Sunday Podcast: Michael Taylor and spring training stats

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Hall goes on the Phil Naessens Show to talk A's baseball.

Happy Sunday, Athletics Nation! Spring training has already had it's ups and downs, but the important thing is that we get regular-season baseball in just two weeks. Woohoo!

On this week's Phil Naessens Show, we discuss the meaning of spring training stats in light of the strong numbers being posted by former prospect (and possibly soon, former Athletic) Michael Taylor. Note that this episode was recorded on Wednesday, before Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin went down with injuries. My segment leads off and goes for about 15 minutes.

Give it a listen and leave your feedback in the comments!

On a related note, I would like to respond to a fantastic question that was posed in the comments of a recent article:

I need clarification on something
Does spring training count or not? It seems that if people don't like a player, him killing it in ST means nothing. If, however, they like the player and they do well, it somehow means a lot more. So, simple question. When it comes to ST, does a player's performance count or not?

This relates to any player that does not have a locked in spot on the roster.

by robmypro99

I absolutely understand where this question is coming from. Heck, I am guilty of the double-standard myself from time to time -- harp about how useless spring training stats are, and then turn around and insert some of them into my analysis as if they are meaningful. And I will admit that there are some times when I simply use them as a confirmation bias one way or the other.

However, here is a definitive explanation of what spring stats mean to me. First, they vary greatly based on who is putting them up. If the stats belong to an established veteran, then I completely and utterly ignore them. This goes for Yoenis Cespedes' crappy stats as much as it goes for Brandon Moss's 1.290 OPS. I don't think that Cespedes forgot how to hit this winter, and as I remember, he started slowly last spring before coming around later on. I don't think that Moss became a superstar during the winter, but rather that he probably hit a couple of dingers off of minor league scrubs or off of veteran starters who were just loosening up their arms. I'm happy that he's doing well, but it doesn't change my perception of him -- a legit slugger with 30-homer power who strikes out too much and struggles against lefties.

Likewise, I don't get too caught up in the stats of the super-young prospects. Their at-bats are often coming against the scrubbier halves of the opposing pitching staffs, and even if they do face a veteran then they have the benefit of being a complete unknown without any clear scouting reports for how to retire them. Addison Russell had a few extra-base hits. That's cool, but even if he'd hit .400 I wouldn't think he was ready for the majors yet. He also struck out five times and didn't walk, but I'm not worried because he's 20 years old and playing against much older guys. The things I want to know about Russell are the subjective scouting reports -- how did his swing look? Was he busting it down the line every time? How did he look turning a double play? Did he impress the coaches and open some eyes? The objective things can be far better measured during the more substantial regular season, against more legitimate competition that is more focused on getting him out than on trying out a new slider.

The one time that I am going to care about stats is for the on-the-bubble players. Evan Scribner. Jesse Chavez. Sam Fuld. Even Michael Taylor. The guys who know that their places on the 25-man roster are based almost entirely on their spring stats, because we know what they can do in larger, regular-season samples and we want to know who is going to play best right now, in 2014, on this team. And even then, those stats are only useful in deciding which players make the team. Eric Sogard hit for an 1.148 OPS last spring to force his way onto the team. But once the season started, he was no longer Eric Sogard, 1.148 OPS'er. He was Eric Sogard, .250ish hitter who made the team because he had a great spring and stuck on the team because he kept producing in the majors. On the other hand, only a crazy person would choose Phil Humber for the final bullpen spot after his performance this spring, since he just can't get anyone out and he's usually been pretty bad in the regular season. The numbers are confirming what we already thought of him.

So, I will almost certainly cite spring stats at some point this month while simultaneously scolding others for doing so out of the other side of my mouth. I will cite them, as I already have, for Scribner and Chavez, because their performances are relevant in a "what have you done for me lately" kind of way. We know what Scribner is -- a decent two-pitch pitcher who can hold his own in the majors and throw multiple innings -- but how's he doing now, today, this week, this month? Is his arm strong? Is his curve breaking? How about Chavez; is his cutter still lighting people up like it did at times last year? Seeing Chavez put up 12 scoreless innings doesn't tell me that he's going to be lights-out in the regular season, or colon his way into being an unexpected ace. It just tells me that he's throwing well right now, his pitches are working, and he's absolutely worth a look in the rotation April. No more, no less.

Phil brought up a great point in the podcast when he said that he mostly looks at walks. For hitters, how well are they seeing the ball and controlling the strike zone? Of course, a guy like Josh Reddick doesn't walk a lot anyway, so the fact that he's only walked twice isn't as big of a deal to me as the fact that his wrist looks a whole lot healthier. On the other hand, Stephen Vogt has three walks to only two strikeouts, which is encouraging to me because, combined with the high average and power he is displaying, he is looking like a very complete hitter right now. Daric Barton has seven walks to no strikeouts, which is relevant because plate discipline is a big part of his game and he already has it working. I am slightly more excited (less pessimisitc?) about Taylor's progress now that his ratio is four walks to 11 strikeouts, rather than one-to-eight. There is no exact science to it, because every hitter and every individual career situation is unique.

Walks are big for pitchers as well. Going back to Scribner and Chavez, I'm more encouraged by their K:BB numbers than their low ERAs -- 12:2 for Chavez, 7:1 for Scribner. These ratios are better indicators of future success than are ERAs, and they tell me that these guys are in control when they are on the hill -- not that they're inherently better or more talented than we thought they were, just that they're pitching well right now. Same goes for Drew Pomeranz, with his 11:2 ratio -- it doesn't mean that he's arrived, just that his development and his transition to normal elevation are going well. On the other hand, Dan Straily's seven walks and five strikeouts need to be ironed out, since he isn't a pitcher who can afford to spot the opponent extra baserunners. I'm not worried that he's hurt, or worried that he'll suck this year. It's just a problem that needs to be addressed before he can succeed. We already know that he's good enough to pitch in the majors, so panicking over nine spring innings would be foolish unless he had a dip in velocity or some other physical problem.

So no, spring training doesn't count, even though I will occasionally cite a spring statistic while talking about a player. Even when it does count, it only helps determine who will make the team on March 31. And even then, it doesn't tell us how good the player will be in the summer, just how well he's playing relative to the players against whom he is competing for a roster spot. Once we reach the end of March, nothing that happened matters, and we will be given a much more meaningful and reliable measure of success -- regular-season stats. Because remember, if a player is hitting .083 after the first three games of the season then we should definitely release him, no matter who he is. (Just kidding.)

(tl;dr - Spring stats only matter for on-the-bubble players, and only in the context of their positional battles. Don't draw grand conclusions about their true talent levels or hot streaks or slumps, unless you think someone is hurt. And on Opening Day, completely erase them from your memory. Beer is an effective tool for this, and is sold at the ballpark.)

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