Sometimes when it's your guy, it can be so hard not to believe.
You know spring training performance doesn’t matter, but just look at the guy—he’s killing everything. Never mind that he’s never faced major-league pitching when the stats counted, or that if he has, he’s been replacement level at best.
The best spring training hitters have included established All-Stars like Carlos Gonzalez and Ryan Zimmerman, wait-a-while prospects like Christian Yelich and Jackie Bradley, and the occasional fun reclamation projects like Kyle Blanks, whom the Padres tendered a contract this year after three disappointing seasons and an ugly medical history.
The most interesting, though, are the ones in the middle—those whose careers could still go either way or who are trying to force their way onto rosters. You can’t assign too much significance to these numbers, but you can look at the players at the top of the Grapefruit and Cactus League leaderboards and see what other indicators there might be that their springs are for real (or not).
Whose springs look like flukes, and whose come with a real reason to believe?
Aaron Hicks, Twins CF
Spring stats: .319/.353/.660, 4 HR, 14 K in 51 PA
Reality says: The majors aren’t going to be so easy for the 23-year-old who has progressed slowly through the minors and never played above Double-A. But if any team should try to push a player, it’s the Twins, who aren’t expected to contend for much this year and can let Hicks grow into his role. He’s shown good patience in the minors but still has a bit of a strikeout plague for someone who hadn’t hit for much power before this spring. While he has some speed, he’s still not a very good base-stealer. Unless he’s kept down for service time, he’ll be a regular in the lineup but probably isn’t ready to contribute to this extent right away.
Reason to believe: Not yet
Jason Castro, Astros C
Spring stats: .435/.519/1.000, 4 HR, 5 K in 27 PA
Reality says: Even without the hitting tear, this would have been the best spring in years for the former first-round pick still waiting to break through in the majors. Two years ago, he tore his ACL while avoiding a tag and last year, he struggled to work his way back from it. He had a setback midseason, but after returning from the DL—finally healed after 17 1/2 months—he hit .261/.343/.433 in August and September and recovered from a disastrous start defensively. Castro’s ceiling isn’t far above that, but for the perpetual tweaker, there’s some hope that he’s finally found good health.
Reason to believe: Yes
Collin Cowgill, Mets OF
Spring stats: .293/.370/.512, 2 HR, 8 K in 46 PA
Reality says: Even though the A’s seemed to love Cowgill, drafting him a year before Arizona drafted and ultimately signed him and then trading for him in 2010, it’s not hard to see why they shipped him to the Mets for very little. With a loaded outfield and Chris Young on the way in, there was just nothing for him to do in Oakland, and his .269/.336/.317 line in 116 PA when he was called up didn’t help. If you’re looking for encouragement in his minor-league stats, there’s some on-base ability there, but he’s never slugged outside of Reno, and Citi Field isn’t the place to start at 27. While the spring stats are good, this doesn’t refute Sandy Alderson’s self-deprecating question of “What outfield?” in regards to his own.
Reason to believe: Not really
Domonic Brown, Phillies OF
Spring stats: .375/.453/.625, 4 HR, 7 K in 64 PA
Reality says: In wondering whether these spring numbers are encouraging, it’s important to note where the problems in Brown’s young career have come. It’s not in the walks or the strikeouts, as he has a better than average rate in both of those things. He’s just not displayed any power. If the hamate bone really took a long time to heal and the power is back, he’s a productive player, and any time that Delmon Young gets over him is laughable. But he hasn’t shown that power anywhere recently aside from this spring, as he has just 13 home runs in 531 career plate appearances in Triple-A.
Reason to believe: Yes, more than any other options the Phillies have
Justin Smoak, Mariners 1B
Spring stats: .368/.415/.711, 3 HR, 10 K in 41 PA
Reality says: It’s often said that the two worst times to evaluate a player are September and spring training, and Smoak has now put together a great one of each in succession. Overall, his power dipped and more disturbingly, his patience dropped—from 3.96 to 3.75 pitches per plate appearance and a walk rate of 11.3 percent to 9.2 percent. It’s easy to dismiss September and the spring because of the overwhelmingly bad body of work that came before it, and that’s the recommended course of action, especially with a 1B/DH-loaded team and Mike Zunino coming to push Jesus Montero into that mix too. If you really want hope that this spring could lead to something good, it’s a three-part case:
1. His three-true-outcome stats aren’t terrible and his BABIP is.
2. He’s better on the road than in a bad home park.
3. He’s a fly-ball hitter, so in conjunction with no. 2, give him a year to hit in Safeco Field with the fences in.
Reason to believe: You’re reaching, but maybe you can find a blurry one
David Phelps, Yankees RHP
Spring stats: 19 IP, 17 H, 5 ER (2.37 ERA), 4 BB, 12 K
Reality says: Most of these cases are hitters because the pitchers aren’t anywhere near full starts yet, but Phelps has faced 53 batters this spring—in line with the PA totals for the most-used position players. He’s not young, but his terrific minor-league stats carried over to the real thing pretty well: he walked 3.4 per 9 and struck out 8.7 per 9 in 33 appearances (11 starts) for the Yankees last year. Even if he’s not being evaluated on the basis of this spring, he has a better case for the fifth-starter job than Ivan Nova, and this performance can only help.
Reason to believe: For Yankees fans who really need one, yes
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .