Every year we try to convince ourselves that spring statistics mean something, using a player’s small sample of production in March to project his performance over a full season in the major leagues. It’s a fun exercise after the long, boring offseason, but deep down inside, we know it’s not a true predictor for future success.
However, all the cautionary tales and disclaimers associated with spring statistics are blatantly disregarded when the player is a highly touted prospect.
When projecting a player’s future production, we generally look at his numbers from previous years to determine the areas of his game with the most room for improvement moving forward. Yet because most prospects are yet to even reach the major leagues, spring training offers a unique opportunity to evaluate them against proven big leaguers in a more realistic context.
That leaves us with one question: Can a prospect’s breakout performance in spring training actually be used to project his future success and career trajectory?
In order to get to the bottom of the age-old question, I focused my research and analysis on hitters specifically.
Pitchers typically use the spring to build arm strength and stretch out their workload in preparation for the regular season. It’s also the only time they can iron out mechanical issues or work on a specific pitch in a game setting without it potentially costing the team a loss.
Hitters, on the other hand, are simply trying to get their timing down in the spring and get comfortable at the plate. Sure, guys will try out different things in games, whether it’s employing a quieter load or starting their hands in a different position; however, it’s usually because they’ve already done the necessary prep work during batting practice or in the cage.
MLB.com is the only place to find spring training statistics from previous years, though their records only go back as far as 2006. Therefore, I decided to use a specific five-year range, from 2006-10, for the study to determine whether there’s any correlation between a prospect’s performance in spring training and the major leagues.
And finally, due to the variance in playing time among prospects in major league camp, I only considered players who received at least 20 at-bats, posted a 1.000-plus OPS during that span and own a career WAR (per FanGraphs) of at least five.
Here’s what I found.
Four players fit my aforementioned spring criteria in 2006, and each became at least a league-average regular at their respective positions, with two players even making an All-Star team.
However, only one of the 2006 spring standouts, James Loney, subsequently debuted in the major leagues during the regular season—though retained rookie status for the following year—as the other players had already received a taste of the The Show during previous years.
Loney broke camp with the Dodgers in 2006 and batted .284/.342/.559 in 48 games without exhausting his rookie eligibility. The following season was easily the best of his tenure in the major leagues, as the 23-year-old posted still-career highs with a .331 batting average, .919 OPS and 15 home runs despite playing in only 96 games.
As for Ryan Zimmerman? Well, he reached the major leagues in 2005 as a September call-up and made an immediate impact by batting .397/.419/.569 in 62 plate appearances—as a 20-year-old. His torrid spring the following year earned him the gig as the Nationals’ Opening Day third baseman, and he went on to finish second in the NL Rookie of the Year thanks to an .822 OPS, 47 doubles, 20 home runs and 110 RBI in 157 games.
The 2007 class had a whopping seven spring standouts reach the major leagues for the first time during the regular season—a group highlighted by a trio of future All-Stars in Josh Hamilton, Hunter Pence and Billy Butler.
Hunter Pence’s monster spring led to an early promotion to the major leagues in late April, and the 24-year-old rewarded the organization’s confidence in him by batting .322/.360/.539 with 17 home runs and 11 stolen bases in 108 games en route to a third-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
Though he didn’t make a Pence-like impact following an early season promotion, Butler still turned in a very promising rookie campaign in 2007, even seeing time in left field so as to keep his bat in the lineup. The 21-year-old ultimately appeared in 92 games with the Royals, batting .292/.347/.447 with eight home runs and 52 RBI in 360 plate appearances.
Mark Reynolds also received his first taste of The Show in 2007, as he parlayed a torrid spring in big league camp and similar red-hot start at Double-A Mobile into a mid-May call-up. The 23-year-old showed exactly what he was about over the duration of the regular season, posting an .843 OPS with 20 doubles, 17 home runs and 62 RBI while playing in 111 games. However, the right-handed hitter also fanned 129 times against 37 walks in 414 plate appearances.
And then there’s Josh Hamilton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft who was shrewdly popped by the Reds in the 2007 Rule 5 draft and promptly resuscitated his once-promising career. The 26-year-old’s jaw-dropping spring made the decision easy for the Reds to keep him on the 25-man roster for the regular season, as he batted .292/.368/.554 with 19 home runs in 90 games.
Other than Mike Aviles, who spent parts of six seasons in the Royals’ system before getting a crack at the major leagues in 2008, Evan Longoria was the only prospect to build off his spring success during the regular season—and build he did.
