Predicting Breakouts With Spring Training

Detroit Tigers left fielder Delmon Young warms up before the game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Bright House Networks Field. Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

It's difficult -- but not impossible -- to see a breakout coming from spring training statistics.

Spring-training stats are essentially meaningless. It's difficult to take away anything from numbers compiled against pitchers who are either learning they don't have the stuff to compete with the pros, or are coming to the realization that maybe it's time they spend their days with the missus and kids. But difficult isn't the same as impossible, and if you squint real hard through a particular lens, you can sometimes see meaning where you least expect to find it.

That lens was constructed by the Galileo of spring-training statistics, John Dewan. Dewan, formerly of STATS, Inc., is a founder of Baseball Info Solutions. A few years ago, Dewan, in his Stat Of The Week email newsletter, stated that if a player had a spring-training slugging percentage 200 points above his career norm, you could expect him to have an improved season. The return rate isn't 1:1 by any means, but you can still glean insight into the future of some players with this method. Players like Kendrys Morales, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Brett Gardner, Russell Branyan and others have all had huge springs that qualified under the Dewan Rule before their breakout seasons over the last few years, so let's see if we can find the next one.

Lorenzo Cain: Cain is hitting .426/.475/.870 this spring, and I don't think you need me to tell you that those are all better than his usual. He has 181 MLB plate appearances to his credit, and a career line of .302/.343/.402 to go with his three-year .305/.377/.476 showing at Triple-A. There is literally nothing more he could do to show the Royals he is ready for the bigs, but to their credit, he is finally getting the shot he deserves.

Such a huge spring and display of power makes you wonder if his 2012 numbers are going to look more like the impressive Triple-A numbers he's put up than the good, but not great ones from his short time in the majors. Combine the Dewan Rule with Cain's noteworthy defense in center and the Royals might have themselves one of the better center fielders in the game this year.

Delmon Young: His career has been full of ups, but mostly downs. Young seemingly broke out in 2010 when he hit .298/.333/.493 with 66 extra-base hits for the Twins, but like so many other sequels, 2011 was a disappointment. He's still just 26, though, so his peak is theoretically far from over. (At 26, Young is the same age as Cain, who has nearly 2,800 fewer plate appearances in the majors.)

The baseball gods continue to punish the Twins for their forced pitch-to-contact and anti-pull coaching, and their latest work is Young's .413/.429/.848 spring training line. As Young's career slugging in the majors is .428, he's met Dewan's 200 point requirement twice over, and is a candidate to bust out for the division rival Tigers. Considering the lineup is already looking good, a productive Young would make them that much more formidable in the AL Central. It's not hard to believe that this might be the year for Young: He's never quite put it all together, but there have been plenty of flashes.

Brandon Belt: Are the Giants making a mistake by not handing Belt the first base job? On top of all the minor league numbers and scouting reports that answer that answer that question in the affirmative, Belt has a .382/.426/.636 spring line that screams for more attention. It's been said Belt has been too passive in the past, and that it would hurt him in the majors -- it's a legitimate reason for the Giants to hold him back. But he has looked (appropriately) aggressive this spring in his results, and if the Giants give him a job sooner than later, this former prospect could be just what the lineup needs for NL West relevancy.

Travis Snider: Snider hasn't lived up to expectations, as he's hit just .248/.307/.423 over parts of four seasons with the Blue Jays. But he's also just 24 years old, is a career .333/.407/.550 hitter at Triple-A, and has hit .271/.340/.625 this spring in 17 games. The Jays aren't buying it yet, as they optioned Snider to Triple-A once more, but a big season from the former prospect could go a long way towards Toronto's push for one of the Wild Cards in 2012. Eric Thames isn't a difficult hurdle to clear in left, and the Jays could use more offense to balance out the back end of their rotation and expected weak production from first base.

To be fair, though, Snider has succeeded like this in the spring before. He's a career .312/.371/.558 spring hitter, with a 1098 OPS to his credit back in 2009's pre-season. He hit just .241/.328/.419 in 77 games that year; Dewan's Rule isn't always right, you know.

Brandon Allen: Allen started at first base for Oakland in the season opener, and did so partly on the back of a noteworthy spring. His .303/.359/.576 showing isn't as otherworldly as some of the other entries here, but as he's hit just .210/.297/.383 in the majors in 367 plate appearances, it's something of an honorary mention for the Dewan Rule. Allen, like Cain and Young, is in his age-26 season, and has yet to break out for good. He's learned and hit all he can in Triple-A (.286/.401/.555 over 1,116 plate appearances and three years), and is now part of Oakland's Neo-Island of Misfit Toys approach to team building.

The A's are lacking in serious, guaranteed-to-be-productive hitters in the lineup, but there are plenty of them with upside. The seasons of players like Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Collin Cowgill, Jemile Weeks, and Allen will determine whether the A's are competent or unwatchable this year, but, based on this spring, Allen is likely to do his part. A's fans hope Dewan is right, anyway.

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