This is something of a companion piece to Monday's shocking exposé about how spring stats don't matter. There was a whirlwind of interviews for me after I discovered that -- Dateline, 20/20, GMA -- but things have calmed down. Now I'm looking for the spring stats that I really, really, really wish were predictive.
It's easy. For example, after two years of bizarre yo-yoing, streaky hitting, and questionable body language, it looks like Brandon Belt has a clear path to the starting first-base gig for the first time in his major-league career. And he's looked great, leading the Cactus League in home runs. Therefore, as a fanboy, I'm hoping the spring success is meaningful in some way.*
* It isn't
But you don't want to read about a Giants fan hoping for good things because his team is due for a spot of good luck. Instead, here are five spring lines that would be a lot cooler if they were reliable predictors of what's going to happen after March ...
Evan Gattis (.388/.404/.796, five HR, 52 PA)
I'm a sucker for a good backstory. I'm one of six people in the world who still thinks Josh Hamilton's background is fascinating, for example. And this is a quote that appears in a story written last year about Evan Gattis:
"Right about this time I started finding these spiritual teachers or whatever on YouTube," Gattis says, "and I thought, these mother******s know what I’m talking about. They’re speaking my language, whatever they’re saying."
"Going to California, going to see some different people," he said. "Because there’s a lot of them from the West Coast — the California guru game."
Dude just wanted to drop out and check on the guru scene in Cali. We've all had those urges at one point or another, but this guy actually had the nerve to act on them. It mixes the Hamilton story with something slightly implausible. If it were the first episode of an HBO series, you would have to suspend your disbelief to enjoy the show. Gattis is an untapped well of interesting anecdotes, and it would take national broadcasts at least two or three games to make us sick of it.
Micah Owings (.400/.419/.700, two HR, 31 plate appearances)
We're used to position players toeing the rubber to save their careers, but it's far rarer for pitchers to switch gigs. And those conversions usually aren't especially successful. Brian Bogusevic is still hanging around the fringes of 25-man rosters, as is Adam Loewen, but they're not in danger of being anything other than spare parts. The Rick Ankiel story was actually a pretty good one until he got popped for PEDs, but it also turned out that he wasn't a very good hitter.
Owings is different -- one of the best-hitting pitchers of all-time, albeit in a small sample. He's probably the best candidate for a conversion since Ken Brett, and any success Owings has will make it more likely for the next team to gamble on another conversion. And conversions are endlessly fascinating.
He's got some funny footwork, but danged if he can't hit the ball hard. It's improbable that he'll ever be an every-day player, but as a right-handed masher off the bench -- who could also pitch in a blowout, I suppose -- he could have a future.
Brian Matusz (19 innings, four walks, 15 strikeouts, 4.26 ERA)
If failed pitching prospects need to exist, here's how their stories should go: Pitcher throws hard. Pitcher can't throw strikes. After a while, pitcher decides to call it a career, wondering what could have been.
Here's how they shouldn't go: Pitcher is good. Pitcher leaves his good in a pair of pants that goes through the wash. Pitcher isn't good anymore.
I can't stand it when pitchers lose whatever it was that made them good in the first place. Injuries are lamentable and awful, but the mystery declines are somehow worse. There's always hope that with the right tweak and the right coaching -- Roy Halladay, for example -- everything will click back into place. But it never does. Roy Halladay is the ideal; the reality is much harsher. And for a while, it looked like Matusz was going in that harsh, unexplainable direction.
After a late-season rebirth as a quality reliever, Matusz seemed like he had found his niche. But the Orioles haven't given up on him as a starter, and the early returns are positive. He's throwing strikes, which was a problem for him as a starter last year.
Ryan Howard (.300/.364/.700, seven HR, 77 PA)
Because I'm sick of hearing about his contract. Because I'm sick of him symbolizing an aging team. And, most importantly, because he's a gigantic man who looks like he was created to annihilate baseballs, and that's what he should be.
Howard swings as hard as a human can possibly swing, and that's an underrated attraction in baseball. There's no chess match between a pitcher and batter when Howard's up; there's just a guy whacking on hungry, hungry hippos as hard and as fast as possible, hoping he ends the game with a bunch of white marbles. Sometimes, he does. Sometimes, he doesn't. The important thing is beating the absolute crap out of those hippos.
The best part is that left-handed pitching completely chews him up, and that makes him mortal. It's kind of like an easy-to-spot weakness of a boss in an 8-bit video game, and it prevents Howard from being completely terrifying. He's a simple baseball player who will swing as hard as the other guy throws it, and from an entertainment standpoint, baseball is more interesting with a good Ryan Howard. Much more interesting than with a bunch of wiseacres making fun of Ryan Howard's contract, at least.
Entire Royals team (22-6-1)
If spring stats are useless, spring standings are doubly so. But the Royals are at least playing their part correctly -- their blueprint of success is kind of how they're expecting to be good in the regular season. Young players are becoming stars (Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain), known quantities are continuing their success (Alex Gordon, Billy Butler), and other than low-risk pickup James Shields, the pitching staff is holding it together. They aren't excelling, necessarily. But holding it together.
Will the Royals win 75 percent of their games and finish with a 122-40 record in the regular season? We'll just have to see about that one. But considering that the Royals have spent the better part of the last two decades getting laughed at, and that they were the offseason punching bag for the analytically inclined, it's pretty hard not to root for them. What if everything goes according to plan? Like, exactly according to plan, with best-case scenarios happening for everyone?
It would validate Dayton Moore's vision, for one. At least in David Glass's eyes. And that means Moore would stay on for a while, giving us the best of both worlds. The Royals would enjoy some success for once, and Moore would continue to make amazing trades and signings that are fun to read and write about. Win/win, except for the eventual losing.
Make it happen, Royals. We're already sick of the Orioles. That was so last year. But the Royals could be interesting, as long as it all happens just like it's going in the spring. Shouldn't be a problem to carry over in to the regular season, right? Right?