Baseball is back. Before Tuesday, the Oakland A's hadn't played a game in over five months, and it was the worst. Five months of dwelling on the nightmare of 2014, analyzing trades, projecting prospects, and meeting new players. It's natural to get excited about a rudimentary live feed of an exhibition game, not to mention an actual box score. After all, the A's beat the Giants, their obnoxious crosstown rivals and the defending world champions! That means Oakland is now the current world champs, having toppled the kings and won their title belt, right? Marcus Semien for MVP?
Not so fast. This is the hard part about spring training, but it's an inescapable reality. You have to ignore almost everything that happens.
Well, don't ignore it completely. Watch and/or listen to the games, because baseball is baseball and your head should be turning even when you walk by a Little League contest in the park. Look through the box scores just to take in the experience. Familiarize yourself with the new players who are locked into starting roles, like Brett Lawrie and Ben Zobrist. But then forget everything you learned when you're done. Forget who won the game, forget most of the stats. None of it matters, because that is not what spring training is for at all.
In order to properly analyze the Cactus League, you have to understand the context. While I'm sure some degree of competitiveness finds its way into the equation at some point, for the most part the players are just out there getting their work in. Heck, it's right there in the name: spring training. They are training for the regular season, when things really count. They're trying to succeed when they take the mound or come to the plate, yes, but not in an effort to win today's game. The pitchers are out there stretching out their arms after months of rest. They might be working on a new pitch, or refining an old one, or messing around with a new location or change in speed to see how it feels or how hitters react to it. They don't want to give up runs, but they also don't care if they do, because the result of the game is irrelevant.
The hitters want to make great contact on every pitch, but they also want to face live pitching that comes from someone whom they don't refer to as "Coach" or "Skip." Maybe they're trying a new batting stance, or altered swing mechanics. Perhaps they're just focusing on seeing lots of pitches in an effort to improve their plate discipline, less concerned with their Cactus League strikeout total than how it might improve their eyes for the games that count. Or maybe they simply hit that ground ball at a right fielder who is playing third base today because hey, we were just curious if this guy could handle the hot corner. Turns out he can't. Or he can. Either way, we found out for free in this game whose result means nothing and will be remembered by no one. We're talking about practice, man.
Now, that doesn't mean that nothing real can come out of spring. The A's have a couple of legitimate positional battles to decide, and spring performances will certainly be part of those equations. In fact, spring will matter more for Oakland than for most teams because there are so many new parts and unresolved questions. I will be more curious than normal to see the outings of the young starters, because if one of them puts up an insane stat line for a month then it might actually lead to the tangible result of making the Opening Day roster.
It's also not impossible for a player to force his way into the picture, whether against the odds or simply ahead of schedule. Eric Sogard played his way onto the 2013 roster thanks in part to hitting .444 in March. Drew Pomeranz seemed destined for Triple-A a year ago until he struck out the entire Cactus League (20 Ks in 12⅔ innings) and found himself in the MLB bullpen. Stephen Vogt's 1.088 OPS last spring wasn't enough to vanquish the powerful Barton, but it was enough to make him the unofficial 26th Man, as well as the first guy on the bus back from Sacramento as soon as he recovered from an early-season oblique strain. Success stories do happen.
But not always. Sogard had already been in the mix for years and probably made it in 2013 more for his defense. Pomeranz was always supposed to reach Oakland; he just bided his time in the MLB bullpen rather than the Triple-A rotation while he waited for a job to open up in the A's starting five. Vogt was already a postseason hero. This wasn't Darwin Perez, or Phil Humber, or Luke Montz, jumping from organizational filler to the 25-man roster. You generally have to be in the conversation already for your spring stats to vault you into The Show, and the best that the also-rans can hope for is to leave camp as part of the mix for the 162-game season. Brandon Moss wasn't selected right away after posting a 1.294 OPS in 2012, but he left Phoenix with the team's attention and then earned a job when he continued to back up his spring breakout by crushing Triple-A. So, don't get too stoked if Jason Pridie goes nuts, because all he's playing for is the cleanup spot on the Nashville Sounds. But then get excited if he performs that job well.
Here's a quick guide to some of the common scenarios we could see this month, and how you should react to them.
