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March 7, 2007

March Mirages

Curb Your Enthusiasm

by John Perrotto

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When Wayne Krivsky took over as the Cincinnati Reds' general manager just a week before spring training started last year, he had plenty of things to do. "It was crazy," he recalled. It certainly was, as Krivsky had to evaluate the Reds' talent throughout the organization on short notice, along with trying to make as many moves as possible to bolster the roster while also tweaking his scouting and player development departments.

One thing Krivsky didn't have time for, beside sleep, was to look at the statistics from exhibition play. "I don't think spring training statistics tell you much about anything," Krivsky said.

While the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues are now going on in full force, with boxscores and statistics generated in Florida and Arizona on a daily basis, people inside the game know that the numbers from this time of year can be very misleading. Much of it has to do with sample size; few pitchers will log more than 30 innings in the preseason, and rare is the hitter who finishes with more than 100 at-bats.

"Looking at the spring statistics are always fun because you'll have that guy who gets out of the gate really fast and has some impressive numbers," Pittsburgh Pirates GM Dave Littlefield said. "You have to put them all into context, though. While they are fun to look at it, they usually don't mean a while lot."

Indeed, many influences beyond sample size can distort spring training statistics in a number of different ways. Almost all of them have to do with a term you are much more apt to hear about in college football or basketball: strength of schedule.

All plate appearances are not created equal in the Grapefruit League or Cactus League. Until the final week or 10 days of exhibition play--when the roster sizes are cut down to more manageable numbers and teams begin playing their regulars more frequently to get them ready for the regular season--the strength of the opposition is extremely variable. In almost every case during spring training, the home team has a stronger roster than the visiting team. Most veteran position players are excused from road games, particularly those that might take more than 45 minutes by car or bus. Thus games often feature the home team with something close to its regular lineup, while the visiting team's batting order could be out of the International League or Pacific Coast League.

Furthermore, managers like to ease their players into the spring action during the first ten days or so of exhibition play. Few players will get more than two at-bats in the early stages of the spring, and starting pitchers gradually get built up one inning at a time from the two inning-stints of their initial outings. By 2:30 p.m., most of the early-to-mid March games resemble more a Birmingham-West Tenn contest than a major league clash.

Finally, the numbers reflected in the official statistics include only games in which admission is charged. There is a multitude of baseball games played each spring that never get reported in the official stats. With almost every major league club taking at least 60-65 players to camp each spring, they look for opportunities to get all of them sufficient playing time with which to make an impression. Thus, there will be the occasional "B" game scheduled, one that will include almost exclusively second-line players and minor leaguers. Often, teams will use their more established pitchers in these games to get their work in, while using younger pitchers in the major-league exhibitions in order to see them perform against better competition. Another spring trick clubs like to use, especially with hitters, is to play them in minor-league exhibition games. In that environment, the rules are lax and players might get a chance to gain extra at-bats, like leading off in every inning.

Keeping all that in mind, it is at least understandable why Krivsky doesn't spend much time poring over the numbers each morning.

"I think in spring training you are better off letting your scouting instincts determine most of the decisions, because there are so many variables involved (from the statistical side)," he said. "You look for things like bat speed and life on the pitches, because they just tell you more than the stats do in spring training."

Just for kicks, though, let's look back at the major-league spring training leaders from last year, and see if they had any correlation to the 2006 regular season:

AVERAGE

Aramis Ramirez, Cubs          .483
Orlando Hudson, Diamondbacks  .473
Raul Ibaņez, Mariners         .443
Angel Berroa, Royals          .439
Coco Crisp, Red Sox           .438

Ramirez (.291/.352.561 with 38 homers and 119 RBI in 157 games) and Ibaņez (.289/.353/.516 with 33 homers and 123 RBI in 159 games) both had the best seasons of their careers, while after starting slow, Hudson also had a fine year (.287/.354/.454 with 15 homers and 67 RBI in 157). Berroa should have called it quits on March 31, as he went on to hit just .234/.259/.333 in the regular season. Crisp broke a finger early in the season, and was never the same, clocking in at only .264/.317/.385.

