Roaming cyborgs menace outfielders shagging fly balls. Infielders need to stop after every groundball and log it at a nearby computer. When player performance drops below a certain proprietary algorithm, a trap door opens below that player on the Osceola County Stadium field, and that one-time Astro is never heard from again.
I can confirm that this is not how spring training works for the Houston Astros.
Still, spring training is a notorious breeding ground for poor decisions made on incomplete, inaccurate or just plain useless data—the sort of bad-sample trap that should drive a Process team nuts. This isn't some progressive Astros conclusion, but a generally understood reality within the sport. I heard Mets manager Terry Collins make an umprompted argument against spring performance as a decision-driver last week, and few people have pegged Collins as some kind of hyper-sabermetric strategist. And yet: no one has moved to abolish spring training. So what does a team like the Astros, whose front office is quite aware of the limitations of spring numbers, use that time for?
For a bit of evaluation—the Astros do utilize spring performance as data, though carefully, and tacked on to what the team already knows about a player. As a significant teaching period that allows the Astros to codify coaching approach throughout the organization. And as a large dose of emotional and psychological interaction that the Astros believe will have a dramatic if still unquantifiable impact on the season.
“When we show up here, it's the one time when we have 200 players in the same place, we have 60 coaches in the same place,” Astros assistant general manager David Stearns told me as we sat in his office, a few minutes before the March 20th game between the Astros and Nationals. “It's a tremendously important time for player development. So put the evaluation aspect to the side for a moment, you think about the coach-to-player ratio during spring training, and it's about as good as it can possibly get at any time of the year. And so the amount of individual attention and specified instruction that can go on between our players and our coaches is better this time of year than anything else. For me, as I look at this for the organization as a whole, that's what gets me really excited about spring training.”
During this coaching time, though, the Astros aren't just teaching. They are evaluating what is being taught and how it will affect player performance going forward. This requires the supposedly number-slave organization to instead rely on coaching opinions, something the team does quite often.
It's no different than general manager Jeff Luhnow's approach to scouts. Luhnow didn't shy away from scouting as a key component in player evaluation, but he did bring a system of accountability to it, first during his time with the Cardinals and now with the Astros. You can trust a scout's “eye test” once you see how closely his previous 50 “eye test” evaluations dovetailed with subsequent player production.
I asked Stearns if a similar ability to evaluate coaches was possible, given that they aren't given discrete chances to determine player value as scouts do.
“I think there are anecdotal ways of doing that,” Stearns said. “One of the benefits of having continuity within an organization is, you get to know your coaches. And you can have a pitching coach come to you and say, 'I see this pitcher working on this pitch, and I know the results aren't there, but I'm telling you he has a feel for that pitch, so just bear with him.' You have that happen a couple of times, and the coach is right, you're going to start trusting that coach consistently. And we've had that here.”
One pitcher (whom Stearns declined to name) provided value to the Astros last season following a rocky spring. And the team stuck with him because pitching coach Brent Strom insisted the pitcher was developing a changeup, one that would ultimately make him a useful big-league pitcher. Strom was right.
“At the major-league level, you're trying to sort out the best pitchers,” Strom told me on March 20th. “And there are a number of individual things you do with each pitcher, I can't go into specifics for the sake of each pitcher, but each guy has been receptive to ideas that have come forward. But the biggest thing I have to do is have an open line of communication. They need to tell me how they feel before I can move forward.”
That was evident in the game against the Nationals. A pair of the four contenders for the fifth starter job—yes, the Astros do have position battles within spring training—pitched for Houston. Samuel Deduno started, and pitched poorly, allowing four runs and four walks over two innings. Asher Wojciechowski entered in the sixth, and pitched three solid innings, though he did allow his first run of the spring.
After each pitcher left the game, but before leaving the field, Strom spoke to each of them. His conversation with Wojciechowski lasted several minutes, Strom's arm around the pitcher, catcher Max Stassi standing with them as they convened in front of the home dugout.
“We were just talking about my mechanics, and what I need to do to make my pitches effective,” Wojciechowski told me as he stood in front of his locker following the game.
But Wojciechowski also spoke to the tenor of Strom's remarks, a relentless positivity that he believes impacts his results on the field.
“Yeah, I mean, he's a great pitching coach,” Wojciechowski said. “He knows how to talk to different personalities, and get his point across. And not in a criticizing way. He knows how to talk to his pitchers.”
It is that psychological component that Stearns believes is the most important part of the spring. With many progressive organizations embracing psychology as a possible next frontier and competitive advantage, that makes spring training more important to team success, rather than a time filler that skews perceptions and breeds hamstring injuries. Teams best able to develop bonds between players and coaching staff will have an easier time disseminating information the way Strom did to Wojciechowski.
And then there is the related idea: that while seven weeks may not provide the kind of raw numbers that can define a player, it can yield psychological information that can be useful in evaluation.
“Whether we're at the point where we're able to make evaluations based on that type of feedback or that type of information, I don't know that we're there yet,” Stearns said. “I don't know that any club is there yet. But certainly that's an important aspect, and anyone who's ever played the game will tell you that the mental aspect, the focus aspect is extremely important. I don't know that we'll ever be able to quantify it. I think it's more understanding from the mental skills standpoint, understanding which mental skills are important.”
For both Deduno and Wojciechowski, part of that mental approach was thinking about each outing individually, rather than within the framework of a fifth starter spot each man wanted. The Astros let them know at the start of spring training that it was a possibility, then worked with each of them on the specifics of performance, not the underlying goal.
“I just try not to think about it,” Wojciechowski said of the competition. “I just try to go out there and compete, not think about it too hard, and then I figure I'll be all right. I just go out there, give it my all, have fun and see what happens.”
Their manager, A.J. Hinch, spoke after the game about a need to do the reverse. Instead of blocking out the big picture and focusing on the immediate, Hinch needs to push back against the natural tendency to weigh the evidence directly in front of him as more significant than what's come before it.
“It is an aggregate of everything they've done,” Hinch said. “And not just these four or six weeks. But also previous seasons… so you factor in what you know about them, what you see with them. Strike throwing is key—it's important for us to have reliable strike-throwers. But you've also got to be able to get them out. There's a process part of it, there's a results part of it, and then there's a history part, we know our guys.
“The results of it are obvious. Everybody sees that. What everybody doesn't see is the process—the bullpens, how guys are responding to tweaks. You know, there's a fine line with these guys, and trying to get them to work on a few things while they're competing. There's only so much you want Sam Deduno to alter his delivery in a way that we think will create more strikes, but he's still fighting for his life to be on this roster. And the same goes for Wojo with his pitch usage.”
On this day, Deduno's alterations failed him. Wojciechowski kept on impressing. And the Astros, just like other teams, are going to have to make a call soon.
“From the sample-size perspective, and whether spring training matters: for better or worse, we're in the business of making decisions based on incomplete information,” Stearns said, smiling. “We never have the information we want. We would love to make every decision based on 1,000 plate appearances in major league competition, or 400 innings in major league competition. We rarely have the ability to do that.
“So do you have to take spring training performance with a grain of salt, because it is such a short period? Of course. At the same time, does it add something to your overall understanding of a player, his past body of work, including things he might be working on in camp? Yeah, it does. I don't think anyone really believes, or any evaluator really looks at what's going on the field and says, 'That doesn't matter at all.'"
Howard Megdal is the author of the forthcoming book The Cardinals Way, to be published in 2016.