Established player performs terribly
Example: Billy Butler goes 6-for-50 with 21 strikeouts, or Scott Kazmir posts a 9.50 ERA
Instinctive response: Butler is even worse than last year! He's not going to bounce back, he's clearly washed up! Kazmir is all wrong, should have traded him when we had the chance!
Reality: The established guy isn't playing for his job. He's playing to prepare to do his job next month. He has nothing to prove to anyone in March, so he's not going to focus on impressing people. He's going to do what he knows he needs to do to get ready for the long season, and he absolutely positively knows better than we do what he personally needs to do to reach that goal. It's a little different if you specifically think the player is hurt -- Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin's elbow injuries last year were preceded by disastrous Cactus League starts in which there were clear physical signs that something was wrong. But don't assume injury just because the stats are bad.
Exception: Note that this goes the other way, too -- if Ike Davis hits 10 homers in March, it doesn't necessarily mean he's going to break out in April.
Pitcher's velocity is down
Example: [Pitcher] is throwing [#] mph slower than normal
Instinctive response: He must be injured! AMPUTATE!
Reality: Most pitchers have decreased velocity in March. They are still building up their arm strength after a long winter, and it takes a while to get back into game shape. Also, there's no rush to get back to full speed right away, because (stop me if you've heard this one) the games don't count. It's a marathon, not a race.
Exception: If the dip in velocity lingers into April and May, or if there is a complementary loss of command, or words of concern from the team itself, or something else to go with it, then we can talk about skies falling. But don't worry about pitch velocity just yet.
On-the-bubble position player has huge performance
Example: Tyler Ladendorf hits .450 with only one strikeout in 50 PAs
Instinctive response: Addison Who?!
Reality: Yeah, actually, get excited about that one. The backup infield job seems to be up for grabs, with Sogard, Andy Parrino, and Ladendorf forming the triumvirate of Sogarrinodorf. We already know what Sogard and Parrino can and can't do, and we've seen each of them have monster springs in the past and know that they won't carry over into huge regular seasons -- Parrino's 1.047 OPS in 2013 was just a notch behind Sogey's, but neither will ever hit .300 in the bigs. There are no service time shenanigans to worry about, since all three can be safely sent to Triple-A if they lose the spring battle, so this could be as pure of a Cactus League competition as you ever really see. Three will enter, one will emerge, and the stats could play a prominent role in the decision. May as well go with the hot hand to start the year, right?
Exception: Unfortunately, there isn't this serious of a battle every spring, so this is a special case. This kind of battle makes spring even more fun.
On-the-bubble pitcher has huge performance
Example: Kendall Graveman gives up 1 ER in five starts, or Pat Venditte records 20 Ks and only 1 BB
Instinctive response: Cy. Freaking. Young.
Reality: This one is a bit more normal to get excited about. Most teams enter spring with a battle for their fifth starter and the last spot or two in their bullpen. They'll gather a few extra reclamation projects and give them a look, or test out a youngster to see if he's ready. There may be a favorite from the start and everyone else is trying to supplant him, or it may be a completely open competition with a handful of pre-established candidates. The A's rotation feels like the latter this spring, as most of us think Sonny, Kazmir, and Hahn are locks and that the other two spots are wide open. If Graveman or Jesse Chavez or Barry Zito is lights-out in Mesa, it could be enough to claim a spot.
In the pen, R.J. Alvarez probably has a spot but could lose it with a particularly bad spring, and even if he makes it someone else will have to step up to replace Sean Doolittle in April. There is room for someone like Venditte or Evan Scribner or Fernando Rodriguez to earn a job. That doesn't mean that every pitcher who performs well will make the team, or that any of these battles will be based purely on the next 30 days of stats, but rather that these are the names to look for in the box scores because they are the only ones whose numbers have any potential real-world applications.
Exception: Not everyone is on-the-bubble, as we'll see in our next section ...
Non-factor player has huge performance
Example: Alex Hassan hits six homers, or Brad Mills throws a no-hitter
Instinctive response: DFA Reddick and Kazmir to make room for them!
