2007 on the strength of a strong spring. I don’t think Alex Gordon’s career would have been any different, but he certainly was not ready when he was brought up. It seems like Dayton Moore is learning from his mistakes. I just hope he’s learned that a spring performance, no matter how amazing, is not an indicator of future success.

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