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Spring training stats don’t count, but they may be showing signs about some Orioles

Nothing that happens in spring training counts in the regular season. Sometimes, though, players can show improvement that carries over.

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MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Baltimore Orioles Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Spring training is a time of excitement in the air with the anticipation of a new baseball season right around the corner. Right? Not so much. Spring training is a time of useless updates, platitudes, and hoping at all costs nobody ends up injured.

Players don’t like how long it is and fans don’t like that it rarely resembles real baseball as players with numbers in the high double digits take up a large share of the playing time. It’s only any fun if you get to go to Sarasota to escape the cold of late winter.

It’s commonly accepted that whatever happens in spring training also does not matter. Guys who play poorly are working on something, or running into bad luck, or are “gearing up” for the regular season. Guys who put up crazy numbers sometimes get a shot with the big league club and sometimes fade into the background and are forgotten.

The prime example of this is when Jake Fox tore apart the Grapefruit League, mashing 17 extra base hits, 10 of which were home runs in the spring of 2011. Fox actually hit pretty well in 2011, posting a 104 OPS+ in 27 games. But, he was designated for assignment by June 1st mostly because he had no position on the team. The Jake Fox Award is now the unofficial award for the best spring performer who no one thought was going to to make the roster.

However, someone tried to put the sabermetric orthodoxy that spring training stats do not matter to the test. Dan Rosenheck of the Economist wanted to see if he could find any correlation between Spring Training stats and Regular Season stats. He did this by using stats that we know now to be relatively solid based upon small sample sizes.

The statistics that stabilize early on in the season, which I have written about here. Batting average and ERA are always noisy numbers that change from season to season and have very little predictive power. However, statistics on the periphery we know to be more predictive and more certain in smaller sample sizes.

The stats that Rosenheck uses for hitters are Strikeout Rate, Walk Rate, Batting Average on Contact (BACON), Isolated Slugging on Contact (ISOCON), and Steal Attempt Rate (which for the purpose of the Orioles we can ignore. For pitchers, Rosenheck uses Strikeout Rate, Walk Rate, and Ground Ball Rate. Rosenheck then used these Spring Training numbers, prior years regular season statistics, spring training Park factors, aging factors, and a league average numbers to create his own projection system. He then compared his results to that of the ZiPS projection system.

Rosenheck found that his system was a slightly better predictor of regular season performance than the ZiPS projection system. For hitters the delta was around 15 points of OPS and for pitchers around 0.75 ERA delta. Both pretty big jumps that can turn a below average player to average or an average one to above average. Please read Rosenheck’s article here and look at his slideshow from the Sloan Sports Conference here.

Below are two tables. One for hitters and one for pitchers. I chose 10 players for each that were factors for the Opening Day roster and had compiled enough playing time to actually show something. These numbers are prior to yesterday’s game. I did all the calculations myself so forgive me if something is off. Let me know and I’ll fix it as soon as possible. First up, the hitters.

2017 Spring Training Stats -

Rickard, Joey 50 12 6 0 0 1 14 1 0 3 24.49% 12.24% 0.452 0.323
Kim, Hyun Soo 50 5 9 1 0 1 10 2 0 0 10.42% 18.75% 0.294 0.059
Mancini, Trey 50 3 14 0 0 1 14 5 0 2 6.12% 28.57% 0.438 0.344
Giavotella, Johnny 47 2 3 0 0 1 11 2 1 0 4.35% 6.52% 0.268 0.098
Gentry, Craig 45 4 10 1 0 2 11 2 0 2 9.52% 23.81% 0.393 0.286
Tavarez, A 42 3 7 0 0 0 11 1 0 1 7.14% 16.67% 0.344 0.125
Jospeh, Caleb 35 3 5 0 0 1 8 1 0 2 8.82% 14.71% 0.308 0.269
Trumbo, Mark 33 3 7 0 0 0 6 1 0 0 9.09% 21.21% 0.261 0.043
Santander, A 32 3 12 0 0 0 7 0 0 2 9.38% 37.50% 0.412 0.353
Davis, Chris 30 7 8 0 0 0 5 2 0 0 23.33% 26.67% 0.333 0.133

For the hitters, the names that stood out to me on the positive side are Joey Rickard, Trey Mancini, and to a lesser extent, Craig Gentry. Rickard is running a walk rate nearly double his strike out rate while hitting the ball hard. His batting average on contact is .452 and his isolated power on contact is .323. Both numbers indicating he is hitting the ball hard.

Mancini is basically doing what everyone thought he might. He is not walking, striking out a bunch, but doing serious damage when he does make contact. Gentry is striking out a bit too much, but does have a 10 percent walk rate. He is also doing damage when he makes contact.

On the negative side for the hitters. The troubling one is Mark Trumbo. Trumbo has not done any damage this spring posting a .261 BACON and a .043 ISOCON. He may be getting a little unlucky, but to date he hasn’t hit the ball very hard. A concerning sign for the Orioles big off season signing.

Now, on to the pitchers.

2017 Spring Training Stats -

Player BF BB IBB SO HBP GB Rate Walk Rate K Rate
Player BF BB IBB SO HBP GB Rate Walk Rate K Rate
Jimenez, Ubaldo 57 8 0 9 0 48.57% 14.04% 18.37%
Wilson, Tyler 51 1 0 7 0 35.86% 1.96% 14.00%
Bundy, Dylan 50 4 0 7 0 36.92% 8.00% 15.22%
Drake, Oliver 46 2 0 10 0 50.00% 4.35% 22.73%
Miley, Wade 43 2 0 6 1 62.22% 4.76% 15.00%
Aquino, Jayson 42 1 0 10 1 48.70% 2.44% 25.00%
Lee, Chris 41 3 0 9 0 65.45% 7.32% 23.68%
Gausman, K 39 2 0 13 0 40.00% 5.13% 35.14%
Wright, Mike 36 1 0 4 1 56.00% 2.86% 11.76%
Ynoa, G 36 2 0 6 0 57.78% 5.56% 17.65%

On the positive side for me there is Kevin Gausman, Chris Lee, and Jayson Aquino. Gausman is walking only 5.13 percent of batters while striking out 35.14 percent of them. A remarkable rate for both categories. Chris Lee, a prospect who has struggled to strike out batters in the past, has struck out 23.68 percent of hitters this spring while recording a 65.45 percent ground ball rate.

Lastly, the talk of spring training on the pitching side has been Aquino. He has walked only 2.44 percent of batters faced and struck out 25 percent of them all while getting a 48.7 percent ground ball rate. A good combination and great results from a depth signing.

On the negative side Dylan Bundy stands out for me. He is walking 8 percent of batters faced while striking out only 15.22 percent. Not a great ratio especially when his ground ball rate is only 36.92 percent. The Orioles have to hope Bundy’s spring struggles do not carry over to the regular season.

One big caveat is that this is a year in which the World Baseball Classic is occurring. This dilutes the talent pool of spring training baseball even further than it normally is. The effect of this on the numbers remains to be seen, but it definitely throws a wrench into the mix. I would still recommend reading the Economist article that Rosenheck posted and going through his slides. It is interesting work.

While this year these numbers may not mean as much, going forward I will definitely be giving spring training slightly more respect than I did before and watching for guys who make big jumps or big declines.