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February 5, 2014

The Lineup Card

Eight of the Least Interesting Spring Training Storylines

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Player X Is in the Best Shape of His Life
Every spring, we get a whole bunch of these. A player shows up to camp with added muscle/lost weight and a spray tan, and he’s automatically in the “best shape of his life.” Hardball Talk has hilariously chronicled “best shape of his life” stories since they became a thing, and players already declared to be in the best shape of their lives include: Mike Moustakas, Danny Espinosa, Matt Harrison, Matt Adams, Kevin Gausman, and Scott Downs. If you really need a quick fix you can search #BestShapeOfHisLife on Twitter and Instagram, but you risk seeing pictures like this. Looking good, Pablo. Looking good. —Alex Kantecki

2. Fifth-Starter Battles
House no. 1 is a grizzled veteran, trying to prove that he still has something left to give to a team. House no. 2 was an up-and-comer three years ago, but now he's just an out-of-options disappointment. House no. 3 is a rookie who had a surprisingly good year last year in the minors. They'll be showing off their stainless steel appliances and granite counter-tops, all whilst throwing 2-3 innings of mediocre baseball against guys who will spend most of their time this year in AAA. But at the end of the episode, when the pitching coach and manager attempt to make it look like they are listing off the pros and cons of each and haven't already decided, who will be your team's fifth starter?

The truth is that the "winning" fifth starter will probably pitch long relief for most of April, and after two bad starts in May, one of the other houses... erm, pitchers will be called up to take his place. So, what exactly did he win? The chance to be the first one discarded? However, your local beat writer, with nothing else to write about, because eventually even spring games become exercises in monotony, will fill column inches with speculation about who's ahead in the big race/competition. Hint: look for the pitcher who doesn't have any furniture. —Russell A. Carleton

3. Can David Robertson Fill Mariano Rivera's Shoes?
Once you accept the common ninth-inning narrative, whereby the general excellence that a player has shown his entire career—life, actually—becomes instantly fragile because he's pitching one inning later than he is used to, then it's no leap at all for a reporter to suggest that filling Mariano Rivera's role could break even the sturdiest soul. For that reason, we'll get two types of stories: One that examines Robertson's sweat patterns, body language, spring training BABIP and the like, not doubting his constitution so much as just asking questions, questions like "is David Robertson reeeaaaaaalllllllly strong enough to handle this role, really?" The other type, pushed no doubt by Yankees personnel who want to nip any doubts in the bud, will be the one that examines his sweat patterns, body language, spring training BABIP and the like, while forcefully asserting that David Robertson has absolutely already shown his teammates and manager that he is indeed the Man for the job. Both are silly; the real effect of Rivera's retirement won't be the ninth, where Robertson will be better than the median closer, but in the rest of the bullpen, suddenly Robertson-free. Still not a great storyline, but Can Shawn Kelley Fill David Robertson's Shoes? is a much better question. —Sam Miller

4. Cactus and Grapefruit League Home Run Leaders

...No, wait, come back—I have more stats for you! —Matt Sussman

5. #Analysis and Criticism of Beat Writers Who Are Just Doing Their Jobs
I’m pretty sure that sometimes, being a beat writer is fun. Not often, but every once in a while. You get to meet interesting people, watch baseball for a living, and get a free ticket to the World Series and unrestricted access to every stadium in baseball. If you stick around, you get to vote for awards, the Hall of Fame, you name it. Seems like a fun gig. Sometimes. Every once in a while.

Then, there are the other times. The times when you’re asked to provide game stories and trivia about guys who will never make the majors. When you’re forced to write about whether or not players look fat, how many pretend home runs they hit, or whether they’re taking grounders in the field. You’re stuck away from home for long stretches of time covering meaningless games.

But actually, that’s not the worst part. Once those stories are posted, now you have to tweet about them. Before, they just languished in Page 7 of the local sports pages, behind whatever college basketball game was happening that day. Now, your Twitter proudly announces, “Pedroia was 1-for-3 with an RBI against Boston College, and his swing ‘looks to be in midseason form’, according to some guy on the field!” And then come the Twitterati, that Sabermetric crowd that’s been following you all winter, waiting around to shower you with ironic BS, like RTing your articles with the “#analysis” hashtag, as if you weren’t forced to write them. “Idiot!” your twitter followers say, “How could you be so stupid as to think that Pedroia’s stat line against Boston College was really meaningful! What kind of moron are you?!” Or, worse, maybe you mentioned which starter won the game, or which player is leading spring training in RBI! What kind of idiot you must be!

