Last week, we discussed spring training stats: the fact that they are generally of limited use and when to recognize an exception to that rule. This week, let's further explore the question of why spring training stats matter little.
There is an interesting quandary in baseball, one to which there is no easy answer: What is a sufficient sample size?
It is convenient to attach specific, if arbitrary, boundaries to certain concepts. A full season's worth of at-bats is roughly 500-550. For a pitcher, 30-35 starts -- or 200 innings -- is a full season. Thirty home runs marks the start of an above-average power hitter, and anything higher borders on prolific. Using that same sort of logic, what exactly makes a sufficient sample size, and how can we prove it?
Sample size is the primary problem with spring training. Hitters get about 50 at-bats in spring training, and pitchers, in a perfect world, are lucky to make five starts. That alone -- throwing out quality of opposition, park effects, or lack of effort -- is enough to prevent us from claiming anything in spring training as statistically significant. But is there a specific number of at-bats or innings that does demonstrate statistical significance?
This problem is magnified when dealing with players who turn a corner -- a constant situation in fantasy baseball. Is it just a small sample size hot streak, or is it actual growth? Here it is crucial to find a reason that it's not just a hot streak -- maybe the hitter is hitting more line drives, or the pitcher had a manicure and has more snap on his slider. It's our job as fantasy writers to inform you of such happenings. But when you hear everyone say spring training does not mean anything and leave it at that as if it is self-evident, the actual reason spring training does not matter becomes overshadowed. It is hard enough to balance a proper sample size when the games actually count; when you throw in the many variables of spring training games, it's downright futile. Revisionist history and hindsight can make it look obvious, but for now, remember: Chris Shelton hit 10 home runs in a month that actually counted and, in the end, it didn't do much for him.
It seems the Blue Jays had the majority of their hitters undergo career years simultaneously, but Rios' breakout has been anticipated for years -- he always had the tools. Legitimate breakout, or a couple of lucky months?
Adam: Unreal. Most people point to Rios' left leg infection as the cause for his downward spiral after the season's first three months, but if you check the game logs, Rios was struggling weeks before he got hurt. Rios was hitting as well as .363 on June 3, but saw his average fall 33 points as he hit .246 for the rest of the month. If you buy into Rios, you are buying into him as a legitimate .300 hitter, because he does not walk enough or hit for enough power to supplement an average much lower. Separate Rios' season from April to June 3 and from June 3 to the end: The former nets 10 home runs and a .362 average in 193 at-bats; the latter is an unimpressive .249 average and seven home runs in 257 at-bats. Rios is a glorified platoon hitter in my eyes, a toolsy player who will regress a fair bit.
Will: For Real. The mini-slump Rios was going through before his injury can't mask his progress -- he was indeed in the midst of a breakout season when the infection struck. A sharper batting eye was responsible for the improvement. Rios is maturing as a hitter and is on the verge of stardom. I'll disagree with Adam that he doesn't offer enough in the way of secondary skills -- not only is the .300 average repeatable, there's serious burgeoning power here to go along with above average speed. Rios has taken some time to adjust to the majors, but remember that he still owns the skills he displayed in his last full minor league season: a .352 average and 54 extra base hits in 127 games. Take the injury discount and you might be rewarded with a .300 average, 25 home runs, 100 RBIs and 20 steals.
The hype is strong on this one: With Kendrick's average ESPN draft position of 104.4, and as the seventh second baseman off the board, fantasy leaguers are expecting bigger things than last year's piddling numbers (267 at-bats, four home runs, six stolen bases and a 44:9 strikeout-to-walk ratio.) Should they?
Adam: For Real. Last year's statistics are quite frightening -- in fact, they are borderline horrible -- but Kendrick does have some nice power potential with 26 extra-base hits last year. Kendrick certainly will be better -- the pedigree is there -- but he is still a potential risk because, like Rios, if he does not hit .300 or better, he simply does not have the secondary tools to make up for it. Because batting average is subject to much luck, there is an inherent risk in taking a player whose value is driven by his batting average. This is a cautious "for real." I feel players like Josh Barfield, Ian Kinsler and Ray Durham can approach or surpass Kendrick's production with less risk involved, so there is better value to be had. The hype overrates Kendrick a tad bit, but that isn't enough for me to project him as a failure.
Will: For Real. This guy can flat-out hit. He has accumulated more than 190 at-bats at five minor league levels. The results? Batting averages of .368, .367, .384, .342 and .369. That's a pretty sporty track record, folks. Kendrick doesn't walk much, but he doesn't strike out excessively, either. He has 20-plus stolen base speed, but only 10-homer type power, so though he'll contribute in every category, he won't be a big boon in the homer department. However, 119 doubles in 1,475 minor league at-bats, as well as 21 in the majors last year, hint at more power to come. Kendrick's strikeout-to-walk ratio was a poor 44:9 in his half-season in the bigs last year, so don't expect gaudy batting averages right away; there will be a learning curve. But this is a $20 player and five-category contributor immediately. If he develops considerably more power, Kendrick will be a superstar. If not, he'll "merely" be a batting champion. Pony up, especially you keeper leaguers.
Few 21-year-old pitchers can step into the American League and post a sub-4.00 ERA with above-average peripherals. Follow that up with a 5.80 earned run average in 183 innings and a 2006 season marred by personal problems, though, and 2004 becomes harder to remember. Will the Royals get back their sure thing, or will Greinke wallow in the minors?
Adam: For Real. I am a huge fan of Greinke, and my heart wants to say Greinke is going to relive his star potential. Objectivity overrules, though: Realistically, the best Greinke can be is league average this season. Usually that would make me cringe; that's not the type of upside you want out of a starting pitcher. But Greinke is the definition of freely available talent; the fact that he may start the season in Triple-A makes him the perfect sleeper in a deep league. Greinke has talent, and because his problems were personal and not injury-related, I have faith. Greinke's home run problems in the majors will prevent him from becoming an ace, but if he was ready at age 21, he can put in a solid season now.
Will: For Real. Don't forget about this guy. The former first-rounder might not get his opportunity just yet, but he could burst back onto the scene in a big way at any time. Greinke was very hittable in 183 major league innings in 2005, and he has played only one full season in the minors (2003), so there's not a tremendous amount of data to go on. However, what there is suggests a pitcher with excellent control who doesn't give up the long ball, at least according to his minor league numbers. In 285 career minor league innings, Greinke has posted a 238:54 strikeout-to-walk ratio and surrendered only 24 homers. He's unlikely to ever be a big strikeout guy, but he should continue to display excellent command. It looks as though Greinke is in the process of turning around his emotional issues, and if he does, he certainly has the talent to have a long and productive major league career. At the very least, he should be a serviceable major league starter and give us a few very good years of Rick Reed-with-the-Mets-like numbers: solid ratio stats and a handful of wins. But the upside is there for him to make us remember the earlier comparisons to Bret Saberhagen and Greg Maddux. Keep him firmly on the radar.