Every Spring Training I’m reminded that pre-season statistics don’t correlate with regular season performance. Spring Training is a time for the young to fight for a place and the starters to shake off the rust and gradually work their way up into top form. This is especially true for pitchers.
Spring Training pitching often tests the fan’s resolve to ignore statistics. If a pitcher is showing well in ST it’s easy to spit out some stats to highlight how well they’re doing. For example, Mariners up-and-comer, Marco Gonzales has been showing well, posting only 5 hits with 0 home runs in 9 innings pitched. I love telling people that because I believe that this is Marco’s breakout year and I want to use data to strengthen my case that he’s going to be great in the regular season. By and large, this is a mistake. Well, partially.
Because of the small sample size, it’s a dangerous game to use Spring Training stats to make predictions about a player’s regular season performance. Even taking regular season statistics from the year before can be tenuous. With that said, a good baseline in which to approach a player’s projected performance coming into ST is their ZiPS, which is a quantitative model for projecting baseball performance.
ZiPS are reliable and easy for anyone to access online. Economist Editor, Dan Rosenheck wrote in his 2015 article, Spring Forward, that his presentation at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference Study proved that by merging a player’s ST stats with their ZiPS a strong correlation exists between ST performance and their subsequent regular season. His analysis showed an increase in statistical precision up to .60 points more precise when predicting a pitcher’s ERA (Earned Run Average) in the regular season. Bear in mind that this is just ERA and the correlations were strongest among rookie performers. I suggest you read his article; it’s fascinating stuff.
Rosenheck has rightly been applauded for his baseball analysis and his work was recognized by the higher echelons of baseball and professional scouts alike. That said, for the everyday fan who wants direction on how to better evaluate their team’s pitchers while they prepare for the regular season, there’s another way to evaluate them without the use of a graphing calculator and a Costco size bottle of Aspirin.
It’s a good idea to understand a few basics about a pitcher’s Spring Training schedule. Each pitcher comes into ST with a different schedule and priority list of things to work on. No two pitchers are alike and each is eased into action at whatever work rate suits him best. There’s no one-size-fits-all timeline for moving a pitcher along. Also, be aware if the pitcher is coming into ST 100% healthy, or if he’s returning from injury, or is still recovering from injury. These factors play heavily in the ST schedule, work-rate and performance of the athlete.
In addition, when evaluating a pitcher during Spring Training it’s pertinent to know if he’s secured a starting role in the rotation, or if he’s fighting for a starting job. Veterans tend to come into camp with a bit more ease, while a younger guy hungry for the next step will often show up in shape and raring to go. Lastly, keep in mind if they had any glaring holes in their game last season; chances are they’ll be working to improve on those shortcomings.
A pitcher wants to use Spring Training to build stamina over each inning, secure their fastball command before securing the rest, and focus on the pitches they want to improve on by perfecting their mechanics. If these things go well early in ST, great! But, sometimes it’ll take a bit more time to iron things out and they’ll only know one way or the other by trying out new things in a live game scenario. This beckons the cliché phrase, “Putting in the work.”
The main categories or aspects of a pitcher’s job.
Herein, is what you should be watching for when evaluating a pitcher’s outing. These aspects of a pitcher’s job will be repeatedly discussed by radio and television announcers, pundits and reporters. Also, listen to as many interviews with the coaching staff and pitchers themselves as you can. Not all of what they say is filler; often they leave breadcrumbs for you to pick up. It’s integral to know your pitchers, where they’re at in their progression, and what they’re working on.
Here’s a shortlist of the aspects of a pitcher’s job. This is not a be-all-end-all list, but a working rundown of the main things that coaches and pitchers are assessing and working on during Spring training.
The consistency and quality of their repeatable mechanics
Keep in mind that these aspects of good pitching aren’t all mutually exclusive from each other, but intertwined. When we’re watching a pitcher in ST you want to hear from the commentators and from interviews with the staff that a given pitcher’s mechanics, including their release points (when they let go of the ball), are “where they should be” (They often say that). Evaluate the pitcher’s control on different kinds of pitches and surmise if they’re hitting their intended locations. If they are, it’s a good sign that they’re doing well mechanically.
