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March 28, 2007

Spring Fever

Hitter Breakouts in Spring Training, 2007

by John Perrotto

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A few weeks back, we took a look at how people inside the game viewed spring training statistics and found they saw almost no relevancy in the numbers from the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues. Usually, there isn't much of a reason to put a lot of stock into the numbers compiled during the small sample size of exhibition play.

However, there is one statistic that can be an indicator of potential success for the upcoming season. John Dewan, founder of STATS Inc., has determined that a hitter with a positive difference between his spring training slugging percentage and his lifetime slugging percentage of .200 more correlates to a better than normal season.

Similarly, according to Tim Dierkes of Roto Authority, 14 of the 24 players who fell into that category last season went on to have an above-average season. Among them were Cincinnati catcher David Ross (.833 spring SLG, .406 career SLG), Minnesota right fielder Michael Cuddyer (.844, .428), New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes (.781, .395), Toronto (then Boston) infielder Eric Hinske (.810, .430), and Blue Jays catcher Gregg Zaun (.750, .375).

Ross was truly a breakout player in 2006; playing for his fourth team in a little more than a year, he hit .255/.353/.579 with 21 home runs and 52 RBI in 90 games for the Reds. That was quite a surprise coming from a player who had never had more than 10 homers or 18 RBI in his previous four major-league seasons. Those 21 homers ranked fifth among major-league catchers, just behind Atlanta's Brian McCann (24), Baltimore's Ramon Hernandez (23), the New York Yankees' Jorge Posada (23) and San Diego's Mike Piazza (22). Ross had 152 fewer at bats than any of the other four.

"I think spring training set the tone for me," Ross said. "I know a lot of guys say what happens in spring training really doesn't matter, but I do think it's important for guys who don't play every day. When you don't get regular at-bats, it really becomes tough to get into a groove. I was able to get in a groove last spring and basically ride it out for an entire season."

Ross showed flashes of power before, including in 2003 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, when he hit 10 homers in 124 at-bats. He also had 15 homers in 293 at-bats with Triple-A Las Vegas in 2002, and 19 homers in 238 ABs during his final season at the University of Florida in 1998.

However, Ross was considered a career backup, bouncing from the Dodgers to Pittsburgh to San Diego to Cincinnati. The Reds, though, are now counting on Ross. They traded veteran Jason LaRue to Kansas City over the winter to open up more playing time behind the plate. "I really don't think last year was a fluke," Ross said. "I showed power in the minor leagues and in college. I know it's in there. It's a matter of finding that groove and staying in it and I'd like to think I can carry over what started last spring."

With Dewan's plus-.200 theory in mind, and with just a few days remaining in spring training, let's take a look at 15 breakout candidates for 2007 with their exhibition statistics through Sunday (the final full week of Grapefruit and Cactus play):

Player                 Spring SLG  Career SLG  Diff.
----------------------------------------------------
Brandon Phillips, Cin    .741         .375     .366
Wilson Valdez, LAD       .593         .266     .327
Greg Dobbs, Phi          .673         .351     .322
Alberto Callaspo, Ari    .620         .310     .310
Derrek Lee, ChC          .784         .500     .284
----------------------------------------------------
Chase Utley, Phi         .778         .509     .269
Michael Cuddyer, Min     .717         .455     .262
Brad Eldred, Pit         .717         .458     .259
Ian Kinsler, Tex         .700         .454     .246
Terrmel Sledge, SD       .679         .442     .237
----------------------------------------------------
Brad Hawpe, Col          .700         .464     .236
Ryan Zimmerman, Was      .714         .479     .235
Casey Kotchman, LAA      .571         .343     .228
Adrian Gonzalez, SD      .694         .475     .219
Larry Bigbie, LAD        .612         .395     .217

To review these guys' opportunities, let's break them down:

