Broadly speaking, spring training performance doesn’t matter much. Maybe in some perfect world we’d have decent measurements and be able to glean things from them, but in this world, they’re compiled over relatively small samples with highly variant levels of competition and run environments. The results of fifty plate appearances against MLB pitching don’t matter much, so why would fifty plate appearances against a mixture of MLB guys pitching at eighty-five percent and MiLB guys of greatly varying talent? The simple answer is that it doesn’t. For awhile, sabermetric pioneer John Dewan hypothesized that batters slugging more than two hundred points higher than their career norms in spring were primed to break out—Jose Bautista was the poster boy for this theory—but more recent research has not agreed with Dewan’s specific premise, including some of Dewan’s own more recent writings. The more complex answer is that under very limited circumstances it can matter a little. David Rosenheck has noted that using certain rate metrics that stabilize in a small number of plate appearances slightly improved ZIPS projections, especially for rookies, and Neil Paine found similar with offensive MARCEL projections, though the results only moved with very extreme spring performances.
What can matter even more is the dreaded old eye test. I would hardly suggest watching spring training with the idea that you’re going to be able to pick out which established MLB star is going to have a good year and bad year just by watching a bunch of games. It’s nigh impossible to know whether, for example, a good player looks bad in spring because he’s tinkering with mechanics, or playing at less than full effort for one meaningless reason or another, or whether there’s actual degradation of skill there. Even more competitive environments, like the WBC or competitions for roster spaces or key roles, can suffer from this. But it is perfectly reasonable to ask yourself “why?” and try and uncover the narrative of a player’s spring, and sometimes in doing so you’ll infer something interesting about the player moving forward.
Take, for example, Mets closer Jeurys Familia. My colleague Tim Finnegan noted on Saturday that per Gameday’s PitchF/X readout, Familia threw a 100.8 MPH fastball while playing for the Dominican Republic in the WBC—a harder pitch than he’s ever thrown in MLB. Let’s look for the narrative factual as to why: Familia played winter ball this offseason for the first time in a few years, so he came into camp already cranked up. Because he is likely facing a lengthy suspension for domestic violence, Familia aiming his early-season prep to peak in March makes all the sense in the world. After the WBC, he’ll probably have at least a month off, and maybe longer, before has to ramp it back up for the regular season. So the idea that Familia would be airing it out in the WBC makes perfect sense. Compare that to Andrew Miller, who looked like something quite a bit less than Andrew Miller in the first round for the United States. But Miller’s coming off a short offseason, didn’t really get himself going way early like Familia did, and is aiming to be Andrew Miller on Opening Day more than in the second week of March. Does Miller not having his best slider nearly a month ahead of the season in an exhibition tournament have any substantial bearing on his outlook for 2017? I don’t think so.
There’s one example so extreme that he comes up nearly every year. Cole Hamels, in almost a full-season’s worth of innings, has a 5.24 career spring ERA—nearly two runs higher than his career ERA, despite the obviously weaker competition in spring training. His velocity is usually down three or four ticks, his command and change are not sharp, and he often gets lit up. Nearly every spring, right around this time, we start getting the “what’s wrong with Cole Hamels?” articles. Right on time for 2017, Hamels made his Cactus League debut on Friday, only getting one out while facing six hitters. Every year, Cole Hamels says not to worry, he’s just getting everything in order, and every year, Cole Hamels is Cole Hamels, one of the most consistent starting pitchers in baseball. One of these years he actually will break, because all pitchers do, but history says you should bet on his feel and velocity coming back in the days right before Opening Day.
The flip side of all of this is that players, especially young players, do sometimes make huge, unexpected skill gains over the course of an offseason—a great offseason of work, a new training regimen, or even just everything clicking. At the real extremes, Albert Pujols and the late Jose Fernandez both made the major-league team from completely out of nowhere when intended to be just in camp so the parent club could look at their top prospect. Fernandez had never pitched above A-ball; Pujols had only made it past there for a week at the end of the season to get more playing time in the playoffs. These moves were at least a year or two ahead of time on the “normal” scales of talent development and completely insane by normal roster management rules. But in both cases, their teams correctly evaluated that they had made three incredible years of normal development in six months, as both Pujols and Fernandez were MLB superstars performing at a superstar-level from day one. Sometimes, you can just feel it.
Trying to pick which player generating tremendous amounts of buzz during spring is the next Albert Pujols or Jose Fernandez is a fool’s errand at best. Those proved to be generational talents, and you’ll go broke making that bet. But am I at least paying attention to the buzz that Eloy Jimenez looks like he belongs with the major leaguers in Cubs camp? You bet—just like I’m paying attention to the Gleyber Torres talk that sounds just like what came out of the Arizona Fall League, the reports that Cody Bellinger might be ready now, the positing that Michael Kopech’s slider and command jumped, and the looks at Amed Rosario that claim the power is finally coming. Some of it will come to pass and some of it will just be spring hype, but I’m going to put a pin on them as high-priority targets for looks throughout April at the very least.
It’s also worth looking out for pitchers doing something particularly new. Sometimes this is just a small velocity jump and a tighter slider (every team has a few, but Mets relief candidate Paul Sewald is a good example for this week), but sometimes already good pitchers can make big changes. Jason Collette at Fangraphs has a very comprehensive and handy New Pitch Tracker. Many of these will be lousy and shelved, but if you go back to the 2016 version of this, you notice Noah Syndergaard refining his devastating Warthen Slider (listed as a cutter) and Kyle Hendricks adding a curveball that was a key pitch for him as he claimed the MLB ERA crown.
Syndergaard’s slider was very noticeable last spring; he spent 2016’s Grapefruit League pumping them them over and over again to gain command and feel for the pitch. By the time the season rolled around, it was one of the his key pitches, and he was one of the best pitchers in baseball with it. While Syndergaard tinkered with the slider at times in 2015, it was in those meaningless exhibition games last spring where the great tip-off that one of the major’s best pitches was coming more or less out of nowhere happened. That’s when spring training actually means something.