Pay attention to their arm slots, or arm angle. Different pitches are thrown from different angles. This, along with grip, produces different angles of spin on the ball, which in turn gives the pitch different action. Spin rate is also important. A high spin rate means more action. Obviously, you can’t count the spins, but someone is—it’ll be mentioned if it’s pertinent information to know.
In sum, if a pitcher is hitting their slots, they still can’t help it if the pitch will be hit or not, but they can be satisfied that they did what they were supposed to do.
Hitting their spots, i.e. consistency in finding their pitch locations
As mentioned above, control is important. At a finite level, there’s infinitesimal variation between pitches, even when it’s the same pitcher throwing the same pitch twenty-seconds apart. However, the hope’s that the placement and velocity are stable and that the general outcome’s the same.
Where a pitch is located depends on a myriad of factors including what kind of pitch it is and what the batter likes, to name a couple. You might not know all of these details, but the announcers will tell you what kind of pitch was thrown. Acting off that information, take mental pictures to reference where the ball was located when the pitch worked.
Figure that fastballs are best when painting the edges of the strike zone, especially inside (this is a general statement and again, depends on a batter’s vulnerability and the kind of fastball thrown). Breaking balls are often to appear as hittable, but once they arrive are often outside of the strike zone. Or, they appear high but sink to land in the strike zone for a called strike. Keep taking mental pictures when you see a pitcher throw his breaking ball to evaluate its consistency, break, and location.
This takes time to see, a lifetime really; but taking the time to call what kind of pitch you’re seeing greatly increases the quality of your viewing experience.
One train of thought is that repeatable mechanics and hitting spots is the pitcher’s number one goal. The other theory is that velocity is king and can override a high accuracy rate if the pitcher can usually hit their intended spots. Some note the number of strikeouts that happen when pitches arrive at the plate not where they were intended. The higher the velocity the higher the whiff and soft contact rates. That being the case, a pitcher has to be balanced and cannot forsake one aspect of their job for another.
Take the stance that all of these aspects are equally important because for the viewer and fan what you want to know is if a pitcher’s velocity is competitive at the professional level, if it’s stable, increasing or diminishing, and the speed variation between their different pitch categories.
Televised Spring Training games rarely if ever show you the mph of a pitch, so once again, look and listen. If you’re hearing that his velocity is good, there you have it.
A pitcher must follow through a pitch and land balanced and ready to field if necessary. Following through and finishing a pitch is also an integral component of arm health and longevity.
If a pitcher recoils at the end of their delivery that’s a bad sign that they’re either guarding (hips, leg, knee, ankle, or foot injury) or trending into a bad habit. Watch how a pitcher plants after a pitch to evaluate if they’re properly finishing their pitches. If not, they’re putting unnecessary stress on their arm and that’ll lead to issues down the road.
Physical condition and poise on the mound
It’s good to hear that a player comes into Spring Training in shape. Evaluate how they look physically. By week 3 of ST, when starting pitchers will be extending their pitch counts and innings, evaluate if they settle in and get stronger, or if they tire. If they tire, expect their mechanics and velocity to diminish.
Most importantly, watch how the pitcher works when they’re in a jam. It’s one thing to pitch when no one’s on base, but entirely another when players are in scoring position. Keeping focused and engaged is the most important aspect of a pitcher’s job. No matter their abilities, if they lose confidence and concentration, things are not going to end well. Watch for mental fortitude.
Some final thoughts.
Spring Training is about working on the above aspects of pitching to become as well rounded as possible. The more advanced the pitcher the more finite their work list becomes. They could spend a whole ST working on one aspect of their pitching game, and as a result look less effective on the mound because they’re throwing more of a certain pitch that they’re trying to perfect. This will lead to inconsistent stats and increased blood pressure to the side of the fanbase that doesn’t pick up on what the pitcher is out there trying to do.
ST is not all about the W!
That said, pitchers vying for a starting job will pitch the hell out of their innings and will work on certain pitches to be sure, but will be more conscious of making a statement and a case for themselves.
At the end of the day, the best take home from knowing your pitchers is learning how to read between the lines and to evaluate their ST performances by locking in on the small details. Yes, strikeouts, walks, hits, and earned runs are part of it, but they don’t even touch a pitcher’s success in pushing through their program and coming out of it in near peek endurance, healthy, and confident in their mechanics and velocity.
Watch and listen. Reading the stats in ST is a shortcut for answers that only come in long form.