Spring Sluggers

There has been recent discussion about whether spring training statistics are predictive in some way. John Dewan at ACTA Sports suggests they might be:

For the most part, we agree with the common perception that they don’t have value. A bad spring training means nothing. An average spring training tells us nothing. Nevertheless, we did find that when a player has an exceptional spring, it does suggest a better than 60% chance they will take their game up a notch.

Details? Sure…

We define “exceptional spring” as a positive difference between a hitter’s spring training slugging percentage and their lifetime slugging percentage of 200 points or more.

No definition is offered for “take their game up a notch,” but one way to measure it is by using OPS+ from Year 1 to Year 2. Here’s a look at 2010′s breakout candidates:

Slugging Percentage 200+ points better in Spring Training
                                   SLG          OPS+
Hitter, Team                 Dif ST10  Car | '10 '11 Dif
Jose Bautista, Blue Jays    .484 .884 .400 |  99 166 +67
Mitch Maier, Royals         .436 .760 .324 |  79  94 +15
Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals   .345 .824 .478 | 133 142  +9
Colby Rasmus, Cardinals     .316 .723 .407 |  89 132 +43
Jerry Hairston, Padres      .302 .675 .373 |  90  83  -7
Delwyn Young, Pirates       .288 .673 .385 |  88  87  -1
Conor Jackson, Diamondbacks .283 .714 .431 |  35  79 +44*
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies    .282 .756 .474 | 131 138  +7
Hunter Pence, Astros        .272 .760 .488 | 116 114  -2
Gregg Zaun, Brewers         .262 .650 .388 |  99 102  +3*
Aaron Rowand, Giants        .260 .708 .448 |  92 75  -17
Nelson Cruz, Rangers        .259 .732 .473 | 117 150 +33
Justin Upton, Diamondbacks  .254 .739 .485 | 129 111 -18
Will Venable, Padres        .252 .679 .427 | 109 104  -5
Alberto Callaspo, Royals    .242 .646 .404 |  95  67 -28
John Bowker, Giants         .229 .631 .402 |  60  75 +15*
Mike Aviles, Royals         .223 .651 .429 |  22 104 +82**
Mark Kotsay, White Sox      .204 .617 .413 |  84  82  -2

*Fewer than 500 PA combined in 2009 and 2010.
**Fewer than 100 PA in 2009.

Removing Jackson, Zaun, Bowker, and Aviles on account of playing time issues, we are left with 14 players. Despite the lack of a tight definition, by most reasonable standards, Bautista, Rasmus, and Cruz all took their game “up a notch.”

Maier also improved, although he was so bad to begin with that even the better version wasn’t very good. Still, we’ll give him credit for elevating his offensive game from terrible to mediocre.

Zimmerman and Tulowitzki saw marginal gains despite already playing at a high level. Hairston, Young, Venable, and Kotsay essentially duplicated their efforts from the previous year. Rowand, Upton, and Callaspo all saw their numbers slip.

Here’s a summary:

Dif OPS+   No Names
> 10        4 Bautista, Maier, Rasmus, Cruz
-10 to 10   7 Zimmerman, Hairston, Young, Tulowitzki, Pence, Venable, Kotsay
< -10       3 Rowand, Upton, Callaspo

Tim Dierkes examined this issue after the 2006 and 2007 seasons. He also noted the lack of defined criteria:

To properly study this in regards to last year's Spring Training stats, I need some more info. Specifically, what does "better than normal" mean? Better SLG in the season compared to the guy's career SLG? Better SLG this season than last? Something else?

Dierkes used SLG, while I opted for OPS+ ("Opt for OPS+" would be make a great campaign slogan, eh?). For grins, here are the Padres who meet ACTA's criteria this spring:

Hitter        Dif ST11  Car
Nick Hundley .346 .756 .398
Will Venable .209 .627 .418

If we are to believe ACTA (I remain agnostic, having not seen the original work), one of Hundley or Venable will take his game to the next indeterminate level. For lack of a better definition, let's continue to use an OPS+ improvement of more than 10 points as our standard.

