04/03/2004 9:00 AM ET
Spring stats: A science or a sham?
Exhibition numbers have different meanings to folks
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
|Sean Burroughs has a lot of hits this spring, but will his success carry over into the regular season? (AP)
There are two questions that never will be answered with certainty:
What is the meaning of life?
What do Spring Training numbers mean?
The meaning of Spring Training itself is very clear: It is a warm place where ballplayers go each year to prepare for the real season ahead. For fans, it is a chance to again watch the game of baseball after a typically long and cold winter. So we watch them play in the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues, and we begin to settle back into a daily ritual of checking box scores, statistics and standings.
Then, as another Opening Day comes with zeroes across the board, we wonder what it all meant.
It is like that scene in the old National Lampoon movie "Vacation," when Chevy Case peers out over the Grand Canyon, cocks his head forward and backward a few times in observance, and then says: "OK, let's go."
Mark Loretta and Sean Burroughs shared the Major League lead in Spring Training hits (28) through Friday, and that either was a very good sign for a Padres team hoping to improve -- or a sign of absolutely nothing. Is there still time to add Abraham Nunez, who has eight home runs, to your fantasy roster, and does that mean Jack McKeon and the Marlins have another surprise in store for us in 2004? Or is that just spring?
If Philadelphia had the Majors' worst winning percentage (.345) in its new Grapefruit League ballpark, then should Phillies fans worry about life in their new 2004 regular-season home? Did Montreal's spring success mean the Expos will once again be a pennant-race contender no one sees coming?
It would be easy to simply dismiss Spring Training stats as utterly insignificant, but it never is that easy. Important positional battles are based at least partly on statistical developments, and there is always a Mark Teixeira somewhere.
Many people never had heard of Teixeira until Spring Training 2003, when he was the phenom to watch. Teixeira hit eight homers, breaking the Rangers' club record for a single Spring Training. That momentum carried through his rookie season. Teixeira opened that season having played in just 86 professional games -- the fewest for a Ranger breaking into the Majors since Pete Incaviglia came up directly from college in 1986 -- and proceeded to lead all Major League rookies with 26 homers.
Maybe Nunez, who also ranked among the RBI leaders with 18, will be this year's Teixeira.
"This is not to say that the events of Spring Training are unimportant, but there are things you should pay attention to in Spring Training, and things you should not," said Jason Grey, publisher of Mastersball.com and one of the fantasy experts who participated Monday in MLB.com's first-ever live webcast fantasy draft.
"Spring Training stats are for the most part not very significant. It's a sample-size issue. Any player can probably put up great stats in the limited amount of at-bats or innings pitched that the preseason provides.
"The superstars are going to be the superstars."
Some players have notoriously poor spring numbers throughout their careers but dominate in the regular season. The Yankees' Mike Mussina is one who comes immediately to mind. Pitchers "work on their stuff" during exhibitions, sometimes tinkering with their mechanics and sometimes adding new pitches that need refinement. That was Tom Glavine's standing self-assessment to reporters during a difficult 2003 Spring Training, but Glavine's struggles continued into his first Mets season.
Few Red Sox fans were likely to panic Wednesday when Pedro Martinez started for Boston and was unable to retire any of the first six Toronto batters he faced. Martinez lasted three innings, throwing 84 pitches. There is word that he was simply working on his control, and indeed he did have five strikeouts and no walks in that loss. Maybe it's nothing. Maybe it's something. Who really knows?
Hideo Nomo was 0-4 with an 8.34 ERA in six games. He was one of four Dodgers pitchers who gave up the most hits this spring, and the leader of the pack was the guy LA acquired in the deal that sent Kevin Brown to the Yankees: Jeff Weaver, who allowed 44 hits. Should Dodgers fans be nervous, or were Nomo and Weaver just fiddling with mechanics?
Spring is also about preparation, and A's fans had to like seeing Arthur Rhodes constantly among the leaders in appearances. Converting from setup man to closer, the only thing players can ask for in Arizona or Florida is familiarity with a role.
Scott Schoenweis is another interesting example. White Sox fans had to like his Major League-leading 26 strikeouts as of early this week. But they also had to wonder about the 20 earned runs allowed in 19 1/3 innings.
"I know he's been working on a new pitch and he's actually increased his velocity three or four mph this spring," Grey said. "If the White Sox don't have a knee-jerk reaction and they stick with him, then he could have a good season. His [spring] ERA is through the roof, but I'm looking at his strikeout numbers. That shows you there's potential there. Instead of throwing 89 like he used to, he changed his release point and he's throwing 93 now, and that's showing up in the strikeout numbers. That's one of those that could go both ways. You see him leading in strikeouts, but he's also got a 9.00 ERA."
Edgar Martinez was leading the Majors with 20 RBIs through Wednesday. If that is a harbinger of things to come, then perhaps the Seattle designated hitter is saving some of the best for the end in his wonderful career. And maybe the sudden burst of power from Barry Bonds -- six spring homers in just 14 games -- is a sign that he is peaking just in time to quickly pass Willie Mays for No. 3 on the all-time homer list.
Of course, Bonds overtaking Mays is about as close to a certainty as there is in baseball, since he needs only two more to match Mays at 660. As for Spring Training stats in general, nothing is certain. But one thing everyone can agree on is this: It has been fun to watch games again after the long winter.
Mark Newman is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.