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March 17, 2009

Fantasy Focus

Where There's Smoke

by Marc Normandin

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At the beginning of the month, we discussed some of the issues surrounding spring training statistics and what they might mean for hitters. It's difficult to figure out who is making legitimate improvements to their approach and production, but there are ways to try and identify those who are doing just that. Today, we'll take a look at some players who have had impressive or poor springs, but who have one thing in common: the numbers they've put up are not worth getting excited about, one way or the other.

Mark Teahen is a player who has driven analysts and fans crazy over the past few seasons, as he alternates between having potential, displaying that potential, and flushing that potential down the toilet by refusing to pull the ball consistently. This spring, Teahen has slugged an even 1.000, hitting three home runs along with a double and a triple in just 20 at-bats. It's easy to get excited about this, especially since he has shown power in the past, but there are a few things to note. First of all, it's only 20 at-bats-he could just as easily go without an extra-base hit over the next 20, which would make his line look a lot less impressive. Secondly, two of those homers came very recently against Barry Zito, which might mean something if the former Cy Young winner still had a fastball worth talking about.

That being said, it's good to see Teahen showing a bit of pop in his bat, as it could put him in a position to win the second-base job in Kansas City, but we need more evidence that he's settled on pulling the ball more often in order to exploit his power, rather than focusing on just hitting singles. He strikes out too much to be that kind of hitter, which makes his small sample line from the spring essentially meaningless.

His teammate Mike Jacobs is hitting .316/.422/.684 in 38 at-bats this spring, bopping four homers and a pair of doubles. He also took Zito yard the other day, but to his credit, power is the one tool he possesses and reliably delivers with. Jacobs swings at a lot of pitches, both in and outside of the zone, and he doesn't make contact with very many of them. This has led to his high strikeout rates and low batting averages.

If a player who normally hits for a low batting average begins to pick things up, one thing to look at is his strikeout rate, to see if he's made any improvements there which would give him more opportunities to put the ball in play and raise his average. In Jacobs' case this spring, he has whiffed 13 times in 38 at-bats; that's not an improvement, it's just evidence that Jacobs, like Teahen, may look successful thanks to the small sample sizes we have to work with. Before Jacobs can be a viable everyday option in both real and fantasy baseball, he needs to start hitting lefties and making more consistent contact, or at the very least improving his pitch selection. Based on his strikeout rates so far, it doesn't look as if Jacobs is accomplishing that crucial goal.

Ryan Ludwick had an exceptional breakout last year with the Cardinals, hitting .299/.375/.591. While expecting a repeat may be asking too much, Ludwick is actually capable of being a very good hitter, so it's surprising to see him hitting all of .147/.275/.206 this spring. Ludwick normally strikes out with some regularity, so he's not the kind of hitter you expect to have a high batting average to begin with. This spring though, he's only struck out just six times in 34 at-bats, which is less often than we're used to seeing from him.

It's more than likely not a problem with pitch selection either, as Ludwick is known for his patience; for his career, he has walked in nine percent of his plate appearances, and he rarely swings at pitches outside of the zone. The problem is one of small samples and poor luck; Ludwick has a batting average on balls in play of just .179, roughly 120 points below league average. Given that Ludwick is a line-drive hitter-and line drives have a better chance of turning into hits than other types of batted balls-there shouldn't be any long-term issues. Based on the lack of strikeouts, there is no apparent root problem to account for the low BABIP, and this is something there's no reason to fret over.

If only we could say the same about Nick Swisher. Swisher has hit .130/.344/.174 this spring, and he's done very little to support the belief that 2009 might be a rebound season for him after a disappointing 2008. He should have been better last year; he posted the best liner rate of his career while managing to put up the lowest BABIP at the same time. That makes 2009 a crossroads of sorts, where we'll learn if Swisher is going to follow Andruw Jones' path of no longer being a viable major league slugger, or if he'll bounce back and give the Yankees a quality corner guy as we would expect to happen via what we know about BABIP.

Last year, his bat looked slow, but he wasn't making any less contact than he had in the past. That gives him a point for the latter, happier path; you would expect that if his bat had slowed as significantly as Jones' did that Swisher would strike out more often and see less contact overall. Still, it's understandable to be a little more leery of the Swisher Comeback Campaign than you were before the spring began, but there's not enough information set you into full panic mode about his initially poor showing.

Finally, while Brett Gardner showed very little power in the minors, and he's not expected to develop into any kind of slugging outfielder, that hasn't stopped him from tearing up the opposition during the spring, cranking out a .379/.438/.759 line. Gardner's projected ceiling sees him hitting for average and developing some doubles power, but he's just as likely to become a fourth outfielder-so you should know better than to take that line seriously.

At the same time, here is a player who fits John Dewan's rule of thumb about spring training slugging: .759 is well above his professional numbers, and though it doesn't mean he's going to turn into a home-run threat, we may see him turn in a better season than expected. It's too early to do anything but make a mental note, but keep an eye on the remainder of his production this spring and into the early season to see if Dewan's theory fits.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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