Welcome to Spring Training, baseball fans. That's right. Your favorite sport is back.
It's easy to get overly excited and dive head first into everything happening at camp. Jose Bautista hates the Blue Jays! Pablo Sandoval is still a big man! The Yankees are elitist monsters! Jonathan Papelbon is still Jonathan Papelbon! Between those storylines and the potentially impending suspensions of Jose Reyes and Aroldis Chapman, Spring Training has something for everyone. And that's before the insanity of injuries sets in.
Even though the games that will eventually be played don't count for anything, the elaborate practice sessions produce a cascade of information and, even worse, data, that will soon fill computer and television screens everywhere. Despite the fact that the action happening on the diamond is nearly meaningless, the media will push it as gospel. For that reason, Beyond the Box Score is providing you, dear reader, with a handy-dandy guide to understanding Spring Training news.
Regarding "Best shape of his life" news
It may be the most classic trope of them all. Players come to camp and tell reporters that they're in the "best shape" of their life. Sometimes it's players in contract years looking to start some good momentum. Sometimes it's older players trying to bounce back from down seasons. Sometimes it's Jesus Montero.
Most of it is as accurate as a YouTube comment. Dispense it with the trash and life will continue on as previously advertised. Reporting to camp in great shape is always a plus, but it's what the player does in camp and in-season that matters. Mike Trout and Brett Lawrie will always be built like Mickey Mantle. Only one of them actually plays like Mickey Mantle. Sometimes, these reports are actually forecasts of what's to come. Mark Teixeira's famous gluten-free, no-fun diet was part of what got him back to being an offensive force, that is, before a nasty foul ball to the leg ended his season.
More often than not, though, these quotes are just a good way to get a good laugh.
Regarding red hot (or ice cold) numbers from unlikely sources
Once upon a time, there was a man named Yangervis Solarte. In addition to having a ridiculously cool name, Solarte was brought to camp with the Yankees as a non-roster invitee in 2014. Solarte had spent his entire career in the minor leagues to that point, and had been signed as a minor league free agent. Like this year's Ronald Torreyes, he had hit at nearly every level but never quite broke through.
That changed when Solarte hit .429/.489/.571 in Spring Training and took Eduardo Nuñez's job as New York's utility infielder. Solarte quickly became the starting third baseman. As we all know, Solarte would go on to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards.
Except, he didn't. Solarte was fine enough for a few months, but was eventually sent down to Triple-A, and shortly thereafter traded to the Padres in the Chase Headley deal. The Solarte story happens nearly every year. Some small-name player is going to hit well above his weight class this spring, and the media will advocate that the player travel north with the big team when the time comes.
In 2015, it was Devon Travis. Travis actually continued to hit well when the Blue Jays brought him to Toronto to be the second baseman, but that's usually not how the story ends. The projection systems, whether they be PECOTA, ZiPS or Steamer, are more going to have their day in the end. Real change in playing level comes from mechanical adjustments and pitch selection, which the projection systems can't forecast. They don't come from 50-plate appearance bursts in Spring Training. If the player isn't doing something notably different, then the Spring Training blip is likely just, in fact, a blip.
This is the truly important part of Spring Training. It's not who beats out who for the last spot in the bullpen or on the bench. It's which pitchers make it through camp without their elbows imploding or tearing an ACL in pitcher fielding practice, a la Marcus Stroman. We know that there are going to be at least five or six important pitchers are going to end up on the DL before April. It's simply a matter of fans crossing their fingers and praying to the Tommy John gods that it's not their favorite team's ace who has to go under the knife. This is part of why teams bring a small army of pitchers to camp, and why players like Wandy Rodriguez and Dillon Gee are somewhat valuable commodities as Non-Roster Invitees. So when a good pitcher goes down, don't just look for the timetable for their return. Look to see who the next three guys in line are.
Regarding the aforementioned projection systems
We know everything and nothing about baseball. While it is self-evident that not all players are created equal and that Clayton Kershaw is probably going to finish in the top three of the NL Cy Young Award vote, it is also self-evident that there about a dozen things that will surprise us in 2016. Who could have foreseen the rises of Odubel Herrera and Logan Forsythe, or the renaissance of Joe Blanton? How could we have known that Marco Estrada would thrive in the AL East? That Matt Duffy would become one of the best players in the National League? The projection systems are indeed wise and halfway useful (as long as we're not talking about PECOTA and the Royals). But the standings almost never look like what the projections forecast when all 162 games have been played.
That is all a long way of saying that we don't have a damn clue as to what will happen this year. Reading the headlines out of Spring Training isn't a good way of finding divine inspiration on that front, however, so do yourself a favor and kick back and relax. Watch the exhibition games and take solace in the fact that before long, you'll actually have good reason to be screaming at your television when your favorite team's Opening Day starter surrenders five runs in the first two innings. It's not his fault that the team was scheduled to play the Rockies in April, when the Rockies are always masquerading as contenders. That's just how baseball works.
In summation, we know roughly two things about how baseball works. It will be more than a little unpredictable, and the Rockies are going to be really good for a month and a half before reality sets in. The rest is up to fate. As Freddy Mercury once said, nothing really matters.
That's what you want to hear from a sabermetrics site, right?