Seriously, give beat writers the benefit of the doubt. Most of them are just doing the crappiest part of their jobs. There’s plenty of time to harp on the ones who suck during the regular season. —Dan Brooks

6. Pitcher Win-Loss Records
Winters spent above the Sunbelt can cause irrational behavior in baseball fans. We cry out for baseball news of any kind during our collective hibernation and some of us even take it to an extreme and latch onto winter ball updates and El Serie Caribe. The time will be upon us soon where we revel in even the most banal of updates as the idea of playing baseball becomes more concrete each day that passes between pitchers and catchers reporting and the first spring training game. I love spring training for all of the poetic reasons that reek of saccharin, but there are the uninteresting points.

For me the most uninteresting storylines that are thrown out there are all related to wins and losses. “Player X is having a good spring, he has four wins against only one loss” is pretty uninspiring during the regular season, but to hear this type of storyline during the spring when the win-loss results mean so little is just simple white noise thrown out there perhaps as a force of habit. Personally, I don’t care if Jose Veras has three relief wins in the Cactus League this year; the win statistic already has limited value during the regular season, and it completely loses what little communicative ability it has during tune-up time for professional baseball players.

It’s negligible stuff. Announcers will do it to fill time during games filled with players who have numbers in the 90s on their backs, but that doesn’t change the fact that win-loss records are the least interesting spring training storyline. —Mauricio Rubio

7. The Joey Votto Walk Watch
Every year around this time, I get very excited for spring training. So much so that I find myself watching talking heads on the television—something I normally avoid—just because baseball is about to once again dominate my life on a daily basis. I mean, they are talking about baseball! Unfortunately, these talking heads will be dissecting one of the least interesting storylines of spring training: Joey Votto's walks.

"What's his deal," one will say to the other with a glaring look right before the the producers cut to a video sequence of called strikes Votto could have swung at. The other talking head will agree, saying "I'm not sure, but it absolutely cannot happen again in 2014," while motioning his hands in a way that doesn't quite make sense. No matter how many statistical breakdowns and logical explanations that can be boiled down to "not making an out is good," it won't make a difference in this situation.

Of course, it won't end there. This storyline will continue into the regular season and into the postseason, if the Cincinnati Reds make it there. But if that happens, it will on the back of Brandon Phillips' roll over grounders to the second baseman that scored Billy Hamilton from second base. As so they will say. —Ronit Shah

8. Tweeted play-by-play
Long before (and even after) baseball’s first radio broadcast, games were reenacted remotely on big boards that eventually came to be called Playographs. Updates would come in via telegraph, someone would read them aloud, and another someone would adjust a scoreboard or move figures around a mechanical field to reflect the events taking place in a distant park. Since the alternative was waiting for a box score to appear in the paper, these boards could be big draws, and the large crowds that assembled to see them would react as excitedly as if they had watched what happened live.

Playographs have fallen out of fashion. In their place, we have radio, TV, MLB.TV, MLB.com Gameday and Gameday Audio, ESPN’s MLB Gamecast, and live box scores, play logs, game threads and live chats on countless other sites. All of those sources are accessible from phones. If you have an internet connection, it’s extraordinarily easy to follow along with every game going on, wherever you are.

And still there are writers who treat their Twitter feeds like their own personal Playographs, dispensing morsels of play-by-play as if their followers were clustered around their computers in fedoras or homburgs, hanging on every tweet.

I get it. You get paid to go to a game, you feel some pressure to justify your presence there. You’re a reporter, so your instinct is to tell us what you see. Also, you might be bored, and you see some other guys doing it. Can’t let them get an exclusive scoop on that fly out to left.

But—and I hope I’m speaking for most of Baseball Twitter when I say this—play-by-play isn’t what we follow you for. And while we’re free to unfollow, we’d rather not miss out on all the info you offer that we can’t find anywhere else.

One could argue that tweeting play-by-play makes more sense in spring training than it does during the regular season, since some of the exhibition games aren’t televised. But one could also argue—and I would—that because they’re exhibition games, we don’t need to know the moment that no. 83 strikes out no. 97 with a runner on second. Yet if anything, this practice is more prevalent during the spring, when we’re so happy to have some new action to talk about that we’re willing to forgive almost any baseball-related behavior.

We know that spring training records don’t predict full-season success; just ask the 2013 Mariners (22-11), Reds (13-20), and Dodgers (13-20). And if the outcomes of the games don’t matter, then surely the individual plays that lead to those outcomes are irrelevant too, except insofar as they impact or give us some insight into things that might happen once the regular season starts. So when games begin this month, please leave the redundant reporting of routine events to the soulless XML scripts designed to do that job. It’s time for Twitter play-by-play to go the way of the Playograph. —Ben Lindbergh

Related Content:  Spring Training

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