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March 27, 2013

The Lineup Card

8 Spring Training Stats We Don't Put Much Stock In

by Baseball Prospectus

‚Äč1. The Mariners Won't Lead MLB in Homers
The Seattle Mariners lead all of MLB with 52 homers this spring through March 25. They are well ahead of the second-place Cubs, who have hit 45. The last team to hit as many spring-training homers as the Mariners have this year was the Royals, who hit 56 in 2009. They proceeded to finish 24th during the regular season.

Spring-training stats are available at MLB.com going back to 2006. Only the 2009 Royals and the 2006 Tigers (54) exceeded Seattle's current total. Here are the yearly leaders, with their regular-season rank:

Year

Team

Rank

2006

Tigers

6

2007

Padres

13

2008

Tigers

4

2009

Royals

24

2010

Reds

4

2011

Royals

21

2012

Tigers

16

Could the Mariners buck this trend and continue their power display into the regular season? Anything is possible, and they did move the fences in at Safeco, but bear in mind that they haven't finished in the top 15 since 2000, when they tied with the Mets for 12th. That Mariners team featured Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, and Jay Buhner.

Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse each have six homers this spring, which is nice, but it doesn't magically transform them into Rodriguez and Martinez. Nor does moving the fences turn Safeco Field into the Kingdome, which is where the Mariners played the first half of 1999, the last of three straight seasons they led MLB in home runs.

But we'll have all year to deal with reality. For now, let's just hit the snooze button and keep dreaming. —Geoff Young

2. Shane Robinson Will Not Retain his Grapefruit League King Title
Shane Robinson’s counting stats this spring include 15 runs, 25 hits, seven doubles, three home runs, 12 RBI, and four stolen bases. That makes the Cardinals’ reserve outfielder the king of the Grapefruit League for 2013, but he might have a hard time matching those totals in the regular season. There is nowhere for Robinson to play with Matt Holliday in left field, Jon Jay in center, and Carlos Beltran in right. Furthermore, Oscar Taveras, the top outfield prospect in the game, will begin the season at Triple-A Memphis. Then there is the case of Robinson’s slash line of .431/.476/.706—a 1.182 OPS—being way out of line with his career norms. In 215 plate appearances over parts of three seasons with the Cardinals, the 28-year-old has hit .242/.293/.333, and he has a .278/.339/.391 line in the minor leagues in 1,730 trips to the plate. And in case you’re wondering what PECOTA thinks about Sugar Shane, its projection for his 2013 season is .243/.298/.358 in 250 plate appearances. That four-digit OPS isn’t going to last much longer with Opening Day less than a week away. —John Perrotto

3. The Orioles Won't Win 70 Percent of Their One-Run Games
They'll obviously win 80 percent. Or maybe 120 percent. We're still running the 90th percentile-projections for heart. But either way, all of you saying that last year was a fluke sure do have bright orange egg on your faces, and the Orioles 5-2 record in one-run games this spring proves it. —Zachary Levine

4. Yuniesky Betancourt Hasn't Discovered How to Hit
Call it a sneaky hunch, but I have a feeling that Yuniesky Betancourt has not turned a corner and discovered how to: a. Hit for average, b. Hit for power, c. Get on base at any kind of clip. This spring, Betancourt hit .447/.451/.574 in Phillies camp before getting cut loose and signing with the Brewers a few days later. Even though Betancourt's agents reportedly engaged both the Yankees and the Twins—teams desperate for warm bodies—neither team bit at the opportunity to sign the defensively-challenged middle infielder. And really, they had no reason to believe Betancourt had seen the light. The 31-year-old has hit .266/.290/.392 in his career, and he hit a miserable .228/.256/.400 in 2012. He hasn't learned plate discipline—that OBP is pumped by an inordinate amount of balls finding holes—so even if Betancourt has a season in which the BABIP gods smile and wink at his every turn, there's no way he's going to approach the magic his bat has shown this spring. —Stephani Bee

5. Yasiel Puig Won't Be Walkless
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last three weeks, you’ve heard of Yasiel Puig, who took spring training by storm by hitting over .500 in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to make the Dodgers. Of course, when you’re hitting over .500 and seemingly squaring up everything, it becomes decidedly less important to take pitches. And Puig has taken that to the extreme, working exactly zero walks in 59 plate appearances through Monday’s games. But, I predict that, at some point during the 2013 season, Yasiel Puig will draw an unintentional walk in a major-league game.

Of course, this prediction supposes a few things. The first is that he plays with the Dodgers this season. Right now, there is no room for him in the LA outfield, but the fact that their entire outfield is susceptible to injury makes this more plausible. Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, and Carl Crawford all have a season of 135 games played or fewer on their resumes over the last two years. The second thing is that Puig will continue to perform at a high level in the upper minors, giving the Dodgers reason to call him up when there’s a need. This feels inevitable when you watch him, but it’s anything but a guarantee—especially as he starts facing pitchers who may refuse to throw him strikes.

