Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Spring Training Review



Opening Day has come and gone. Real baseball is back, but with only one game in the books, there still isn't much we can say with confidence about the 2015 season. Much like Kentucky, the Nationals’ undefeated season came to an end, but the Nationals won’t go winless for the season. While I fully expect a breakout season from Bryce Harper, I don’t think he will hit .500 for the year with 162 home runs, his prorated stats for a full season based on this first game. It will take a while for some of the so called peripheral stats (i.e. strikeout rates, walk rates, etc. that contribute to ERA and AVG and OBP) to stabilize and become something we can rely on, and even longer for the back of the baseball card stats like ERA and OBP to reach that point. In the meantime, are we left only to speculate wildly?

If you have read any coverage of the Nationals over the last couple of weeks, you have surely been advised not to place any reliance on the stats players have been putting up in Spring Training. Baseball history is littered with players who have broken out with a huge spring training only to fizzle to disappointment during the regular season. The reverse is also true; hitters who couldn’t hit a lick in spring training have returned to form come the regular season. When you focus on ERA for pitchers and AVG for hitters that is certainly the case. Recent research suggests, though, that some peripheral stats in spring training do have predictive power, at least to a degree. As the linked study shows (and it is only one of many to come to a similar conclusion), taking certain spring training stats like strikeout rates into account in projection systems improves their accuracy. So while our 2015 regular season stats are useless at the moment, some players had enough at bats or innings pitched in spring training that we might be able to learn something.

Focusing on strike out rates and walk rates for both pitchers and hitters who had large (for spring training) sample sizes to choose from, I compared those rates to the players’ rates from the 2014 season. Let’s start with the hitters:

Player
PA
BB%
K%
BB 2014
K 2014
BB Change
K Change
67
3.0%
22.4%
11.3%
29.5%
-8.3%
-7.1%
61
3.0%
16.4%
7.0%
29.0%
-4.0%
-12.6%
61
7.5%
26.9%
4.9%
33.5%
2.6%
-6.6%
60
7.5%
32.8%
7.1%
28.2%
0.4%
4.6%
54
3.0%
7.5%
9.2%
15.4%
-6.2%
-7.9%
59
19.4%
13.4%
7.0%
29.3%
12.4%
-15.9%
60
22.4%
16.4%
9.6%
26.3%
12.8%
-9.9%
48
4.5%
13.4%
4.7%
15.8%
-0.2%
-2.4%
45
9.0%
13.4%
6.5%
26.5%
2.5%
-13.1%

Michael Taylor stands out, and not only because he falls first on the list. Taylor’s 2014 numbers are his AA stats, but his limited MLB stats also provide evidence that he needs to work on taking a walk and avoiding a strike out. Given his power potential, asking him to turn into a slap hitting type of hitter in an effort to avoid strikeouts is limiting his potential, but the decrease of 7.1 points in K% is a great sign. It’s a lot easier to live with a rate closer to 20% than 30%. Let's hope Taylor can return to that 11% walk rate and not the 3% from spring training, especially if he is going to be living atop the Nationals’ lineup until Span returns.

Tyler Moore's spring training mirrored Taylor's in a lot of ways. While he improved his strike out rate, Moore’s walk rate nearly evaporated. His great batting average and slugging percentage in spring training hid this trend, but maybe he can stick after all.

Moving further down the list, newcomer Dan Uggla sticks out like a sore thumb, in a good way. In recent years, Uggla’s walk rate took a turn for the worse and his strike out rate skyrocketed. This spring training, those trends not only reversed, Uggla actually had a higher walk rate than strikeout rate. Perhaps this is a sign that Uggla’s struggles really were tied to his vision/concussion problems and that his offseason medical fixes have resuscitated his career.

In another positive sign, Bryce Harper reversed some disturbing trends of his own. During his struggles in 2014, Harper started striking out more and walking less. Maybe those trends were tied to his injury battles, though, as his spring training walk rate topped 20% and he cut nearly 10 percentage points off of his strike out rate. If you needed more convincing to jump on the Bryce Harper 2015 breakout bandwagon, that trend might just be your ticket to ride.

For the pitchers, the only stats available are BB/9 and K/9. So, while not perfect (I would prefer K% and BB%), they will have to do.


IP
BB/9
SO/9
BB 2014
SO 2014
K Change
BB change
22.2
1.2
4.8
1.32
5.38
-0.58
-0.12
19.1
3.3
8.8
3.18
9.19
-0.39
0.12
12
3.8
3
3
5
-2
0.8
14
1.3
7.7
1.77
6.25
1.45
-0.47
20
0.5
10.4
2.57
10.29
0.11
-2.07
12
0.8
8.3
1.73
6.94
1.36
-0.93
15
3.6
9
1.8
10.13
-1.13
1.8
23.2
1.5
7.2
1.3
8.2
-1
0.2
Blake Treinen
11.1
1.8
8.9
2.31
5.33
3.57
-0.51

For the most part, the changes here are minimal, which is exactly what you would hope to see given how great the Nationals’ pitchers (and Max Scherzer) were last year. Falling into the “spring training stats are deceiving camp,” Tanner Roark actually improved on his strikeout rate this spring training, despite what his ERA from spring training would lead you to believe. Then again, we still aren’t sure how Roark will be deployed by Matt Williams, and that role might dictate his results more than last year or this year’s spring training results.

If you wanted more reason to be excited for Max Scherzer’s tenure in DC after his electric Opening Day start, look no further than his spring training stats. While still striking out over 10 batters per nine innings in spring training, Scherzer actually walked less than 1 batter per 9 innings in spring training. It’s hard to imagine that someone as good Scherzer could actually get better but, as we have noted before, if he cuts down on his walks he has practically no flaws as a pitcher.

Finally, Blake Treinen is included in our list even though his innings pitched sample is small, even for spring training sample sizes. I was mostly interested to see what he would do when moved to the bullpen full time. And sure enough, his power pitching style did play up in spring training as he jacked his strike out rate up to almost a batter an inning, a great sign for the Nats as Treinen assumes a larger role within the bullpen this year.

Keep in mind that these trends are still based on small sample sizes, but they are on the way to being something reliable. The rates won’t stick at the current levels, surely, but it gives us a baseline to keep in mind during the next week or two of games.

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