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Friday, March 29, 2013

Springs Stats Mean Nuthin'

The conventional wisdom of the experts is to ignore statistics of Spring Training.  There is a kernel of truth to it, which I will explain, but I believe there are a few compelling reasons why you should pay attention to ST stats.

There are, in my view, three reasons why people oppose any reliance on ST stats: (1) Small number of at bats and innings pitched; (2) Varying levels of competition; and, (3) Different stages of preparedness.  These are all absolutely valid.

The number of at bats and the number of innings pitched in the Spring are just too small to go crazy over.  Matt Wieters is hitting over .400 this Spring with nice power.  He didn't turn into Ted Williams over the winter, folks.

It's also true that you don't know what level of competition these stats are coming against.  Jason Castro has six Spring Training home runs, which is great.  But, did he hit them off of Justin Verlander or did they come off of the "organizational depth" type of guys brought over from the rookie camp to throw an inning or two?  The fact that
Castro had the same number of home runs in 87 big league games in 2012 would lead me to believe that he ran into a few fat pitches in the spring.  Don't go crazy people.

The other thing is that you have to remember that it is called Spring "Training" for a reason.  These dudes are getting themselves ready for the season.  The tried and true major leaguers know what they need to do to get themselves ready for April, and they are going through the progression.  You may also see wacky things like Chris Davis bunting and things like that.  I recall that Roger Clemens used to take one spring start each year and just work on one specific pitch in one specific zone the whole time.  Sometimes he'd get hammered, but the point wasn't to have a good outing statistically, the point was to master that pitch in that zone against live hitters.  I can imagine a Jason Castro type sitting on the pitch and jacking it out.  These players are just at different levels of preparedness.  Some are getting over injuries, some are working off a few extra pounds.  Some guys are hungry to make a roster, some are desperate.  You just can't trust the statistics.

Okay, that is all true and all good... but there are a few reasons why you're going to want to pay attention:
  • Position Battles
  • Final Roster Spots
  • Health Concerns
  • Continuation
Usually in fantasy we aren't concerned with players in position battles or final roster spots. but there are certain places where it comes into play.  One example is with young players who are likely to start for the big club but the team doesn't want to start their free agency clock.  If the fill-in has a solid track record or recent success they may be worth a flier.  If you add in a solid park factor you may have a great late-round gamble.  A perfect example of this is Chris Nelson.  He was pretty great late last year and he plays in the best hitters park in baseball.  He's the starting third baseman for the Rockies at least until Nolan Arenado is called up, so he's probably a nice guy to take late.

Another example of where position battles can come into play is when you have a specialist who is trying to get enough at bats to matter for fantasy.  Emilio Bonifacio will steal a lot of bases if he plays and he has great positional flexibility, we just all wondered if he would be able to crack the starting lineup.  It remains to be seen how many AB's he'll get this year, but he will start the season as the regular second baseman for the Blue Jays over Maicer Izturis.  That really cranks up his fantasy value.  It basically takes him from borderline draftable in most leagues to a solid late round get.

The more interesting aspects of Spring Training are monitoring health issues and something that I'm calling "continuation."  For health concerns, you can see if guys are getting unfairly knocked down in the rankings for health concerns.  Nick Markakis is a good example.  He suffered through a number of problems last year and had a herniated disc in his neck this spring.  He's a solid but unspectacular outfielder when he's healthy, a good addition to your lineup.  But, if he's banged up like last year (and with a herniated disc!!) then people are just going to stay away.  The fact is that his injury was the mildest version that you can have and he's already back playing the field (not just DH-ing) for the Orioles.  He'll probably plummet in your draft, giving you a 13th-ish round guy in round 17 or so.

The last thing to mention is "continuation."  Really all I'm talking about there is comparing spring stats to how a guy finished last year.  Did Jason Kipnis hit a rookie wall last year or did the pitchers start to figure him out?  (He's OPS-ing only .532 in 53 ST AB's.)  Was Ike Davis' recovery from Yellow Valley Fever and his 2nd half turnaround legit?  (An .895 ST OPS is nice continuation.)

Who knows if Kipnis will fail this year or if Davis will be an MVP candidate?  You can't tell based on about 50 AB's in the spring.  But, it will give you an idea  if they are continuing what they did late last year.  Both of these guys are doing just that, which is a warning sign for Kipnis and reason enough to bump up Davis on your draft board.  Listen, you're still drafting those guys around where they would normally go but if you find yourself looking at 2B's in the 6th round and you can choose between Kipnis, Zobrist, Phillips, and Altuve... well, maybe that .532 ST OPS is what splits those hairs for you.

Similarly, Ike Davis is going in drafts around Paul Konerko and David Ortiz...  I can't tell you how quickly I would pick Davis over those other two.  He's dropped down draft rankings based on his terrible first half last year, and we know that performance was due to the Yellow Valley Fever.  He was great in the second half and he's continued that in the spring.  Much reason for hope with Davis.  He's a bargain!