Every year, we're told that we're probably better off just ignoring spring-training statistics. Here, we disobey and look for spring-training performances that might be trying to tell us something.
This is folly. I'm going to tell you that right now. This is willful, conscious folly, and if you're smart, you'll get out of here before you fall into the same trap I know full well I'm walking into. See, this is a post about spring-training statistics. This isn't a post about the general meaninglessness of spring-training statistics; that would be a more intelligent post. This is a post that tries to find substance in spring-training statistics, written by someone who knows better. You can come along with me if you like, but understand the risks. All of this is almost certainly going nowhere. I know better than to do this, but I'm doing this, and you can leave here entirely, observe me from afar, or join me in falling off the wagon.
Spring-training statistics. It makes sense why they shouldn't mean very much. The level of competition varies greatly. The ballparks are different, the pitchers are getting stretched out, and everything's all small sample sizes. It also makes sense why they should mean a little, right? Spring-training stats are measures of performance, and performance comes from ability. It stands to reason that, if someone's performance changes from one year to the next, there probably will have been an indication in spring training. Why wouldn't there be? It's all baseball, against increasingly tougher players.
Following, you'll see some players whose current spring-training stat lines stood out to me. These are players who might be in for a different kind of regular season, based on what they've done so far in March. These are not all of the players with interesting stat lines - these are just some of them. And I have to remind you one more time that this is probably all nonsense. I'm making a mistake by reading too deeply. Believe what follows or don't believe what follows, but don't say you weren't warned if this all looks stupid in a month.
Of all the players in baseball who could bounce back in 2012, Dunn might be the strangest. After signing a four-year deal with the White Sox, who play in a very hitter-friendly ballpark, Dunn came completely apart at 31. He lost most of his power and he batted .159. The collapse came out of the blue, and when the offseason began Dunn got to work trying to turn things around.
So far in March, Dunn has batted 26 times. He has two homers, seven walks, and one strikeout. One strikeout, in 26 plate appearances. Given Dunn's regular-season career average, we'd expect seven strikeouts. Given what Dunn's done previously in spring training, we'd expect seven strikeouts. He has one-seventh of that, suggesting an improved ability to make contact. We'll see, because that would be quite the change, but Adam Dunn might have made a real improvement.
Sale, along with Neftali Feliz and Daniel Bard, is a 2011 reliever looking to become a 2012 starter. Sale didn't start in the minors and Sale hasn't started in the majors, and on top of that, Sale didn't start last spring. But this spring, over three starts, Sale has one walk and 12 strikeouts. He's also allowed eight runs for a pretty ugly ERA, but runs can be flukier than walks and whiffs. So there are indications that Sale could make a successful transition.
The Cubs couldn't wait to get rid of Zambrano, and one can hardly blame them given everything he put them through. Yet the Marlins were eager to acquire him, thinking they could offer a fresh start, and in the early going there are reasons for optimism. Zambrano's fastball velocity is reportedly up, and he's generated 16 strikeouts in 9⅓ innings. That's already more strikeouts than he had in spring 2010 or spring 2011. If Zambrano has re-discovered his stuff and his focus ... well, that's always been the issue, hasn't it?
My understanding is that LaHair will be a starter for the Cubs, until or unless Anthony Rizzo forces his way back. As such, the Cubs would probably like to see LaHair draw a walk or two, as he's got zero free passes to go with 11 strikeouts. LaHair has never been known for his discipline - LaHair has never been known for anything - but he has to control the strike zone a little bit if he wants to stick, and he hasn't done that yet.
Quietly a strong candidate for the Oakland rotation, Ross hasn't posted exceptional walk or strikeout numbers. Instead, what he's done is get 18 outs on the ground and two outs in the air. A year ago, his ratio was 19/15. The year before that, it was 11/7. Ross has been a ground-baller in the past, and if he can ramp that up even further, he could solidify himself as a valuable pitcher.
Meanwhile, Jimenez is supposed to be a ground-baller, but his early ratio is 9/14. That, to go with nine walks, a hit batter, and six strikeouts. Jimenez's walks and strikeouts have never been great in the spring so we can at least consider looking past those, but the balls in the air are a concern, and the Indians still haven't seen much of the guy for whom they thought they were trading. Ubaldo is something of a mystery.
In spring 2010, Heyward had ten walks and 11 strikeouts. In spring 2011, Heyward had ten walks and 11 strikeouts. So far in spring 2012, Heyward has two walks and 14 strikeouts. We saw him swing more often and make less contact last season than he did as a rookie, and one wonders if he's going to keep following that path. There are plenty of reasons to worry that Heyward might fall short of expectations; this is one of them, albeit it's a smaller one, relative to other ones.
We'll close here because no stat piece worth its salt can exclude Jeff Francoeur. One issue is that Francoeur is walk-less through 33 plate appearances. Another issue is that Francoeur has a .548 OPS through 33 plate appearances. A third issue is that Francoeur has made 23 outs on the ground, and four outs in the air. Last spring, he made 19 outs on the ground, and 22 outs in the air. The spring before that, 20 and 24.
Something seems off about Jeff Francoeur's swing, and while it might just be a matter of timing and rust, there might be something bigger than that going on. Who knows? It's spring!