HOME RUNS

Ryan Howard, Phillies      11
Jim Thome, White Sox        8
Kevin Mench, Rangers        7
Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals   7

The spring was a foreshadowing of things to come for Howard and Thome. Howard led the major leagues with 58 home runs, while Thome added 42 to bounce back from a miserable 2005 in Philadelphia, where he'd been replaced by Howard while injured. Zimmerman went on to hit 20 home runs, a respectable number for a rookie playing his home games in a pitcher's park. Mench went deep only 13 times in the regular season, and was eventually traded to Milwaukee.

STOLEN BASES

Esteban German, Royals   11
Chone Figgins, Angels    10
Eric Reed, Marlins       10
Ryan Freel, Reds          9

German and Reed had more steals in the spring than they did in the regular season. German stole seven bases in 10 attempts as a bench man for the Royals, while Reed had only three swipes in four attempts as he played in just 42 games for the Marlins and spent the majority of the season at Triple-A Albuquerque. Meanwhile, Figgins had 52 steals, and Freel finished with 37.

ERA

Chris Carpenter, Cardinals    0.68
Brian Bannister, Mets         0.95
Taylor Buchholz, Astros       1.50
Ryan Madson, Phillies         1.50
Jason Schmidt, Giants         1.50

Carpenter carried his great spring over to the regular season by going 15-8 with a 3.09 ERA, while Schmidt had a solid year, finishing 11-9 with a 3.59 ERA. Less happily, Madson wound up eventually being shifted to the bullpen in a year where he went 11-9 with a 5.69 ERA, while Buchholz lost his starting job as a rookie after a tepid performance (6-10 with a 5.89 ERA in 22 games, 19 starts). Bannister never got a chance to truly build on his spring, as the rookie was limited to eight games and six starts by hamstring problems, going 2-1 with a 4.26 ERA.

WINS

Kyle Lohse, Twins       5
Gavin Floyd, Phillies   4
Aaron Harang, Reds      4
Johan Santana, Twins    4
Jason Schmidt, Giants   4

Lohse and Floyd won the exact same amount of games in the regular season as they did in the Grapefruit League, which is not what anybody would call a good thing. Lohse's early work with the Twins got him traded to Cincinnati during the season; he went a combined 5-10 with a 5.83 ERA. Floyd was demoted to the minor leagues after going 4-3 with a 7.29 ERA in 11 starts. On the plus side, Santana continued his excellent performance throughout the summer and early fall, as he led the major leagues in wins by going 19-6 with a 2.77 ERA. Harang used the spring as a springboard for the best season of his career, as he was 16-11 with a 3.76 ERA.

SAVES

Jason Childers, Devil Rays   4
Jeff Bajenaru, Diamondbacks  3
Jason Bulger, Angels         3
Geoff Geary, Phillies        3
Clay Hensley, Padres         3
Aquilino Lopez, Padres       3
Franquelis Osoria, Dodgers   3
Chris Ray, Orioles           3
Rafael Soriano, Mariners     3

If ever there is a spring stat that means nothing once the regular season starts, it's saves. Ray did wind up saving 33 games, but the next best tally was Soriano's pair of saves. Geary had one. The rest? Zero. Hensley is the only other pitcher on the list who pitched in more than a dozen major league games in 2006, but he wound up as a starter, going 11-12 with a 3.71 ERA in 37 games, 29 starts.

While pondering this spring's early leaders in any category, just remember not to invest too much faith in what those numbers are saying. Some guys are going to perform well because they're historically good players, and happen to be locked in early, and some of them are March heroes gearing up for another summer back out of the limelight.

John Perrotto is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and covers Major League Baseball for the Beaver County Times. You can reach John by clicking here.

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

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