Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Spring Training Stats Are Stupid

They do. If you're one of those pointy-headed mathematical sorts who like R Coefficients, scatter charts and error bars, go to town.

But if you're innumerate, let's analyze by anecdote.

Consider last spring's batting averages:
Nick Johnson .172
Brian Schneider .087
Ryan Church .200
Mike DiFelice .387
Wiki Gonzalez .333
Kenny Kelley .324

Etc, etc, etc

It's just to hard to get much meaningful data out of spring for a few reasons.
1) They just don't get many chances to play. Most players are only going to get 30 or so ABs, which isn't a large enough sample to get any meaningful read on. That's basically one regular season week's worth of ABs, and even Ryan Zimmerman has a bad week from time to time. (Here's one)

2) The competition is uneven. Without digging into it, I'd guess that that's why DiFelice's average was so high. As the 14th-string catcher, he was coming into the ends of games, facing the other team's minor leaguers. Without looking at and adjusting for that level of competition, the stats are pretty meaningless.

3) Different players work on different things. Sometime a batter is trying a new approach at the plate. Maybe he's focusing on going the other way. Maybe he's trying a new stance, or something different with his hand position? Same for the pitcher... maybe he's throwing that changeup no matter how bad the results because he wants a reliable fourth pitch for the season? Maybe he hasn't found a consistent release point so he's throwing to the same location repeatedly until he feels it? There are all sorts of things players on both sides are trying out -- experimenting, really -- before the season starts because they know the stats don't count.

So what do you look for?

Trends, stories, etc. Read between the lines at the fluffy spring training pieces. See who the coaches like. If we read between the lines early last year, we knew that Ryan Church was about to get screwed. Is that going to happen this year with anyone (please, logan, please!)? Pay special attention to see if there are any opinions that seem to be changing. For example, there was a ton of praise over Emiliano Fruto, but given his 2 or 3 rough outings, the next thing we're likely to hear is "he's not ready."

  • All that being said.... there are some red flags with a more macro approach...

    The pitching uniformly has stunk. Sample size, blah blah blah, and in spring, bats are usually ahead of the arms (especially once the dead arm period sets in, but that's not for 2 more weeks!).

    There've been a few decent performances, notably by Billy Traber. But then again, he looked good last year, too, and it IS only 3 innings...

    But what's worrisome is one of the chief problems from last year. Nats pitchers aren't missing many bats. That's something that's going to need to change, if the Nats are to have any success.

    Why's that important? If you're missing bats, it means that you've got good stuff. If you're not missing the occasional bat, it likely means you're giving up a few more liners than you should. And if you're not missing bats, it means you're putting more balls in play. And the mores balls in play, as our team demonstrated last year, the greater the chance for a base runner. Ks aren't the be-all end-all, but they're pretty damn important, and that's going to be something I'll have my eyes on closely. Especially among the starting candidates, look for the one who's having the most success there (without walking the park, either!). That's the guy who'll stand the greatest chance of success.

    So enjoy the games. Enjoy what spring training means in some grand cosmic sense. But fer crissake, don't take the stats seriously. And don't take the losing personally -- we're gonna have enough of that during the season!


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