Every year a big deal is made about spring training statistics, as if they accurately predict or indicate how a player will fare during the upcoming season.
And when it comes to prospects making noise in major league camp, well, that notion is amplified.
While it’s only natural to get excited about a highly-touted young player belting a couple home runs or piling up strikeouts, each respective performance needs to be interpreted within context, as the evaluation of a prospect in spring training is more than just a slash line or earned run average.
So, with several weeks of exhibition games still to be played this spring, I thought that I would offer insight into what I personally look for in a prospect at this time of the year.
Spring training is a favorable environment for a hitter, especially those participating in the Cactus League in Arizona. The combination of the dry, thin air and notoriously gusty conditions is capable of boosting any hitter’s confidence, as routine fly-ball outs tend to carry over the fence with regularity. And when that trend is combined with the sheer quantity of garden-variety arms—usually a young, undeveloped prospect or semi-cunning veteran looking for a job—that log innings early in the spring, the potential will always exist for a hitter to post eye-popping numbers.
However, there are instances when a hitter’s spring numbers accurately portray his actual on-field performance.
A perfect example is Marlins’ outfield prospect Christian Yelich, who enters the upcoming season ranked as the No. 13 prospect in the game.
After batting .330 last season as a 20-year-old in the Florida State League (High-A), Yelich is being given an extended look this spring due to his imminent major league arrival in late-2013 or early 2014.
Thus far, the lanky left-handed hitter has impressed by batting .444/.524/.889 with five extra-base hits over nine games. It’s not that he’s just been lacing doubles from line-to-line; Yelich has been working deep counts at the top of the order while still showing the ability turn it loose when appropriate.
Compared to hitters, it's considerably more difficult—if not impossible—to identify breakout candidates or future stars because, in theory, spring training is a time where pitchers work to regain a feel for their mechanics and arsenal after the long offseason. Thus, their stuff and command isn’t expected to be as sharp as it should by the end of the month. And with so many environmental elements working against them, it’s understandable why teams rarely express concern when their top-ranked pitching prospect is shelled in an appearance or two.
At the same time, there’s always a select few pitching prospects that enter the spring ahead of schedule in terms of their preseason training. That’s why for every forgettable outing, there’s one that’s equally impressive. However, just because a young pitcher dominates opposing hitters during spring training does not mean that he’s actually dominant. Therefore, it’s imperative to analyze his overall stuff and command in a more general context.
So far this spring, Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha has been the most impressive pitching prospect—possibly even the most impressive pitcher. In 7.2 innings spanning three appearances, the Texas A&M alumnus has allowed only four hits and a walk while registering 11 strikeouts.
Yes, the right-hander’s ability to miss so many bats has been inflated by the quality of competition. However, it’s also the product of his mature command of three average-to-plus pitches. While his stats are obviously great, the excitement over Wacha’s spring stems from an ability to establish his two-seam fastball to both sides of the plate, which in turn allows him to expand the zone effectively with numerous secondary offerings.
As you continue to watch prospects like Yelich and Wacha over the remainder of the spring, try not to get too wrapped up in their numbers—whether good or bad. Instead, try to identify the tools and specific skills that theoretically make those stats possible.