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March 29, 2013

BP Unfiltered

Spring Stats Without the Small Samples

by Ben Lindbergh

At MLB.com—and also in the BP database—you can find complete spring training stats going back to 2006. Why do the stats start with 2006? I don’t know. Maybe no one at MLB thought they were worth tracking, until some smart employee realized that someone, years down the road, might want to do a blog post about the past eight seasons of spring training stats. If so, I dedicate this post to that person.

On Wednesday, I wrote about how Howie Kendrick has failed to win the batting title BP predicted he would, but has batted about .360 in spring training. That made me curious, so I went looking for other statistical standouts from the past eight exhibition seasons. I’m not talking about fluky single springs, like Jake Fox’s 10-homer 2011, or Micah Hoffpauir’s 2008, when he hit .413 and slugged .674. I’m talking about sustained spring excellence or awfulness. Mostly, good players are good and bad players are bad, even in exhibition games, but sometimes spring upsets the natural order of things, and not just over small samples. Combining several seasons of mostly meaningless spring training stats doesn’t make them that much more meaningful, so this is just for fun. Here are some of the more notable names, with minimums of 200 plate appearances for hitters and 50 innings for pitchers.

Hitters

Todd Helton, .404/.470/.658, 378 PA
Helton is by far the best spring training hitter of the past eight seasons. No one else comes within 70 points of OPS. This is surprising, since we’re talking about Helton’s age-32 through age-39 seasons, a period during which he’s been just kind of a competent. It’s also surprising because spring training games aren’t played at Coors Field. From 2006-2012, Helton hit .277/.378/.412 away from Colorado, but in the combined springs of those seasons (plus 2013), he’s hit like his 26-year-old self did before age, injuries, and the humidor combined to kill his power.

Granted, the Cactus League isn’t exactly Petco Park. Since 2011, the Rockies have played at Salt Rivera Fields, in Scottsdale; before that, they played at Hi Corbett Field, in Tucson. Scottsdale is 1257 feet above sea level; Tucson is over twice as high, and the air is dry in Arizona. And now we’re one step away from calculating Cactus League park factors, which is how sabermetricians get back in shape for the season.

Whatever Helton does to dominate spring training, he's still doing. PECOTA projects Helton to hit .276/.372/.408 in 2013. This spring, he’s hitting .407/.484/.741.

April, by the way, has historically been Helton’s second-worst month, so it’s not like he’s just at his best early on, before his back can start bothering them. He just hits like crazy all spring, then goes back to being his usual self. In his prime, Helton must have hit about .600 in March, but the furthest back we can check is 2002, thanks to the more rudimentary team-by-team spring training stats available at ESPN:

2005: .357
2004: .442 (with six HR)
2003: .389
2002: .333

I don’t know what all of this means—most likely it doesn’t mean anything. But someday, when Helton is on the Hall of Fame ballot and his detractors say he didn’t hit enough away from Coors Field, you can remind them that he was the best spring training hitter of his era.

The worst, in case you were wondering, is Adam Everett, at .201/.258/.247 in 318 plate appearances. That makes more sense.

Dan Uggla, .231/.304/.403, 635 PA
Uggla has the most spring training plate appearances of any hitter over this eight-season span—essentially a full regular season’s worth of stats. And if we were to count those PA as an extra season, it would be by far his worst one. The 2006-2013 period lines up perfectly with Uggla’s big-league career, during which he’s posted an OPS over 100 points higher than his lifetime spring stats. Spring training is full of bad pitchers, and even the good ones aren’t at their best. You’d expect that Uggla would have feasted on that subpar pitching, but instead he’s slumped, over a considerable sample.

Matt Kemp, .252/.291/.448, 561 PA
Kemp is a similar case. From 2006-12, he posted an .853 OPS in the majors. And from 2006-2013 in spring training, he’s reached base about as often as Yuniesky Betancourt. Yuniesky Betancourt in the big leagues, I mean. In 460 spring training plate appearances, Betancourt has a .357 OBP.

Other stats:

  • Russell Branyan hit home runs more frequently than anyone else: one every 11.5 at-bats. Juan Pierre didn’t go deep in his 602 plate appearances.
  • Daric Barton had the highest walk rate, at 20.2 percent. Barry Bonds’ career major-league walk rate is 20.3 percent.
  • Kila Ka'aihue hit .333/.408/.635 in 228 plate appearances. He’s also hitting .333 in Diamondbacks camp this spring. I think this might be his year!
  • The two best hitters after Helton, albeit in only about 230 PA each: Brandon Belt and Justin Smoak.

The success of Branyan, Ka'aihue, Fox, Jesus Guzman (1.031 OPS), Ryan Raburn (.973 OPS), and other so-called Quad-A players suggests that skill sets that work in Triple-A but don't translate to the majors do survive the transition to spring training.

Pitchers

Mariano Rivera, 57.3 IP, 0.47 ERA, 66 K, 6 BB, .342 OPS allowed
Rivera has always struggled when the spotlight is on him. In 1997, he allowed a two out, game-tying homer to Sandy Alomar in Game Four of the ALDS, a game (and series) the Yankees went on to lose. He blew a lead and took the loss in Game 7 of the World Series, throwing a ball away and hitting a batter in the bottom of the ninth as the pressure got the best of him. He also blew leads in Games Four and Game Five of the 2004 ALCS, helping the Red Sox complete a historic series comeback. Basically, you hold your breath when you hand him the ball. Earlier this month, Yankees fans were relieved to learn that Rivera would be retiring at the end of this season, allowing the team to replace him with someone a bit more dependable beginning in 2014.

That said, Rivera has always had the stuff to get hitters out when the stakes are low: when ahead or behind by more than four runs, he’s allowed a career OPS nearly 100 points lower than he has when his opponent was within four runs. So it’s no surprise that he’s excelled in a low-pressure environment like the Grapefruit League.

To get serious for a second: Rivera’s 0.47 ERA is the lowest among the 438 pitchers with at least 50 spring innings pitched from 2006-13. The next-lowest is well over twice as high. Rivera is amazing, even when the outcomes don’t count.

Wandy Rodriguez, 120 IP, 7.13 ERA, 87 K, 63 BB, .917 OPS allowed
Rodriguez had a 106 ERA+ In the National League from 2006-12. The Grapefruit League has proved a tougher task.

Cliff Lee, 131.7 IP, 6.29 ERA, 104 K, 26 BB, .910 OPS allowed
The strikeout-to-walk ratio looks like Lee in recent seasons; the ERA looks like Lee in 2007, when he was demoted to the minors.

Other stats:

Thanks to Ryan Lind for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Spring Training

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