It’s not just training time for the players; writers, bloggers, and baseball fans everywhere are preparing for the highly anticipated months of spring, summer, and early fall. While the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues provide an outlet of information, you shouldn’t always read into the February/March statistics of players.
Before we begin, it should be noted that success/failure in spring is definitely used to assess the Opening Day roster; we aren’t advocating that you should ignore player stats all together. Our goal is to simply warn you not to get too high or low on particular players. We’ll use the Pirates’ 2012 spring training stats, and divide player performance into four categories. Here’s a look…
The Spring Underachievers
There’s always a group of players that disappoint in spring ball, leading fans to believe that these guys don’t have what it takes to succeed in the regular season.
A prime example from last year is Pedro Alvarez. El Toro was coming off a terrible 2011 in which he hit just .191 in 74 games, so his weak performance in Grapefruit League play had Bucco fans labeling him as a bust. He hit .170 with two home runs and a .465 OPS in 19 spring games, but bounced back with a solid regular season, hitting .244 and crushing 30 bombs.
Another Pirates regular that you could classify as a 2012 spring underachiever was second baseman Neil Walker. Walker’s 20 Grapefruit League games resulted in a .262/.262/.311 line with zero long balls. He struck out 13 times and didn’t draw a single walk. However, The Pittsburgh Kid produced a .280 batting average, .768 OPS, and a career-high 14 HR during the year.
Simply because a player fails to succeed in spring training does not mean he can’t put up solid numbers when it counts.
The Spring Overachievers
Another classic group consists of those that rip the cover off the ball in March, but can’t find their form when April rolls around.
Nate McLouth certainly falls into this category from 2012. Both Nate and Bucco fans were pumped that he was coming back to the ‘Burgh after an abrupt trade in June of 2009. He impressed in spring training, hitting .362/.464/.574 over 23 games. He struggled when the team came north, however, as he went just 8 for 57 (.140); the Pirates let him go at the end of May. Nate went on to lead the Baltimore Orioles into the postseason, and he re-signed with them in December.
Another former Pirate and current Oriole, Yamaico Navarro, followed a similar trend. He posted a .310 average and drove in nine runs during Grapefruit League play, earning himself a spot on the Opening Day roster. However, he went 8 for 45 (.178) through May, and was demoted to Triple-A Indianapolis.
A third Bucco to perform in the spring was Matt Hague. “The Hit Collector” collected 22 hits in March, posting a .400/.400/.800 line. Hague broke camp with the club, but never excelled in 30 MLB games.
A recurring theme you may notice with these players, and a large number of other spring overachievers, is that they don’t receive much playing time once the season starts. It may be easy for them to get in a groove while playing nearly every day in spring training, but it’s just as easy to get cold when they ride the bench in April. A strong spring doesn’t always guarantee a great regular season, especially for bench players who see a big change in playing time.
The Consistent Performers
There are, of course, a few players that can keep pace through spring and into the summer.
Andrew McCutchen was definitely a consistent performer, hitting .310 with 4 HR, 12 RBI, and a .988 OPS in 21 March games. Cutch carried his strong play into the season, when he was an MVP candidate.
Garrett Jones could be classified as consistent as well. He didn’t hit for much average at .230, but he foreshadowed his power potential. Three doubles, four homers, and 17 RBI in spring led to 28 two-baggers, 27 bombs, and 86 runs batted in during the season.
While not many can replicate their numbers between exhibition play and the regular season, there are still some players that can continue their success.
The Hyped Minor Leaguer
There could potentially be a couple of minor leaguers that tear up the Grapefruit League, leaving fans saying “Put them on the team!”
Last season, Starling Marte fit that description. He played in 12 spring games, hitting .520 (13 for 25) with 3 HR, 4 RBI, and a 1.440 OPS. Coming off a great 2011 in which he won the Eastern League batting title with the Altoona Curve, fans were ready for the club to pull the trigger on Marte. However, he wasn’t quite ready to make the jump and played in Class AAA until late July.
Therefore, if Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon get a few appearances and dominate, don’t expect them to stay in big league camp. Watch for Cole especially, as he is closer to making his MLB debut than Taillon. As of now, the only way Cole makes the club is if something goes wrong and they absolutely need him in the rotation.
The bottom line: you can’t always use spring training games as a baseline for regular season performance. Some players will start hot, some players will be cold, some players could even stay consistent; however, there’s no reason to make assumptions based on meaningless exhibition games. It’s called spring “training” for a reason, and these guys are getting back in game shape for the six-month grind. We’ll worry about performance once April rolls around.