Thursday, March 26, 2015

Spring Training stats do matter for certain Yankees

Spring Training is just practice, right? The New York Yankees should not be overly concerned or exceedingly hyped about statistics generated over the course of a few weeks which are mixed with minor league and rehabilitating players.

Not so fast.

There are certain circumstances in which the Yankees should take heed in the stats produced this spring particularly when they make roster decisions or anticipate future moves this season.

The argument is that while Spring Training statistics cannot be looked at as the sole factor in determining the future results of a player, they should and can play a large part in comparing like players, verifying whether a player is on a path similar to previous seasons, understand if injuries are resolved or help to alert the coaching staff to inefficiencies in the player’s mechanics.

First statistics are pretty important when evaluating competitions between two players. Spring stats have to at least be part of the basis for the decision making process in determining who receives roster spots. Sure, experience, the sound off a bat, the pop of the mitt and the notion of bad luck are taken into account but for all intents and purposes, the statistics are helpful.

This is surely the case when the Yankees contemplate their utility role for the infield. It may not be as much of an issue now since Jose Pirela's injury, but his strong spring and eye-opening 2014, has forced the Yankees to consider the 25-year-old for a roster spot earmarked for light-hitting Brendan Ryan.

Spring stats also carry more weight when the previous season’s results – whether good or bad – seem to be replicating. For instance, Chase Headley was experiencing a nice turnaround in 2014 once arriving in New York, and is off to a pretty good start this spring. Will Headley hit over .300 this season? Probably not, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility to believe that he can continue to provide similar production as he did at the end of last season.

On the flip side, there are players like Brett Gardner who went into an awful tailspin toward the end of last season. Gardner hit .176/.226/.301 with 35 strikeouts in 170 plate appearances covering 40 games from Aug. 5 through the end of the season. Much of this was later thought to be associated with Gardner’s abdominal issue which required offseason surgery.

However, Gardner is off to a horrendous start to the spring (.140/.260/.186 in 50 plate appearances with 14 strikeouts) and besides the stats he looks somewhat lost at the plate. He hasn’t driven the ball at all, and looks to be trying to pull everything.

Could there be something more here? Is it possible that some of the power Gardner showed in 2014 has gotten into his head and he’s no longer trying to smack balls in the gaps and utilize his speed to generate offense?

Gardner is a good hitter (.265/.346/.390 for his career), but he’s never been spectacular, and so it is entirely possible that the slide which began last season is the beginning of something more. It’s certainly worthy of watching as 2015 progresses.

Beyond the struggles of a stretch at the end of a season and it continuing into the following season, there is the instance of a player having an entirely awful season and then it continuing into the subsequent spring. Stephen Drew fits soundly into this category.

Drew’s downfall been discussed quite often since he arrived in New York last season, and with good reason. There are two sides to the Drew argument; one he’s on the downside of his career, and two, he missed Spring Training last season and needed to utilize this spring to gain some timing and be able to produce to similar metrics as he managed in 2013 with the Boston Red Sox.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, after 40 plate appearances this spring Drew has looked every bit the same woeful contributor at the plate, hitting a sparse .167/.250/.278. With Drew, a career .256 hitter, we’re again not talking about a superstar, so maybe his days are numbered as a starter.

Another situation in which the spring stats matter is when a pitcher is coming back from injury. Yes, it can take some time to get into the flow of things, but once the games commence, teams need to look at something tangible. If the pitcher claims to be feeling good, the mechanics are right and the velocity and “stuff” is there, but the results are not, what do the teams do?

Take Masahiro Tanaka as the first example. He’s having a very solid spring thus far. He’s looked healthy, his splitter is crisp and he’s seen positive results (10.1 IP, 1.74 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, 12 K and .171 BAA). He also was very good last season before his right ulnar collateral ligament was found to have a partial tear. So, as with Headley, the positive results from last season combined with the good work thus far in the spring, gives us reasonable expectations that Tanaka can perform to his abilities.

Looking at a pitcher from the negative side, CC Sabathia was pretty awful in last season. Like Gardner, part of Sabathia's poor performance was connected to an injury, a bum knee which was surgically repaired last summer. After rehab and a regular offseason of work, Sabathia came to camp claiming to feel as good as he had in a while.

Sabathia has seen some improvement in his fastball velocity, but the results have not translated yet. It can be argued that Sabathia’s increased velocity is good, but the need for his ancillary pitches to shine is required at this stage in his career. He cannot rely on a fastball to get out of jams, but needs to mix his pitches and locate them appropriately or he will get hit hard. This was happening in 2014, and it’s been similar for the short time he’s been on the mound in 2015.

Should Sabathia continue to miss his spots and the balls continue to leave the yard, the stats will be a true reflection of what kind of pitcher he’ll be going forward.

Finally, there is the instance where the stats from the spring force one to recall a time when the particular player was not exactly as good as he was the previous season. Dellin Betances was almost bumped from the Yankees’ organization back in 2012, before the club decided to convert the one-time starter into a reliever.

He saw some benefits to the move in 2013 in the minors and burst onto the scene in 2014, becoming the Yankees primary setup man, making the All-Star team and finishing in second place in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting. Betances regularly dialed his fastball up in the high 90s and occasionally topped 100-mph.

This spring, not only is Betances’ velocity down, his statistics are unlike what we saw in 2014. But, unfortunately they are not dissimilar to what we have seen in the past from Betances. Betances’ issue was control, and beyond his diminished velocity this spring, the right-hander is not hitting his spots. He is not walking a lot of hitters, but he is leaving pitches in the zone and they are getting hammered.

Betances’ spring statistics are a direct result of lowered velocity and lack of command. The numbers themselves could be ignored, but the reasons he’s compiled the numbers should not be overlooked.

And this was the premise we set out to establish; Spring Training statistics cannot be looked at as the sole factor in determining the future results of a player. However, spring statistics should be given proper weight in competitions and in conjunction with previous history of players (whether performance or injury related).

Christopher Carelli is a freelance baseball writer. Besides his work here, Christopher is a correspondent for FantasyPros, where he writes a weekly column covering the closer/bullpen situations around Major League Baseball. His baseball commentary has also been published on Yahoo Sports, the FanSided network, Sportsideo and linked multiple times on MLB Trade Rumors’ Baseball Blogs Weigh In. He is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the BYB Hub.