Reality: If the guy wasn't already on the radar yesterday, then he probably still won't be in a month. It seems like every year there is that one darling feel-good story who makes it all the way to the end of camp with great numbers but doesn't make it through the final cut. It's really, really hard to go from "out of the picture" to "on the roster" in the span of one Cactus League. However, as previously mentioned with Moss and Vogt, that performance can be a coming-out party that, if followed by sustained success in real minor league games, can lead to an MLB job. One thing that can make a difference here is if the player is out of options and will be lost if not kept on the 25-man roster, but that seems to be more of a factor when it comes to already-established players trying to stay on the team rather than newbies trying to force their way onto it for the first time. A lack of contractual flexibility isn't going to help convince the team to take a chance on you, knowing that you can't ever be sent down if you win the job.
Exception: Nothing in particular. Just a cop-out note that nothing is impossible in life. Some things are just really, really, really unlikely.
Top young prospect does things, good or bad
Example: Matt Olson hits 4 homers, or goes 0-for-15
Instinctive response: Wow, he did things! My opinion of him has changed.
Reality: The team's best prospects are usually on hand for the beginning of the Cactus League, and they often stick around for a week or two. The youngsters get a taste of playing against (and learning from) Major Leaguers, and the MLB coaching staff gets a look at their future players. This is probably the most fun part of the spring for fans, since we get to see these guys in the flesh and attach faces to their names in our minds. In my head, Olson was always a big beefy bald guy, like Domenick Lombardozzi (Herc in The Wire), which is apparently my default mental image of a powerful slugger. Turns out he looks more like Jay Baruchel (main character in This Is The End). But as far as the stats are concerned, this is the one area to just completely, utterly ignore. These guys are facing fellow low-level minor leaguers in the later innings of early-March games. Just watch them and enjoy them. Don't try to analyze them. You're simply seeing a snapshot of their greater, years-long development process, and no matter what you think you see it will probably change after they go back in the oven for a couple more seasons.
Exception: If you have a scouting eye, you might learn something from actually watching the prospect play. Not from the numbers and the results, but the process. Jerry Brewer might see a guy's swing and come to a meaningful conclusion about him. Or Nico might watch Nunez or Ravelo take grounders and love/doubt his ability to play third base. But those of us listening on the radio or reading box scores will not be in position to learn much about the Double-A guys.
Players whose stats are relevant
Let's wrap up with a partial list of players whose stats really could mean something this spring. You might quibble here and there with a couple specific inclusions or omissions, but the greater point is the types of players who are or aren't on this list.
R.J. Alvarez -- needs to earn his spot
Chris Bassitt -- could earn a spot, though unlikely
Kendall Graveman -- playing for a rotation spot
Jesse Hahn -- playing for a rotation spot
Sean Nolin -- playing for a rotation spot
Drew Pomeranz -- playing for a rotation spot
Fernando Rodriguez -- outside chance at a bullpen spot
Pat Venditte -- outside chance at a bullpen spot
Barry Zito -- playing for a rotation spot, presumably
(I left out Jesse Chavez because he'll make the team no matter what, and my initial feeling is that he will simply slot in wherever needed, based on how all the young guys shake out. I left out Evan Scribner because we already know exactly what he is, and he seems like simply the "default guy" who will only make it if no one else stands out and earns it.)
Mark Canha -- figures to be a lock, but you can never be sure
Sam Fuld -- could he play his way out of a spot if he's absolutely awful?
Tyler Ladendorf -- playing for utility infield job
Andy Parrino -- playing for a utility infield job
Eric Sogard -- playing for a utility infield job
(Joey Wendle almost makes my list, not because he could make the team out of camp but because he could potentially hasten his future arrival by showing he's ready to go already. I'm not sure if Josh Phegley can play his way out of a platoon role with a bad spring, but it seems unlikely without any other great options to turn to.)
Spring training is a lot of fun, because it's a re-introduction to baseball after a long hiatus. But it's best for everyone when the events are kept in context. Enjoy seeing all the new guys. Enjoy reading the box scores and feeling what it's like to see the name Zobrist in your lineup. Marvel at the majestic home runs. But ignore the stats, except for the guys listed above. Ignore the wins and the losses. Those are not important right now, just as they did nothing to help the 2014 Cactus League champion Indians or the 2014 Grapefruit League champion Rays.
Just sit back and enjoy the show.
(Except Marcus Semien. That dude's clearly gonna be the MVP.)