There’s No Such Thing as a Position Battle

Two men, one position. The spring training meme is at least as old as spring training itself, and yet is it a really real thing? If we believe in the merits of large sample sizes – and we do here – why would we forget that approach when the teams head south for spring? Perhaps this idea of the positional battle is overblown.

For the most part, the contenders for any starting role have left a trail of data behind them. This data isn’t always made of numbers, but it should be substantial by the time that player is eligible for a starting role on a major league team. His organization has scouted him at least once, and probably twice – for the draft and/or for a possible trade. On the way up through the minor leagues, his coaches have formed opinions, his scouting director has collated and informed those opinions, and his general manager has, at the least, read the file. He might have even sought out the coaches for additional conversation about the player. Add these subjective opinions to the data on hand, and you have yourself a dossier, sir.

With some possible leeway given for offseason development, why should that collection of data be outweighed by that player’s performance in 50 spring plate appearances? We want the front office to drag the net as wide as possible and not to weigh some handful of hits or muffed grounders equally against that players’ entire history. It goes against our nature to believe such a thing is the right approach, and yet we participate in the breathless coverage of the Spring Position Battle, if to a lesser extent. And, in defense of such coverage, there’s plenty of team officials that will discuss the pending position decision – this is not something that is made up.

But if you asked a team official in an honest moment, they might admit that most of the roster is set by the time the new year begins. And that they probably have strong opinions in place about their preferred or predicted winner of said position battle. That seems to render the position battle into some sort of Kabuki theater, played out for appearances’ sake. The media needs something to report, fantasy baseball prognosticators need something to debate, and serious fans need something to ponder as they drive to work.

There are times when it makes sense to open up a position. Perhaps a pitcher has radically changed his mix – by adding a cutter or focusing on a lost changeup. Sometimes they have completely revamped their idea at the plate, like Jose Bautista did last spring, and it becomes immediately obvious that, despite the small sample, something has changed. In New York, there is a new guy in town via the Rule 5 Draft (Brad Emaus) and a player trying a new position (Daniel Murphy). That seems like an okay time to open up the position and get some eyes on the battle.

In the end, we praise open-minded team officials for pursuing that extra edge and considering as much information as possible when it comes to most analysis. Perhaps, even when it concerns the traditional position battle, we should praise front offices for keeping open minds into spring training. Even when the subject at hand is a decision about a starting role that has probably been pre-ordained, and the extra data available are those same denigrated 50 plate appearances – even then it’s all new data, and it should all figure into the final decision. As Tom Tippet of the Boston Red Sox said at the MIT Sloan Sports Conference, “It’s all scouting.”

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.

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13 years ago

It kind of depends on whether you believe in players performing differently under pressure. I know it’s really difficult to prove but maybe some players will perform differently (better or worse) when they know there is a roster spot on the line as opposed to when they are just getting into shape knowing for sure they are either going to AAA or have already made the club. Everybody has an experience when the adult supervision is gone and YOU are the one making the decisions. It feels different. Even though It is hard to prove it for ballplayers, why should they be any different?

But yeah, it’s a real small sample size. I never understand it when some player makes the big league club, starts off with a couple of bad weeks and gets sent down. What exactly did you learn in those two weeks that you didn’t know before and made you change your mind?

Barkey Walker
13 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

Lots of things could be happening there. A batter could get upset and change their stance / start swinging at garbage pitches, a pitcher could lose movement in their breaking ball. Pressure, and trying to “catch up” can do bad things for a player.

Even top athletes can have problems and start hacking when their BA dips. The difference is their bad days are better than the other options good days, so you keep them around.