This spring, Yasiel Puig has approached his at-bats like the part of his brain that controls strike zone recognition was replaced by an exact duplicate of the part of his brain that screams “SWING HARD NOW!” But, most importantly, since he recorded no walks this spring, we have no visual confirmation of how Puig would get to first base after a walk. Maybe he’d sprint like Todd Coffey. Maybe he’d walk really, really slowly. Maybe he’s athletic enough to just do back flips the entire way. Would he simply drop his bat or do some variation of his home run bat flip? And yes, this is really something that I’ve thought about. —Bret Sayre

6. Justin Smoak Won't Approach .408/.434/.796
For precisely one month of the year, Justin Smoak resolves to vindicate all the scouts who once rhapsodized about his bat. Back in 2009, prospect guru emeritus Kevin Goldstein listed Smoak as the game’s 22nd-best prospect, three spots ahead of some guy named Andrew McCutchen. Lauding his approach at the plate and sexy swing, Goldstein asserted, “Smoak easily projects as an impact hitter in the middle of a lineup.” And, in March, he really does look the part. Unfortunately, the charade collapses once April comes around.

Smoak has continued the trend this exhibition season, compiling a .434/.483/.811 line over 60 plate appearances, picking up four home runs and eight doubles along the way. Consequently, the 26-year-old has improved his career spring OPS to 1.009.

But if history is any indication, Smoak will abandon this pretense once Opening Day chases the fledgling arms of the Cactus League back to their developmental womb. Over the better part of three major-league seasons, Smoak has never hit above .234. He has never posted an on-base percentage greater than .323. And he has never slugged more than .396. Safeco won’t be such a hostile hitter’s environment in 2013 with the fences coming in—Smoak’s home/road OPS splits favor the latter by roughly 60 points since his 2010 trade to the Mariners—but it’s still hard to believe his spring performance portends anything beyond a modest improvement. Frankly, it’d be difficult to get much worse: Smoak finished with a .236 True Average in 2012, the eighth-lowest mark among qualified hitters last season. And yes, this is indeed the same player who, in the days of yore, constituted the centerpiece of a trade for Cliff Lee. —Jonah Birenbaum

7. Ryan Raburn Won't Be Anything But a Spring Training Tease
I’m sorry to burst your bubble, Indians fans, but that oasis of water you’re seeing in the Sahara is more legitimate than Ryan Raburn’s .357/.481/.833 spring training performance. I know some research has suggested that a big slugging percentage in the Grapefruit or Cactus League might be an indicator of positive things to come during the season, but you can forget all of when discussing Raburn—this Tigers fan has seen it all before. Raburn’s 1314 OPS might stand as his best spring line yet, but his three previous spring OPS totals of 1080, 960, and 994 tell me that his current mark means very little. His prowess in Florida during the month of March has given way to a career 659 OPS in April and an even worse 455 OPS in May. Just because this year’s exhibition dominance happened in Arizona doesn’t mean that I’m ready to believe that this 32-year old former Tiger has changed his stripes. Raburn remains a shining example of why spring training stats are generally meaningless. —Paul Sporer

8. Howard Kendrick Still Won't Win That Batting Title
In our player comment for Kendrick in Baseball Prospectus 2007, we wrote, "Make no mistake about it—there are batting titles in Kendrick's bat." Two years later, we hedged slightly, but basically repeated the prediction: “If Kendrick can stay healthy, he's going to win a batting title one of these days." Kendrick has stayed healthy—over the past four seasons, he’s spent only 15 days on the DL—but he still hasn’t won one, and at a few months shy of 30, his best chance is already behind him.

Kendrick has a .467 average this spring (28-for-60), the highest of any qualifying AL player. But don’t be deceived: he’s not about to make our prediction look prescient. Last spring, Kendrick hit .383. The spring before that, he hit .364. All told, Kendrick has batted .361 in spring training during his years as a big leaguer. He’s also a career .360 hitter in the minor leagues. Clearly, he has batting-title bat speed, and a translation of his stats against lesser competition would suggest that he’d routinely top .300 in the majors, which explains why we ranked him the fifth-best prospect in baseball in 2006.

So why has he hit “only” .292 in the majors, despite a robust BABIP? It’s not his ballpark, although Angel Stadium is hard on right-handed hitters: Kendrick has hit .293 on the road. The best answer is “breaking balls.” Kendrick has no trouble catching up to major-league heaters—he’s hit over .340 against four-seamers in the PITCHf/x era—but he’s batted under .250 against sliders. In the land of four-seamers, Kendrick is king, so he feasts on opposing pitching in Arizona, where arms are still getting stretched out and the caliber of competition is lower, and in the minors, where most pitchers lack elite secondary stuff. But in the big leagues, his relative struggles against softer stuff hold him back. Even so, he’s an extremely consistent, above-average hitter with a good glove and the ability to take the extra base. There are worse things to be than a bit above league average, and Kendrick is well worth the Angels’ investment. But he’s not about to be a batting champion. —Ben Lindbergh

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