Ah, spring training. The time when hope abounds around Major League Baseball, and every team but the Astros and Marlins can claim contender status. The time when fans fall in love with scrappy minor league veterans who bat .400 in the Cactus League.
I’ll admit that I love the first couple of weeks of spring training, but mostly as a reminder that the Cubs are soon returning to the North Side. After that, spring training is much more about apprehension and prayer regarding player health.
I have a one mantra that guides my spring training attention span: I almost entirely ignore statistics. You’re looking at small sample sizes, much of which will be against marginal Major Leaguers competing for the final spots on a roster or prospects a couple of years away from the show. And these small sample sizes either occur in the severe hitters’ environment of the Cactus League or the equally strong pitchers’ environment of the Grapefruit League.
This does not mean that you should ignore what you hear about how players look. The fact that the scouting gurus were coming back from spring training last season saying that Jeff Samardzija looked like an entirely different pitcher, a legitimate high ceiling MLB starter, had meaning. But it means that statistics like batting average, home runs, ERA, etc., are not going to correlate in any meaningful way with regular season performance.
I’m wholly against players winning jobs based upon strong statistical performances in spring training. Letting this happen is how players like Joe Mather get 243 plate appearances to put up a miserable .254 wOBA. With that said, there are things to watch in every spring training. I’m keeping my eye on two things in Mesa:
Brett Jackson’s Strikeout Rate
Ignore Brett Jackson’s batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage through the end of March. The sample sizes will be too small against erratic levels of competition. But his strikeout rate is something different.
It’s no secret that Brett Jackson strikes out too much, and that he has reworked his swing this offseason in an attempt to limit the strike outs. Brett Jackson struck in in 41.5% of his Major League plate appearances in 2012. If he can get the strikeouts down to the 33% range, he can probably be a useful Major League regular, at least as long as he’s inexpensive. If he can get it down around 25%, he should be a very good player.
Conveniently, strikeout and walk rates, which rely less on luck that batted ball outcomes, stabilize much more quickly than other statistics. While 60 or 70 Cactus League plate appearances don’t even approach conclusive, it will at least be the first steps towards seeing if Jackson can come anywhere close to reaching his significant potential, or if the strikeouts will hinder his efforts.
Scouting Reports on Matt Garza and Scott Baker
Garza and Baker are both coming off of injuries, and neither will be on a standard spring training schedule for a starter. Completely ignore their statistics. First, they’ll likely both start throwing only fastballs before slowly adding their off speed and break pitches into their game plan. Second, to hard on it more, spring training statistics are meaningless.
But third party scouting reports could provide much better info. How do their releases and motions look? Is their velocity where you would expect it? How is their control and command? In the context of spring training for Garza and Baker, how they look is far more important than how they do.