Back in the spring of 1997 I was just starting my first season as the advance scout for the Cleveland Indians. Excited to get to the ballpark every day to get some looks at the players I'd be writing about all summer, I didn't let even one day pass without taking copious notes. However, later in the spring Dan O'Dowd, then the Assistant GM of the Indians, told me, "The biggest mistakes we make on player evaluations are in spring training." Suddenly, my neatly designed notebook and game charts didn't elicit so much pride.
The regular season wasn't very old before I realized that Dan was exactly right, as players were doing things I hadn't seen even a glimpse of just a few weeks prior. The fact is that the game is fundamentally different in spring training than it is when the regular season opens. Here is a list, albeit not exhaustive, of the reasons that spring training performance is unreliable:
- Sample size - always a killer
- Ballparks - the ball jumps in Arizona almost like pre-humidor Coors Field
- Game conditions - teams play primarily day games with a "high sky" in Arizona
- Competition - Major Leaguers play early in games and minor leaguers in the late innings, so someone can pad their stats by playing in the late innings
- Preparedness - some players are coming off of full winter ball seasons while others are coming off of surgery
- Game plan - teams don't really try to win spring training games, so players aren't always put in the most advantageous situations
- Varying objectives - some players are working on adding a new pitch, while others are trying to make a team
For all these reasons and more, spring training is a terrible time to evaluate personnel. Of course, that doesn't stop us from doing it, and by "us" I include fans, field staff, and front office. The fact of the matter is that we must make some evaluations in spring training, because we need to get our roster down to 25 players and some of the players under consideration haven't previously been with the organization. Perilous indeed.
When we (remember, I mean everyone) watch baseball games we are constantly processing who's good, who's bad, who could be better, etc. I'm not even sure that there is an "off" position for that switch, but we have to do everything we can to mute that voice if it appears in the month of March. Taking it one step further, if the player doesn't absolutely need to be evaluated for some irrevocable decision at the conclusion of March, then he probably shouldn't be.
Here's some OPS evidence from this spring for the Padres which should give all of us a little caution:
- The team leader in OPS was Adrian Gonzalez with a 1.110 - so far so good
- Coming in 2nd was Kevin Kouzmanoff with a 1.030 - not completely crazy
- And next, coming in just under 1.000 - David Eckstein with a .996
Folks, if David Eckstein flirts with a 1.000 OPS this year, our offense will be better than we expect. Speaking of our overall offense:
- Five of our 13 position players had an OPS over .900
- Nine of our 13 position players had an OPS over .800
- 11 of our 13 position players had an OPS over the 2008 NL average of .744
Yahtzee! Get ready for the run barrage in Petco in 2009.
With all of these guys raking, who was below the league average and came in last among the Padres in OPS for spring training? Brian Giles with a .636.
I could go into all the pitchers, but I think you get the point. Spring training is a fabulous time of year to enjoy baseball, just don't try to evaluate it. On Monday afternoon all the Padres players will have an OPS of zero and all of the pitchers will have 0.00 ERAs (let's hope the latter lasts longer than the former). Then we'll be able to start evaluating again.