When FanGraphs was in Arizona earlier this spring, our merry band of nerds made our way to a Jarrod Parker vs Chris Sale afternoon tilt. The result on that 16th of March — an 11-5 win for the White Sox and bad performances from the two starting pitchers — was mostly unimportant to everyone in involved. But a few innings sitting behind the plate did provide some insights, including some reasons why those results were unimportant.
In some ways, the results were important. If you look in the box score, you’ll see that Hiroyuki Nakajima had an error. That means something, but only when combined with the observation that he was tentative in the field, and had his hand in two other plays that could have been scored errors as well. He dropped a ball at second that could have started a double play. He collaborated with an two other A’s to drop a short fly ball. He hesitated on throws. Combined with the thought that Patrick Newman had before he came over from Japan — that his defense probably didn’t make him an everyday MLB shortstop — there might be legit reasons to wonder about the A’s biggest free agent of the offseason.
The box score also says that Chris Sale walked two batters that day, same as Jarrod Parker, who added a wild pitch. And if you look at their stats last year, it was Sale that had the better control. But if you watched those two pitchers that sunny Saturday, you’d have a different impression of the two. Sale couldn’t find the plate in the second inning, with two four-pitch walks (Michael Choice and Daric Barton). But his poor control also helped contribute to the hits he gave up — seven in five-plus. He wasn’t getting around on the slider, and he was having some release point issues. And watching those elbows and knees and all the recoil in his delivery made his control problems seem even worse.
Quality of opposition is often cited as a reason to ignore spring stats, and there are even statistics that try to account for the uneven nature of a spring game. But if Sale was having trouble against an Oakland squad that was batting Chris Young third and Josh Donaldson fourth, wouldn’t that mean something worse than if it was a murderer’s row he was up against?
We know that the starters leave after three innings early in the spring, so spring stats are skewed because it. Jarrod Parker’s afternoon gave us a different reason to be skeptical of spring stats.
Early in the outing, Parker’s curveball — his third or fourth best pitch depending on who you ask — was crisp. It had 12-6 break and some sizzle, and batters were missing the pitch. By the third inning, that changed. He kept throwing the pitch, but the sizzle was gone, and it flattened out. And yet he kept throwing it to batter after batter. Conor Gillaspie doubled off a curveball. Jordan Danks doubled off a curveball. Hector Gimenez tripled off a curveball. Most of these were curveballs inside, yanked down the line. And Parker kept throwing his curves up there.
In fact, in the the three innings I watched, I only saw two changeups. That would be rare for Parker, who averaged one for every five pitches thrown in 2012. Adam Dunn walked up to the plate, and with two strikes, Parker finally threw the first change I saw. Dunn barely held up and was spared a strikeout. Parker threw him another changeup, and this time Dunn couldn’t stop himself.
And here’s a strange conundrum — lesser players hit Parker around, but he wasn’t showing them his best. He was ‘working on something’ in the parlance of the season. There’s no specific mention of him working on his curveball in the game report, but he does mention that he was focusing on how he felt “the day after” and that he was hoping to work on his two-seamer in the next start out. And when that next start was a gem, Parker said that it was a night game, closer to the season, and that he “wanted to treat it a little more like the regular season.”
There are things to be learned in your average spring game. Hiroyuki Nakajima has some work to do on defense. Chris Sale may have slightly worse control than his walk rate last year suggests. Jarrod Parker is working on his curveball. But these things don’t show up in the box scores exactly like we think they might. Good thing we still watch the games.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.