The Rays called up Longoria in mid-April after only seven games at Triple-A Durham, and the 22-year-old quickly emerged as a legitimate superstar in what turned out to be a stellar rookie campaign. Playing in 122 games on the season, Longo posted an .874 OPS with 31 doubles, 27 home runs and 85 RBI in 508 plate appearances. The performance earned him a spot on the AL All-Star team that year, and he was unsurprisingly named the league’s Rookie of the Year following the season while also finishing 11th in the MVP voting.
As you can see, there was only one prospect in 2009 to turn an impressive showing in spring training into a successful rookie campaign in the major leagues: Gerardo Parra.
After thriving in limited opportunities during the spring, Parra, 22 at the time, was called up in mid-May and inserted into the Diamondbacks’ everyday lineup—even if only for his defensive prowess in the outfield. Therefore, Parra’s consistent production over the duration of the season was a pleasant surprise, as he batted .290/.324/.404 with 59 runs scored and 34 extra-base hits while playing in 120 games. He also finished eighth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.
And last but not least, we have the loaded 2010 class, which will always be remembered for producing three up-the-middle players and the game’s premier power hitter (and I’m not referring to Ike Davis).
Like James Loney in 2006, Austin Jackson’s stellar showing during spring training resulted in a spot in the Tigers’ Opening Day lineup, and he quickly emerged as one of the game’s best up-and-coming center fielders. Playing in 151 games on the season, the 23-year-old surpassed all expectations at the dish by batting .293/.345/.400 with 103 runs scored, 34 doubles, 10 triples, four home runs and 27 stolen bases while playing in 151 games. And in spite of leading the AL with 170 strikeouts against only 47 walks in 675 plate appearances, Jackson still finished second in the league’s Rookie of the Year voting.
After raking in spring training, Starlin Castro spent roughly a month at Triple-A Iowa before getting the call to join the Cubs in early May. Upon his arrival, the 20-year-old quickly earned the reputation as one of baseball’s more exciting and promising young players, as he batted .300/.347/.408 with 39 extra-base hits (31 doubles) and 10 stolen bases while playing all 125 games at shortstop. Castro’s impressive rookie campaign earned him a fifth-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting after the season.
Ike Davis also reached the major leagues early in the season, as the Mets called up the 23-year-old in late April to serve as the everyday first baseman. Suffice it to say, he responded favorably to the challenge. Davis turned in the best season of his career (at least in hindsight), batting .264/.351/.440 with 33 doubles, 19 home runs and 71 RBI in 147 games, and he also finished seventh in the NL Rookie of the Year vote.
Still going by Mike at that time, now-Giancarlo Stanton was promoted to the major leagues in early June after destroying the Double-A Southern League to the tune of a .313/.442/.729 batting line with 21 home runs in only 53 games. Though he understandably struggled after making the jump directly from Double-A, the 20-year-old man-child showed the baseball world what he’s all about by batting .259/.326/.507 with 21 doubles and 22 home runs in 396 plate appearances spanning 100 games.
Stanton was selected to his first All-Star Game two years later, and he finished the season with the highest slugging percentage (.608) in the major leagues.
In each year from 2006 to 2010, there was at least one prospect to emerge as an All-Star-caliber player in the major leagues after a breakout spring. While a few players such as James Loney and Austin Jackson made their team’s respective Opening Day roster, a majority of the spring standouts reached the major leagues later that year following a brief warm-up in the minor leagues.
Yet, the greatest indicator for whether a breakout prospect during spring training will offer similar production in the major leagues is age. Based on the career WAR totals for each player, it seems as though spring standouts that post a 1.000-plus OPS during the ages of 21 to 24 are more likely to make an impact at the highest level.
If we then narrow down the overall list from that five-year span to include players aged 21 to 24, we’re left with a collection of future All-Stars that includes Ryan Zimmerman (21), Carlos Gonzalez (21), Billy Butler (21), Hunter Pence (24), Evan Longoria (22), Allen Craig (24), Starlin Castro (20) and Giancarlo Stanton (20).
That’s not to say players outside that age bracket won’t become stars; Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton opened eyes during spring training at the ages of 25 and 26, respectively, and subsequently emerged as All-Star talents. However, it’s clear there’s an especially strong correlation regarding the success of younger prospects in spring training eventually translating at the major league level.