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March 19, 2014

The Lineup Card

11 Spring Training Performances We Sort of Believe In

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Clayton Kershaw
Clayton Kershaw had a terrible spring, allowing a run per inning with a FIP of about 5.50. Last year, the Giants felt that the long run into the previous October had negatively affected Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong, who made five and four starts, respectively, in the 2012 postseason, then had uncharacteristically bad years. So it's worth wondering whether Kershaw, too, is at risk. So:

From 2006 to 2012 there were 34 pitchers whose October action added four or more starts to their seasons' workloads. One, Curt Schilling, retired, leaving us 33 seasons following lengthy Octobers. Of those 33, 17 pitchers had ERAs worse than PECOTA projected the following year, 14 had ERAs that were better, and one got hurt and never threw a pitch. (One tied his projection.) Hey, it's a trend?

Ehh, probably not. Except for a moment the three pitchers who barely pitched at all--Chris Carpenter twice, and Colby Lewis--and the already modest difference basically disappears. The average starter was about .04 runs of ERA worse than PECOTA expected him to be, which means nothing. Further, at the risk of parsing this already parsed group even further, most of the "damage" came to the pitchers who made five starts or more, which probably isn't significant but which invalidates the very premise regarding Kershaw.

So maybe you can argue that Carpenter and Lewis were hurt, like actually injured, by having to pitch into October, but assuming Kershaw isn't actually injured and that he actually pitches this year, the recent past doesn't foreshadow a worse-than-projected season for him. Which is why I totally believe one of his spring stats will carry over: One wild pitch every four starts seems just about right to me. —Sam Miller

2. Ivan Nova
After finishing 2013 as a reinvented starting pitcher, Ivan Nova is having a spring training performance that has me believing the best has yet to come. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound right-handed starter has recorded 16 strikeouts to just two walks in 13 1/3 innings so far in spring training. Nova has always possessed a plus fastball with sinking life that opposing hitters batter into the ground, but the rest of the package was in question. Nova's arsenal had featured two breaking balls and a changeup, but Nova completely scratched the slider from his arsenal and, as a result, the curveball became more lethal—a sign he may have been caught in between the two offerings. The domino effect doesn't end there, however, as Nova began to limit walks. The next step in the 27-year-old's development is two-fold, beginning with the question if Nova can improve his curveball command enough to the point where he can get it over for strikes as opposed to over-relying on the offering as a chase pitch. While I do believe Nova can continue to have success as a two-pitch pitcher, a third pitch would help make me feel more comfortable. A changeup he can get over to left-handed hitters would make all the difference in this case. —Ronit Shah

3. Grady Sizemore
Last week, we liked the Sizemore signing on the record here at Lineup Card. It’s easy to be positive about players (and the size of their deals) on paper, though; so when I flipped the TV on the other day and the BoSox were playing a spring training game I thought it would be good to see how Sizemore actually looked (and the size of his deal, too, heh heh). I saw him belt a resounding double and add a single on his way to a 3-for-4 game. More impressively, he laid out for a highlight-reel catch in center field (apparently one of two that day). The question was always whether Sizemore’s injuries would sap his abilities, and the answer appears to be no—at least, not with one game’s worth of evidence. In that same game, Sox manager John Farrell acknowledged that Sizemore’s playing time will have to be monitored. If Farrell and his brain trust are already savvy about protecting Sizemore from overuse—and they have Jackie Bradley, Jr. to help with that, of course—that could get them a long way toward getting plenty more 3-4 days with two spectacular catches out of him this season. So far, I’m a believer. —Adam Sobsey

4. Michael Pineda
We know that it takes forever for ERA and BABIP to stabilize. We can thus expect Michael Pineda’s 0.00 ERA through nine innings this spring to regress some. But strikeout and whiff rates are (a little) safer to judge in small sample sizes, and Pineda has shown good signs so far. He’s had 14 strikeouts in his first game’s worth of pitching, and 12 have been swinging. (There is sadly no stringer or PITCHf/x data to detail the precise breakdown of swinging strikes, but I’ve watched his appearances and there was an abundance of them.) His command has been decent (forgivably so for someone returning from a labrum tear), and his stuff has been nasty.

