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Dubious Spring Surprises

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It's probably happened to all of us at one time or another, a player for your favorite team has a spring where they just can't stop hitting the ball. That .900+ spring OPS jumps out at you from the flatness of the Sunday newspaper, and starts allowing you to think, "hey, this guy might be OK after all, maybe even just the bat we need in our lineup."

Then April rolls around. Suddenly, the big spring surprise, your team's new can't-miss solution is hitting .146. The bum! The knife goes deep into your back, and all that clichéd spring hope that bum's spring numbers gave you is now just shame, shame at yourself for being lulled into thinking that this guy might actually produce based on his spring performance. Welcome back to reality, a bitter mistress. (Ask me about Skip Schumaker in the spring of '06.)

In the spirit of trying to salvage some Aprils from this sort of disappointment, I thought we'd have a look at this season's spring success stories that seem unlikely to translate to regular season success.

First of all, I should point out that the spring leader boards are filled with names that don't surprise, which was a little bit of a surprise to me. For instance, Derrek Lee is second in total bases with 47. His spring batting line of .494/.508/.797 obviously won't match his batting numbers from the regular season, but we know that Lee's a good player and it's not surprising to see him ripping up and spitting out a spring parade of minor league auditions and regular starters practicing their fastball in live game situations.

The first name that jumps out as you scan down the list is Terrmel Sledge. The Padres fourth outfielder is hitting .322/.375/.644 and tied for the spring lead in HRs with 6 in 64 total plate appearances. That's a long way from his major league total of .261/.333/.442. Sledge will still be a useful part-time OF, and his PECOTA projection of .269/.353/.463 would easily make him a starter, not the best corner OF, but a starter on many teams.

Willie Bloomquist has carved out a nice career for himself as a role player with a decent enough glove who wound up with a team far too generous in handing out playing time. March has been a good month for Bloomquist who seems to be lulling the Mariners into taking him north with them thanks to a .448/.508/.552 spring effort. He's also used some of the speed that's helped him hang on to a spot on the major league roster to grab 9 stolen bases (the term "stolen" seems a little kind for spring training). Don't believe the hype. Bloomquist owns a career .641 OPS through 5 part time major league seasons. But couldn't this be the year? Of course it could, and ticker tape parades could also break out in the streets of Baghdad. Wille Boy's career BB/K ratio is .41; this spring it's .86. Using stats to evaluate players centers around spotting anomalies, and I think we found a big one here.

You may have heard about steroid era pariah Sammy Sosa's triumphant return to baseball with the Texas Rangers (ironically enough) this spring, armed with a minor league contract that could be called "generous." Sammy's tearing through this March like it's 1999 with a 1.198 OPS. Texas could really have themselves a deal, or they could have themselves a over the hill slugger with enough experience to feast off the major league hopes of minor league pitchers in spring. Sammy's striking out in 19% of his plate appearances this spring; his career K rate is about 23%. It's nothing shocking, but it's enough to raise an eyebrow.

Now how about Russ Ortiz? The Giant's new starter is in the midst of springtime lucky streak that would make for great storyline in mid-80s college party movie (a favorite genre). Through 18 inning pitched, the former 21 game winner has a 3.00 ERA, a 6.50 K/9, and a 2.50 BB/9. The K/9 total is pretty close to his career number of 6.48, but the walk rate is waaaaay off his career 4.66 level. Lest, I get too cynical, as I'm wont to do on occasion, we could offer Ortiz the benefit of the doubt; maybe he's improved his control, maybe... One thing that might alarm even the most Pollyannaish of Giants fans is the 3 HRs he's allowed this spring, a deadly rate of 1.5 long balls per nine. It's not surprising to see that his HR rate is up given that he seems to be throwing more pitches in the strike zone, but through his best years of 2002-2004, his HR/9 rate was consistently below 1, except for 2004 when it was 1.01. That was a big key to his success during those years even though his BB/9 rate sat between 3.75 and 4.93.

Flukely spring trainings with gaudy numbers are nothing new, as BtB's own Ryan Armbrust pointed out earlier this spring, reminding us of Doug Mientkiewicz' March '06 .627 SLG. These four blokes represent just a handful of the most dubious spring performances. It's interesting to note that all of these players, and Minky too, are experienced guys who've had some success in their careers, whether just a taste of it in the minors as with Bloomquist or several major league years of it with Sosa. I suspect that spring training offers a competition level and enough of a motivational factor to help these guys reach a level they're not likely to see over a full season in the majors.

Or maybe I'm just being cynical.