  • Phillips actually broke out last season by hitting .276/.324/.427 with 17 homers and 25 steals as the Reds' regular second baseman. Phillips had previously flopped with Cleveland, playing in only six games in each of the previous two seasons following a horrendous 2003 in which he batted .208/.242/.311 in 370 at-bats. He is still just 25 years old.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .273/.331/.419 with 13 HR, 57 RBI, 16 SB and a 56 percent Improvement rate.
  • Perhaps the most surprising guy on this list, Wilson Valdez will get a chance to play early while Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal nurses a sprained ankle. The 28-year-old journeyman played in 51 games with the Chicago White Sox, Seattle, and San Diego in 2004-05, batting .209/.250/.280 in 139 at bats.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: He was so far off the radar that there isn't one.
  • Dobbs was claimed off of waivers by Philadelphia in the offseason from Seattle, where he'd hit .257/.291/.351 in 222 at-bats spread out over the past three seasons. There could be a real chance for the 28-year-old to gain playing time this season, as the Phillies are counting on the rather shaky combination of Wes Helms and Abraham Nunez at third base.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .274/.318/.415 with 10 HR, 51 RBI, and a 33 percent Improvement rate.
  • The Diamondbacks stole Alberto Callaspo, a well-touted middle infield prospect from the Angels, in a trade for relief prospect Jason Bulger last spring. Callaspo then hit .337/.404/.478 with Triple-A Tucson, and .238/.298/.310 in 23 games with Arizona. Callaspo will be the backup at all three infield spots this season, though playing time could be limited behind second baseman Orlando Hudson, third baseman Chad Tracy, and shortstop Stephen Drew.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .293/.346/.418 with 8 HR, 54 RBI, and a 50 percent Improvement rate.
  • The Cubs' Lee is an obvious candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, as the big first baseman was limited to just 50 games last season thanks to a broken wrist; he wound up hitting .286/.368/.474 with eight homers in just 175 at-bats. That came after the 31-year-old was the best offensive player in the National League in 2005, leading the league in batting average and slugging percentage when he hit .335/.418/.662 with 46 homers.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .288/.369/.527, 21 HR, 64 RBI, 13 SB, and a 19 percent Improvement rate.
  • Utley will be hard-pressed to improve on his outstanding 2006, a year in which he hit .303/.379/.527 with 32 homers and 15 steals while establishing himself as a premier second baseman. However, at 28, there is still some room for growth.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .288/.367/.627, 31 HR, 94 RBI, 11 SB, and a 35 percent Improvement rate.
  • Cuddyer will look to improve upon his breakout season in 2006 in which he hit .284/.362/.504 while finally settling in at right field. Like Utley, Cuddyer is 28 and in his prime.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .272/.347/.466, 21 HR, 85 RBI, and a 33 percent Improvement rate.
  • Eldred had a lost season a year ago, appearing in only 18 games for Triple-A Indianapolis after hitting a combined 78 home runs in the previous seasons between the major and minor leagues. At 26, he needs an opportunity, but the Pirates traded for first baseman Adam LaRoche in the offseason. Eldred saw time in right field during spring training and played passable defense there, but the Pirates seem committed to Xavier Nady at that position.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .245/.319/.497, 18 HR, 53 RBI, and a 32 percent Improvement rate.
  • Kinsler had a solid rookie season last year, hitting .286/.347/.454 with 14 home runs and 55 RBI in 423 at-bats. Though only 24, he wins high marks for his baseball aptitude, and he could become one of the best second baseman in the game.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .285/.345/.475, 21 HR, 79 RBI, 12 SB, and a 58 percent Improvement rate.
  • At 30, Sledge will get a second chance at being a major-league regular, as he figures to be the Padres' primary left fielder; he hit .229/.308/.357 in 70 at-bats for them last season, but .311/.402/.583 with 24 homers in 367 at-bats for Triple-A Portland. Sledge played in 133 games for Montreal in 2004, hitting .269/.336/.462 with 15 homers.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .269/.353/.463, 16 HR, 56 RBI, and a 43 percent Improvement rate.
  • Hawpe is 27, and still has upside after a solid 2006 in which he batted .293/.383/.515 with 22 homers and 84 RBI. There is a reason why so many teams tried to trade for the right fielder in the offseason, but the Rockies weren't willing to give him up.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .283/.360/.503, 22 HR, 72 RBI, and a 38 percent Improvement rate.
  • Zimmerman had a persuasive case for the 2006 NL Rookie of the Year, as he hit .287/.351/.471 with 20 homers despite playing in the Nationals' cavernous RFK Stadium. The best part is that Zimmerman is still just 22 years old, and he figures to be among the game's elite third basemen for many years to come.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .305/.365/.517, 23 HR, 90 RBI, 12 SB, and a 53 percent Improvement rate.
  • Kotchman has long been ballyhooed as one of the best pure young hitters in baseball, but he has hit just .227/.298/.343 with eight homers in 114 games over the past three seasons. Bothered throughout 2006 by the effects of mononucleosis, his numbers were awful: .152/.215/.221 with a lone homer. Despite seemingly having been around forever, he is still only just 24, and has plenty of time to right his career as the Angels' first baseman.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .249/.308/.348, 5 HR, 30 RBI, and a 47 percent Improvement rate.
  • Gonzalez is only 24, an age at which he should be primed to build on a fine 2006 season as the Padres' first baseman when he hit .304/.362/.500. Though he plays his home games at Petco Park--the best pitcher's park in baseball--Gonzalez managed to hit 10 of his homers at home last season.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .289/.355/.481, 22 HR, 84 RBI, and a 55 percent Improvement rate.
  • Despite being hailed by scouts as a five-tool player, Bigbie has never lived up to that promise. In an injury-plagued 2006, he appeared in just 17 games with St. Louis and hit just .240/.280./321. Now 29, he gets another chance with the Dodgers, though he's serving as a lefty-hitting reserve outfielder for a club that has three left-handed starters in the outfield.
    PECOTA projection for 2007: .250/.326/.383, 4 HR, 19 RBI, and a 46 percent Improvement rate.

--

John Perrotto is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus and has covered Major League Baseball for the Beaver County (Pa.) Times for the past 20 years. He can be reached 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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