Pineda is essentially just a fastball-slider pitcher (his changeup is not a weapon at all) so he needs both of those pitches to be successful—and that means getting swinging strikes. Way back in 2011, which is the last time he was recorded by PITCHf/x and faced major league hitting, his fortunes were closely tied to his whiff rate. Through July 4, his ERA was 2.58 and his fastball and slider were each more than a standard deviation above the league average for those pitch types in whiff/swing. But in his final 11 starts, his ERA was 5.71 and his fastball/slider whiff rates were noticeably lower.

A lot can go wrong for a guy coming from two years of throwing shoulder rehab, but there is a decent chance New York will end up getting something out of the Jesus Montero trade. —Dan Rozenson

5. Anthony Rizzo
Anthony Rizzo is rocking a .392/.452/.750 line over 28 ABs of spring training, which is among the best this spring, albeit in the land of small sample size. Notwithstanding the tomfoolery that is extrapolating from 28 ABs, those aren’t a bad 28 ABs to have. The line is good enough to trigger the Dewan Indicator, which says that players who slug more than 200 points better than their career averages in spring training are likely to experience a regular season power spike. This triple slash, combined with a not-at-all biased prior belief that this is the year Rizzo makes his awaited breakout, lead me to suggest that some portion of the immense power from this spring’s performance may carry over into the regular season. —Rob Arthur

6. Nathan Eovaldi
Sample sizes and the dearth of spring training stats notwithstanding, Nathan Eovaldi's spring has been encouraging. Not only has the flamethower reportedly been touching triple digits with his fastball, but he has also apparently begun to improve his control, walking one thus far in 36 batters faced, all while giving up a solitary run in the process. It's enough of a showing to make you begin to wonder if the proverbial corner has been turned by the righthander. If the strikeouts (9 K/9 in his 8 spring innings) are here to stay and are concomitant with a more liberal use of his secondary pitches and an increased ability to get hitters to swing and miss or at least chase pitches, Eovaldi could finally bloom into an above average starter behind Jose Fernandez, providing the Marlins with a formidable 1-2 starting punch. —Stuart Wallace

7. Mike Olt
Spring training performances are incredibly untrustworthy, so the modifier “sort of” applies well here. I sort of believe in Mike Olt’s performance to date as I think it means that his visions issues are cleared up and we’ll now get a true and honest test of his playing ability. There are other concerns now, shoulder fatigue has limited him to strictly DH duty so far this spring so it’s up in the air whether he’ll unseat the incumbent Luis Valbuena with limited, if any, reps at third this spring.

But hey, at least the vision issue seems to be cleared up. —Mauricio Rubio

8. Starters Converting to the Bullpen
We know that nearly ever reliever began his baseball life as a starter before moving to the bullpen in search of more acceptable stats. Long before last year, we’d internalized Tom Tango’s “Rule of 17,” Nate Silver’s research into good conversion candidates, and the knowledge that pitchers tend to throw harder and improve their peripherals when they don’t have to make multiple trips through the lineup.

But 2013 was when Luke Hochevar, a flop of a first overall pick with a career 5.44 ERA in over 750 innings as a starter, recorded a sub-2.00 ERA in 70 innings out of the pen. When Brett Cecil, formerly a soft-tossing, below-league-average starter, turned into an All-Star eighth-inning guy who threw 93. When Kevin Siegrist, whom Kevin Goldstein once described as a “smoke-and-mirrors lefty who rarely gets out of the 80s with his fastball,” became a flamethrowing lefty whose fastball averaged 95. When Alex Torres, a former minor-league starter with a four-plus ERA in Triple-A, posted a 1.71 ERA in 58 innings out of Tampa Bay’s bullpen. When Will Smith lowered his ERA by two runs and doubled his strikeout rate. When Chris Withrow missed bats but found the strike zone. When Manny Parra put it together. When Brian Duensing was worth a roster spot.

All of those transitions surpassed Tango’s typical expectation of a “one run per nine innings pitched” improvement. In my mind, then, 2013 became the Year of the Converted Reliever. And after seeing all of those conversions succeed, I’m ready to believe that almost any former starter who’s headed to the bullpen is about to be unhittable. (Heck, no one was worse than Hochevar.) Paul Maholm, Chris Capuano, and John Lannan? The next Duensing or Cecil. Danny Duffy? The next Smith. Zach Britton (and his 1.13 spring ERA in eight innings)? You’d better believe he’ll be the next Brian Matusz. Ross Detwiler? Zach Duke? Sam Deduno (0.93 ERA, 9 2/3 IP)? Budding relief aces, all. And keep an eye on Casey Crosby, too.

