Spring Training Stats Only Almost Mean Nothing

All winter long we wait for spring to arrive so that baseball may begin again. And then once it starts and our precious stat columns begin being filled in Florida and Arizona, we spend most of the preseason assuring each other that none of it matters: The success is a mirage, achieved against a lower caliber of pitching, and the struggles are the result of experimentation and readjustments.

No need to panic. No need to celebrate. Let’s all just sit here in the sun and be happy that baseball has returned, while making sure to maintain an appropriate emotional response to afternoons full of practice games. Stat farming, percentage calculating, theory formulating, tantrum throwing, sadness having; that’s all for the regular season, as the nightly pace of baseball wears us down to the nub.

Here in spring training, we’re safe from such things. Unless! We cross that arbitrary threshold that we’ll say is right about now. Context is important in the preseason, if nothing else is, and in the case of two veterans, their spring performance has made the regular season in front of them a little more interesting.

Let’s just say it: Chris Davis looks amazing. And to echo what’s probably being said in his own head, who even cares why? Davis has to muscle his way out of a deep, deep hole into which the Orioles threw a base salary of $23 million last season as part of his seven-year, $161 million deal that will see him make over $1 million a year through 2037.

Nobody needs a reminder of how 2019 went for Davis (though I will be giving you one shortly). As the Orioles dropped to rock bottom in the AL East, Davis decided to keep digging, just to see what was further down. What he found was never supposed to be experienced by man. His offseason brought up plenty of questions: Where does anyone, let alone a slugger once worth 6.5 WAR making $23 million, go from not just a down year, but a year in which he seemed to lose all components of hitting except for where the batters box is?

This winter, options were laid out for Davis by the Oriole as they offered him private instruction, but the 33-year-old wondered how much he could really change. If his production this spring is any indication, it turns out the answer is “a lot.”

Nobody is hitting better than Davis right now. In eight games, he’s 7-for-13 with three home runs and a higher slugging percentage than Juan Soto in about the same span. That is success prolonged just enough not to ignore, especially coming from a guy for whom half as much would have been a vast improvement. It’s brought to mind the spring of former Orioles catcher Jake Fox in 2011, when he hit a Grapefruit League-leading 10 home runs, which has become a cautionary tale about sensationalizing the high output of low-ceiling players. But as someone pointed out, even if Davis produces Fox-like numbers in the regular season, it would be an upgrade.

Maybe spring is just the time when Davis has always come alive? Nope. Last year at this time, Davis was in the middle of an entirely ignorable training camp, putting together a 7-for-37 spring (the same amount of hits he had by Tuesday) with 19 strikeouts as the prologue to a regular season that would see him hit .179 in 105 games. In only 12 of those games would he play all nine innings and not log a strikeout. He wore the golden sombrero three times. Departing Sarasota for Baltimore, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde had slotted Davis in the seven-hole for the first game of the season, saying he wanted to get the only former All-Star in his offense off to a good start by putting as little pressure on him as possible. Davis struck out three times and was benched after the opener.

There was a lot of work to do. No one was really sure what that work would be, and even if it got done, how much value it would really have. Davis will weigh down the Orioles’ financial ledger for some time whether he’s hitting or not. But regardless of what lies ahead, it’s clear that even a slugger with a broken swing and an addled mind like Davis can benefit from something as simple as a fresh start come spring.

Across the way in Clearwater, Didi Gregorius is getting a fresh start as well. Phillies fans in Clearwater for Tuesday’s game against the Twins, and at home watching in one of the team’s rare television appearances this spring, had just watched Bryce Harper come to the plate, be plunked on the right foot by a pitch, get jumped on by trainers like a live grenade, and escorted to a safety chamber. Spring training in the warm weather with colorful booze in-hand is a hard situation to ruin, but Harper leaving in the first inning can really water down your drink.

Two batters later, Gregorius came to the plate with his own problems. His narrative after being signed by the Phillies was that 2020 would be his first full season since returning from Tommy John surgery. He struggled with the Yankees in 2019 (-0.5 WAA in 82 games), despite a few clutch moments, and being brought into Joe Girardi’s new infield in Philadelphia was an attempt to stabilize a somewhat ambiguous situation with a bounceback candidate.

The thing is, Gregorius didn’t have a hit in his first game this spring. Or his second. Or his third or his fifth or his ninth. In fact, he was 0-for-22 with four strikeouts when he stepped to the plate in the game’s first post-Harper segment.

“Get it out of the way now,” Phillies broadcaster Tom McCarthy happily said of the shortstop’s struggles as Gregorius came to the plate Tuesday afternoon.

We tell ourselves not to take these things seriously, and we shouldn’t, but everyone watching, at home and in the stadium, was at least aware of Gregorius’ 0-for-spring, and wanted to see it end; if only as a reward for getting sunburned watching a game that saw Harper leave early.

With men on first and second, on the first pitch he saw, Gregorius blooped a ball that lazily traveled over the infielders toward the outfield grass, carrying the unworried and/or slightly buzzed hopes of all who were watching along with it. As it landed in front of the left fielder, the crowd erupted into cheers and the coaching staff in the dugout gave him a standing ovation as a run came in to score. Girardi seemed to ask for the baseball as a keepsake. Gregorius finished the day with two hits, reaching base three times.

We tell ourselves “don’t worry, don’t fret, don’t get too excited.” But if the games didn’t matter, they wouldn’t play them at all. Sure, the team at the top of the standings doesn’t raise a banner, but the preseason gives comebacks a place to start. If you can’t get the ball out of the park on a Florida breeze or the dry Arizona atmosphere, how are you going to do it when the skies of the northeast or the midwest are spitting down on you come Opening Day? The preseason gives us all a couple of weeks to check back in mentally and begin this unforgiving six-month gauntlet.

Less than a year ago, Chris Davis couldn’t hit a ball off a tee and Didi Gregorius was on an operating table. Now they’re both being reborn in the rarest of circumstances: A time when, for a couple of weeks, nothing matters. Unless, of course, we decide it does.

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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David Kleinmember
2 years ago

So you are saying career minor leaguer named Fargas won’t make the majors and steal 100 bases? smh