March 21, 2013 at 10:30 am by Franklin Rabon under Atlanta Braves
This is a notoriously difficult time of the year for bloggers of our sort of slant to write. While most articles at this time of year focus around things like who the opening day starter is and spring stats and performances, we’re actively opposed to furthering those sorts of stories. So, I thought today we would briefly talk about the myriad reasons why we don’t value spring stats.
1) Sample size – The most obvious reason is simply the small number of plate appearances and innings pitched. In the course of just a few days we can see Evan Gattis’ batting average drop by nearly 150 points, Mike Minor’s ERA double and Uggla bring his batting average up by 50 points with one single. Often it takes more than a full season’s worth of plate appearances to really have a reliable indicator of a player’s quality, yet sometimes we try to do this with something like 30-50 PAs?
2) Players really are ‘working on things’ – A lot of fans groan at this explanation as some sort of excuse for poor spring training performance. But it really has a lot of merit and manifests itself in several different ways. First, is the obvious angle that players may be working on a certain pitch, thereby showing hitters a subpar pitch and showing it repeatedly; hitters may be working on an adjustment to their swing; fielders may be getting used to new positions. Secondly, pitchers don’t pitch to a scouting report in spring. During a regular season game, if a player was known to have a certain hole in his swing, you can bet that a pitcher would be targeting that. During spring games though, most pitchers concentrate more on executing their pitches than worrying about what the hitter at the plate is doing, ie the Chuck James approach. And we see how well that approach worked for Chuck James over the long haul. Further, hitters with certain holes in their swing are less likely to have those holes exploited, and they’re likely to see more pitches in their ‘happy zone’ than they may in the regular season.
3) Pitchers aren’t seeing the lineup as many times as they do in the regular season – A big key to being a successful starting pitcher is how well you fare the third time through the lineup. As pitchers tire and hitters see the arsenal throughout multiple at bats, the advantage shifts from the pitcher to the hitter. How much the pitcher mitigates this shifting is a major key towards how good of a pitcher they can be. Often times the difference between a #3 starter and a #4 starter is that the #3 can successfully navigate through the lineup the third time with minimal damage, and perhaps even face some hitters a fourth time, where your typical #4 starter is going to begin being hit harder the 3rd time through and really hard if he faces hitters a fourth time. In spring most hitters won’t face a single starter 3 times in one game all spring, let alone 4 times. A large percentage of runs scored on starting pitchers in the regular season come from those third and fourth times through the lineup. Removing them highly alters how the game works.
4) Quality of opponents can vary so wildly – Some players will be hitting or pitching against mostly MLB talent, while some face the equivalent of AA opponents. This non-uniformity of opposition essentially makes stats that were already pretty meaningless for the reasons outlined above even more meaningless. Yesterday Mark talked a bit about non-uniformity of schedules this season, and how it could impact the Braves. But consider that the difference between MLB teams and what players face in spring are different by orders of magnitude.
Ultimately it’s very important that we keep the ‘training’ aspect of spring training in mind when we look at these stats from spring. While it’s important that we don’t worry too much about a struggling player whose swing or pitching motion otherwise looks sound, it’s perhaps equally important that we temper our expectations on players who are having incredible springs. Mike Minor from last year is perhaps a pertinent cautionary tale that ended up turning out alright. He was near flawless all spring, but as soon as the games started to count, he struggled for the entire first half of the season. Instead of ascribing this to some sort of ‘learning to deal with the pressure’ or whatever imaginary ex post facto explanation we might apply, we should probably just understand that Spring stats are meaningless and have very little bearing on what we will see come April 1.