If you’re sitting back home looking at spring training numbers here’s something you need to know: the numbers a player puts up during spring training aren’t quite meaningless, but they’re close.
It’s easy for fans to overreact to spring training numbers because everyone is jacked up about the baseball season starting and there’s not a lot else to talk about. Just remember, it’s a small sample size produced under unusual conditions — and that’s a good starting point.
Conditions: Dry air, rock-hard infields. I once saw Jeff Francoeur hit a home run over the batter’s eye in Tempe Diablo Stadium. After the game he greeted the media by saying: “I didn’t get all of it.”
And anyone who spends any amount of time watching spring-training games has seen a batter hit the ball straight down in front of home plate and watched the ball take its second bounce in the outfield.
The numbers at the beginning of a game mean more than the numbers at the end of a game: In the later innings of spring-training games the big leaguers have started to depart and the minor leaguers are taking over. If a big leaguer decides he wants to get some extra work in he might stick around and face a minor-league pitcher or hitter.
The numbers at the end of spring training mean more than the numbers at the beginning of spring training: Early in the spring players are just trying to get their work in, but as they get closer to opening day they’d like to see some results.
One spring pitcher Bruce Chen was getting lit up like a Christmas tree, but he was only throwing fastballs; if you’ve already made the team why throw more hard-on-the-elbow breaking pitches than you have to? In his last couple starts, Bruce began mixing in his off-speed stuff and he started getting better results. And that brings us to another important point.
All players are not equal: If a player knows he’s made the team, he’ll approach spring training differently than a player who is fighting for a roster spot. Eric Hosmer will be the opening-day first baseman unless he gets hit by a bus. Christian Colon might need to show some results.
Opponents matter: If a pitcher is throwing against a divisional opponent — a team he’ll face repeatedly — he might not want to give them a preview of what they’ll see during the regular season. If that’s the case he might just pick a pitch and work on it or throw all fastballs; he’s not worried about the results.
If the opponent is a team that the Royals won’t see after opening day, the pitcher might decide to throw all his stuff and see where he stands, but once again that’s more likely to happen toward the end of spring training against a nondivisional opponent.
The numbers all go back to zero on opening day: I’ve seen Mike Moustakas have a great spring and then scuffle during the regular season. I’ve also seen the same thing happened to Eric Hosmer. You can also see the opposite: a guy might have a bad spring then turn it on once the numbers matter.
But whatever a guy does during the spring, remember what I said at the beginning: It’s a small sample size produced under unusual conditions. Keep that in mind and you won’t overreact to whatever happens in Surprise, Arizona. Like I said: The numbers aren’t quite meaningless, but they’re close.