When it comes to spring training statistics, there are so many problems with the data – small samples, inferior competition, hilariously small ballparks – that the numbers generally are just not worth even looking at. In most cases, March numbers can simply be thrown away without a second thought.
However, there are a few instances where spring training performances might actually tell us something. Most famously, Jose Bautista finished the 2009 season with a surprising burst of power, and he carried over that surge into spring training in 2010. The continuation of his revamped approach and swing in spring training could have helped clue us in to the fact that Bautista had undergone a dramatic transformation.
That doesn’t mean you should start reading too much into every player’s results over the next few weeks, but there are a few players worth keeping an eye on as the exhibition games get underway.
Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Tampa Bay
It’s a little weird to say that the 2011 Rookie of the Year had a performance that raised a lot of red flags, but after carving up minor league hitters left and right on his way to the big leagues, Hellickson’s strikeout rate took a nosedive in the Majors. It wasn’t even just a struggle adjusting to MLB hitters – his strikeout rate actually got worse as the season went along, ending the year with just a 2.94 K/9 in September.
However, Hellickson’s swinging strike rate of 9.7% – a measure that has shown to have some predictive power when it comes to forecasting future strikeout rate – was actually quite good, placing him among the likes of Max Scherzer, Ricky Romero, and Gio Gonzalez. Given that his minor league strikeout rates and his swinging strike rate both suggest that he should get more whiffs than he did in 2011, be on the lookout for an uptick in strikeout rate by Hellickson in spring training. As David Appelman showed back in 2008, there is some correlation between a spring training change in a pitcher’s K/9 and his regular season strikeout rate.
Matt Wieters, C, Baltimore
The prospect who inspired a list of Chuck Norris-style facts hasn’t exactly lived up to the billing to date, and the most disappointing part of his Major League performance so far has been his overall lack of power – a career .415 slugging percentage is not what the Orioles envisioned. However, there’s still reason to believe that Wieters has more thump than he’s shown, and he may have begun to tap into some of the natural loft in his swing as the 2011 season came to a close. After hitting just seven home runs in the first three months of the season, Wieters launched seven in September alone, and 24 of his 47 hits in the final two months of the season went for extra bases.
The fact that he was able to sustain a well above average contact rate while also driving the ball more frequently suggests that Wieters still has the skills to be a dominant offensive force, and the final two months of 2011 could be a harbinger of good things to come in 2012.
Brian Matusz, SP, Baltimore
While Wieters ended the year on a high note, his battery mate did the exact opposite, giving up 17 runs in just eight innings in September, closing a miserable season in the worst way possible. Matusz’z problems have been tied to a loss of velocity – his fastball averaged 91.5 MPH during his rookie season of 2009, but was just 88.5 MPH last year – but he was getting pounded even as he got his fastball back over 90 at the end of the year.
Keeping an eye on his velocity in spring training will be important, but Matusz will also need to show that he can command the ball in the strike zone with regularity. He doesn’t have the power repertoire that will allow him to get away with poor location, so if he’s going to work his way back into Baltimore’s rotation, he’ll have to show he can hit his spots and throw strikes consistently. Keep an eye not only on the radar gun when Matusz takes the mound, but the percentage of pitches he throws for strikes – if he’s going to get back to what he was a few years ago, it’s going to come because he remembers how to get ahead of hitters once again.
Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City
When the Royals promoted Moustakas in June of last year, they did it to help show Royals fans that they had a bright offensive future, with Moustakas and fellow rookie Eric Hosmer forming a corner infield duo of impact power bats. However, Moustakas had just one extra base hit in his first month in the Major Leagues, and then didn’t hit a home run in either July or August. His isolated slugging marks during his first three months in the Majors were .053, .064, and .061 – marks that only look normal if you’re Juan Pierre or Luis Castillo.
However, Moustakas was a different beast in September, collecting a total of 11 extra base hits that included four home runs. His first three months in the Majors suggested he might need more time in Triple-A before being handed a full time big league job, but with the way he closed the season, Moustakas showed that the Royals hope wasn’t all misplaced. The Royals will likely want to see Moustakas driving the ball in March like he did to finish 2011, but more than just raw home run totals (which can be easily inflated in the Arizona air), keep an eye on the percentage of his March hits that go for extra bases. If he’s consistently getting the ball into the gaps, then there’s a decent chance that his late season power surge could carry over into 2012.
Brent Morel, 3B, Chicago
Morel’s story is a bit like Moustakas’, only far more extreme. His quality glovework has always been ahead of his offensive game, and he’s never profiled as much of a power threat in the minors, but his total lack of punch – he entered September with just two home runs on the season – was a real problem for the White Sox last year. Morel spent the first five months of the year just repeatedly beating the ball into the ground, but during the last month of the season, his results took a complete turn – he launched eight home runs in 103 plate appearances and posted a .329 ISO, the eighth best mark in baseball during September. For comparison, that put him right between Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Pena.
That wasn’t the only drastic change for Morel in the season’s final month – he also drew 15 walks after taking just seven free passes in April through August. One of the league’s least patient and least powerful hitters ended the season by performing like a middle-of-the-order slugger, taking pitches with regularity and driving the ball over the wall when he got ahead in the count. It was the most dramatic change of the season, and was completely out of character with what Morel had done previously in his career. Keep an eye not just on Morel’s spring training power, but also his willingness to take the free pass – the rise of both were connected in September, and if he’s still willing to let pitches go, he has a much better chance of sustaining his late season power boost.