For Hundley, this means 113 or higher, which is a jump from Todd Hundley (no relation) to Darrell Porter. On the one hand, that is a very exciting possibility. On the other, I'm as big a fan of Hundley as there is outside his family but I'm not holding my breath.

Venable made it onto Dewan's list last year and didn't have a breakout campaign. He'd need to post an OPS+ of 115 (Reggie Sanders) in 2011. If Hundley turns into Porter or Venable turns into Sanders, I'll be thrilled.

Eric Patterson also deserves a mention. Thanks to his bad left hammy, Patterson got only 32 at-bats, but his SLG this spring was .813, as compared to a career mark of .353.

Patterson had an 81 OPS+ in 2010, which means he would need to ratchet that up to at least 92 this year to meet our standard. In other words, he could be the new Maier, which you have to admit is pretty darned exciting.

Others within striking distance (no soup for them, but still worth noting):

Hitter            Dif ST11  Car
Aaron Cunningham .188 .565 .377
Chris Denorfia   .168 .579 .411
Brad Hawpe       .120 .610 .490
Orlando Hudson   .114 .538 .424
Chase Headley    .110 .500 .390
Cameron Maybin   .109 .489 .380

It might be instructive to review this information in a more systematic way. The predicted breakout candidates for 2008 and 2009 are readily available if anyone is interested in doing further work.

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7 Responses »

  1. Really, Geoff? ABBA! That’s just going too far!!! ;-)

  2. Dykstra was just such a strange choice in 2008 – the Padres already had Adrian Gonzalez under control for 4 more years (counting 2008) and also had Kyle Blanks who was just 8 months older and had torn up Lake Elsinore in 2007. The 2008 draft was certainly a strange one with the Rays blowing the first pick (taking Tim Beckham over Buster Posey to save money) and 7 first basemen going in the top 23 picks (Hosmer 3rd, Alonso 7th, Smoak 11th, Brett Wallace 13th, David Cooper 17th, Ike Davis 18th and then Dykstra).

    At least now with Tim Stauffer turning it around and appearing to be a useful major league player the Padres streak of wasted top picks just goes 7 years (counting Donovan Tate although that’s probably unfair as he is still really young).

  3. Can’t fault the Padres for taking Dykstra if they thought he was the best player, no matter how many 1b they had. The bigger problem was any evaluation that would have looked at the players available and decided that he was the best one, ESPECIALLY since his hip condition was public knowledge.

    There were a couple of good picks that went bad in that streak. Not the same as a bad pick.

    The Rays with Posey. Boston and New York nightmares.

  4. Somewhat baseball-related link for you all. An AV Club article about the state of baseball cards in 2011 (caution: this is one guy’s pop culture take on cards, not a serious investigation!).

    Not sure if links are allowed in the comments so I set it as my web site. I assume you can click on my name to go there. Else go to avclub.com.

  5. Geoff, do you know anything about who the PTBNL is going to be in Bartlett trade? I know that it’s supposed to be a minor leaguer, but it was also supposed to be named before opening day, which is tomorrow, and yet no word on who it is.

  6. I agree with TW; you draft the best player.
    The Red Sox in the early 1970′s had a surplus of Lynn, Rice, Cooper, Evans, Reggie Smith, plus a still productive Yaz.
    Of course they wasted the surplus with bad trades of Cooper and Smith.

  7. @Pat: No way, dude; ABBA rocks!

    @Tom, TW: The Dykstra pick was odd. I never liked his lack of athleticism, and of course, the hip issue should have been identified before the pick was made. The lack of power has been puzzling. At this point, he’s a hulking version of Dave Magadan but without the ability to make consistent contact, which is a tough sell.

    On the other hand, the guy I wanted with that pick, Anthony Hewitt, has been a complete disaster.

    (Amusingly, as Marc Normandin pointed out to me on Twitter, Hoyer & co. drafted Dykstra out of high school in 2005. They took Jacoby Ellsbury with their first pick that year, who was a college teammate of Eddie Kunz, for whom Dykstra was traded.)

    @bee1000: Links are cool. So is that article. Thanks!

    @AirmanSD: Good point… I haven’t heard anything.