3/7/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Spring matchups carry plenty of meaning for players
By AJ Cassavell / MLB.com
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Ballplayers are a meticulous breed, and when it comes to matchups, in their mind every edge matters.
So, when Spring Training games are coined "meaningless," as they so often are, in the eyes of the players that's not entirely true.
The final score might not matter, and a Cactus League title isn't exactly what they're all playing for. But baseball is about the games within the game, and almost every pitcher vs. batter matchup during the regular season has a history -- that includes Spring Training at-bats.
"You're always trying to gather information," Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. "You're always trying to find out what's going on. [As a catcher] you're more focused on your pitcher's strengths. But in Spring training, you could see some things that might carry over."
For the most part it's all about mental notes in spring. A hitter flailed at a curveball and looked bad in doing so? Expect him to see that same pitch once the games start to count, too.
It's a bit different, offensively. In early March, it's not often that pitchers showcase their full repertoire of pitches, especially early on. There are also days where a specific pitch might be the focus for a pitcher, meaning he'll throw his sinker in counts where he'd throw a breaking ball during the regular season.
Still, there's plenty for a hitter to learn about an opponent in a Spring Training at-bat, even if he knows he won't be facing the same pitch sequences during the regular season.
"You remember more how the ball comes out of their hand, how the ball moves," said Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski. "Especially when you are facing a guy you've never seen before, and then you face him again in April or May, you remember how the ball came out of his hand."
Pierzynski said he wasn't sure facing a certain pitcher in Spring Training made any impact aside from finding a bit of a comfort zone against them. But in Pierzynski's profession, comfort in the batter's box is of utmost importance.
To counter that, it's not uncommon for managers to hold their starters out of matchups against division rivals late in spring.
For example, last season Giants manager Bruce Bochy held ace Tim Lincecum out of a March 23 Spring Training start against Colorado in favor of letting him throw 91 pitches in Minor League camp. The reason? Lincecum's second start of the season was slated for April 11 against the Rockies at Coors Field.
That move prevented Rockies hitters from finding that comfort zone and seeing Lincecum's release point so close to a regular season start. At this point in spring, however, most managers aren't going to adjust their rotations to avoid matchups -- a prospect that opposing managers can take advantage of.
"I'll do certain things just to get some information," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said Wednesday. "In a couple days we've got [Barry] Zito and San Francisco, so I'm going to send some guys there to see how they deal with Zito. I'm not matching up my guys against that pitcher, it's more -- the guys I'm trying to figure out where they fit, I'm trying to put them in situations."
Spring at-bats are by no means a tell-all of how well a hitter can read a pitcher or vice versa.
No one understands that dynamic better than catchers, who see the matchups from both sides of the spectrum. They're tasked with trying to call out pitches, but at the same time, they still come to the plate trying to anticipate what their opponent will throw.
But there isn't total agreement among catchers. Pierzynski and Ellis had different opinions of just how much spring at-bats matter in the scope of regular season preparation.
"In Spring Training you're just trying to get outs, and guys are trying to work on their own stuff," Pierzynski said. "There's times you'll throw a pitch to a guy and probably get him out, but because of what he might be trying to work on that day, you've just got to kind of throw it out the window."
As hitters, however, they generally see eye to eye about the importance of finding a comfort zone against a pitcher they may not have faced in a while.
"You're definitely not trying to pick up on sequences or patterns [in Spring Training]" Ellis said. "It's more about trying to see the baseball, especially when you're facing guys you're going to see in your own division."
In those fierce division battles, every edge counts, and any edge a hitter or pitcher can find, you can be certain they'll use it.
And whether they found that edge in late February or mid-July doesn't seem to matter.