Spring stats aren’t predictive, but exhibition-game box scores are all we need to tell the rotation material from the guys being groomed for relief. Take a terrible starter and stick him in the bullpen, and I don’t care what his other stats say. In short bursts, I’m buying. —Ben Lindbergh

9. MLB's Instant Replay System
The kinks, quirks, and undocumented features of replay do exist, and while we suspected this, the first few weeks have helped confirm it.

However, keep in mind the system is doing the intended thing: overturning calls. Maybe not at the rate we expect or desire, but it is happening, and if you want to travel from 0 to 100, first you have to cross 10. Consider it Small Sample Size Syndrome in spring, but it's looking like a vehicle for making less of us unjustifiably grumpy during baseball games, leaving our angst to be focused on our team's lack of pitching/hitting/defense/cool hats. Raw ability with upside.

If MLB Instant Replay could be anthropomorphized, it could win Rookie of the Year. It's going to act like a rookie, especially when every other doggone rule in baseball is older than your great-great-grampaw. So give it time and replay should win the starting job out of camp, meaning its backup, Guessing The Correct Call, is out of major-league options. —Matt Sussman

10. Injured Pitchers
When we’re talking about spring training performances, we’re talking about belief over fact. Anyone reading Baseball Prospectus knows that, while some performances can rise slightly above the level of meaninglessness, most couldn’t mean less if players went to bat holding feral cats and pitchers threw used car parts (editor’s note: no cats were hit with car parts in the making of the previous sentence that you are award of). That’s because of a myriad of factors are present during spring training that make it patently unlike regular season baseball. So, when looking for spring training performances we believe in, we need to look to places in the sport where spring training replicates, as perfectly as possible, regular season baseball.

Nowhere is the relationship between the two types of baseball stronger than with injured players. Injured players can’t play well. They can’t play well during Spring Training and they can’t play well during the regular season. This is because they are injured and moving their bodies in baseball-type ways hurts them. The relationship is the strongest in pitchers. Batters might be able to tough through some portion of spring, dependent on their injuries, but pitchers, if they’re really hurt, can’t throw a ball (or a car part) either way. It is in that way that I believe wholeheartedly in the performance of injured pitchers like Jarrod Parker. He’s going to have a second Tommy John surgery and this makes me believe all the more. This surgery will make him utterly unable to play baseball whether it’s spring or summer, or fall, or possibly any time ever as long as it’s post-surgery and pre-invention of bionic arm replacement surgery. The same goes for just about every pitcher on the Braves. Not now, not through spring, not during the regular season. Not not not not not. Because they can’t. I believe! —Matthew Kory

11. The Brewers
This week’s Lineup Card is titled “spring training performances we sort of believe in." I sort of believe the Brewers won spring training. Let me explain:

Brief conversation recap:

Me: “Hey, do you know anyone on the Brewers?”
Wife: “Hank! He’s so cute!”

Me: “Anyone else?”
Wife: “Uh… that guy suspended for steroids? Ryan Braun maybe?”

Me: “Anyone else?”
Wife: “No. Why are you laughing? Was I wrong about the steroids guy’s name?”

So, in less than one week, my wife—who actually is a pretty big baseball fan—has fallen in love with a stray dog that wandered off the Arizona streets and was adopted by the Brewers. This might be because Hank looks kind of like our dog, but Hank is pretty damn cute regardless. He even ran in the sausage race dressed as a hot dog. And he looks ridiculously happy in all the pictures, running around the field, posing with players, whatever.

She doesn’t know any other Brewers players, except for the steroids guy, and isn’t even really sure about his name. Google search for “Hank” and “Brewers” and you no longer pull up pages related to one of the greatest baseball players of all time.

The Brewers were recently picked by Ben and Sam on Effectively Wild as the team least likely to win the World Series in either the short or long term. The organizational ineptitude probably makes fans upset, frustrated, and bitter.

But if the point of baseball is to make us smile, the Brewers won spring training. You better believe it. —Dan Brooks

Related Content:  Spring Training

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Premium Article Notes from the Field: ... (03/19)
<< Previous Column
The Lineup Card: 11 of... (03/12)
Next Column >>
The Lineup Card: 10 Pl... (03/26)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Freestyle: Bea... (03/20)

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