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Spring Training Stats Can Mean Something
Nate Springfield | Sunday February 19th, 2012
Some saw Michael Morse's 2011 breakout coming.  (Icon SMI)
Some saw Michael Morse's 2011 breakout coming. (Icon SMI)
Spring training is right around the corner, and fantasy owners everywhere will be preparing for their drafts.  

Preparation is different from owner to owner; some look at projections based on previous seasons, while others just print off the top 300 list from their league website.  Whatever approach an owner takes, one shouldn't completely ignore spring training stats. 

Many may scoff at the idea of analyzing spring training statistics and, traditionally, a good spring does not indicate a great year (inversely, a bad performance in February and March does not mean that the rest of the year will be lost either).  However, there are a few things that one can take away from spring training performances that have, historically, helped to accurately predicted a player's season performance.  Below are just a few things to look for in the next six weeks or so as fantasy owners make the final tweaks to pre-draft rankings and values.

John Dewan's Slugging Percentage Indicator
For the past seven seasons, writer John Dewan (founder of STATS, Inc., co-founder of Baseball Info Solutions, author of Stat of the Week and The Fielding Bible) has used spring training slugging percentages to successfully predicte breakout seasons for hitters at a 60 percent rate.  That 60 percent may not seem overly accurate, but many other methods of projecting the outcome of a player's overall season performance usually sit closer to 30 percent.

The criteria for finding these players is rather simple.  If a player with at least 200 career major league at-bats posts a slugging percentage at least 200 points higher than his career average in 40 or more spring training at-bats, he is poised for a breakout year.  A few 2011 hitters who fit this criteria were Michael Morse, Matt Kemp, Starlin Castro, Alex Gordon, and Ryan Roberts.  Fantasy owners who went the extra buck or two or reached a draft round early on these players were probably pleasantly surprised with their team's outcome last year.

New Skills or Approach (Good or Bad)
Successfully evaluating players for fantasy purposes doesn't mean just finding the players who will outperform their investment, it also means avoiding players who will underperform.  In spring training, a player's off-season preparation, or lack thereof, gets revealed to everyone.  If a player is performing at the good or bad end of this spectrum, it's important to find out why.  Did they change their batting stance?  Is their pitch selection different?  Did a change in weight effect their performance?  The answers to these questions during a notably good or bad spring training are the key to determining whether there could be a long-term change or it is indeed - "just spring training stats".

For example, many analysts predicted that Reds reliever Francisco Cordero would fail to be an effective closer in 2011.  His 2010 struggles, decreased velocity in his fastball, and the emergence of young bullpen fireballer Aroldis Chapman all pointed to Coco losing his secure lock on the Cincinnati closer role.  Fantasy owners who paid close attention to Cordero's few spring training outings might have noticed that Cordero was throwing his breaking ball more often, relying far less on simply overpowering hitters and far more on increasing his ground ball rate and letting his defense get outs.  This new strategy continued throughout the 2011 regular season, and he went on to successfully save 37 of 43 games while posting a 2.45 ERA and 1.02 WHIP. 

Injury and Opportunity
Finally, one of the more absolute things that can be taken away from spring training is a player's opportunities to be on the field.  In a deeper fantasy leagues like a 15-plus team mixed league or a 10-plus team AL or NL-only league, guaranteed at-bats and playing time are a vital consideration when evaluating players for the later rounds.  For instance, selected an unproven big league player like Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo was a calculated guess that really paid off in 2011.  Of course, at the time of most drafts, Trumbo was slightly discounted because there were still reports that incumbent first baseman Kendrys Morales would eventually play in 2011, but the rookie's spring training role and strong performance made it pretty clear that he was going to be given a chance to be an everyday contributor, in some capacity.

In summary, there are several things in spring training that one can study and utilize to evaluate fantasy players.  The statistics and trends may not all hold up throughout an entire major league season, but some are more likely to sustain than others and, with careful examination, can be used to win fantasy leagues.
Nate SpringfieldNate Springfield joined the Baseball Press crew for the 2010 season and hosts the site's podcast. His love for the game has grown thanks to fantasy baseball, with a specialty in NL-only auction leagues. You can contact him at nate@baseballpress.com or follow him on Twitter @NateSpringfield.