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Spring Training Stats Can Mean Something
Nate Springfield | Wednesday February 9th, 2011
Play ball! Spring training is right around the corner. (MLB)
Play ball! Spring training is right around the corner. (MLB)
Spring training is right around the corner and fantasy players everywhere will be preparing for their drafts.  Preparation is different from owner to owner, as some look at projections based on previous seasons while others just print off the top 300 list from their league's website.  Whatever approach you take, you shouldn't completely ignore spring training stats. 

"Are you kidding?  It is just spring training.  Those stats don't mean anything."

True, a good spring training does not indicate a great year and inversely, a bad performance in February and March does not mean the rest of the year will be a lost.  There are, however, a few things that you can take away from spring training performances that have historically helped more accurately predict what kind of season a player will have.  Here is just a handful of things to look for in the next six weeks or so as you are making your final tweaks to rankings and values as you head into your fantasy drafts.

John Dewan's Slugging Percentage Indicator
For the past six seasons John Dewan (founder of STATS, Inc., co-founder of Baseball Info Solutions, Author of Stat of the Week and The Fielding Bible) successfully predicted break out seasons for hitters at a 60-percent rate using spring training slugging percentages.  60-percent may not sound too accurate, but many other methods of projecting the outcome of a players performance at a season's end 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 break out year.  In 2010, the player who posted the largest difference was none other than Toronto Blue Jay Jose Bautista.  His spring training slugging percentage was 484 points higher than his career mark.  Other notables on the list were Troy Tulowitzki, Nelson Cruz and Will Venable.  As you can see by looking at the complete 2010 list, 60-percent is a pretty accurate number of players that may not have had break out years, but definitely improved on their previous career performances at the plate.

New Skills or Approach (Good or Bad)
Successfully evaluating players for fantasy purposes doesn't always mean finding the players that will outperform their investment, but it also means finding players that will underperform.  In spring training, a player's offseason preparation, or lack there of, is revealed to everyone.  If a player is performing at one end of this spectrum or the other during spring training, you need to find out why.  Did they change their batting stance?  Is their pitch selection different?  Did they lose/gain weight in the offseason to a point it is effecting their performance?  The why in a good or bad spring training is the key to tell if it is a long-term change or just "spring training stats".

Last year Roy Oswalt had a bounce back year in performance, posting his best ERA since his rookie season and highest strikeout total since 2006.  In 2009, he started using his changeup more and fastball less.  Last year his stellar spring went unnoticed by most.  Maybe this was because it was only ten innings long, but he allowed only one run and six hits while striking out nine batters, with a lot of swing and misses coming off his changeup.  If you were able to identify that his success came from a new pitch, you would have been able to buy low and reap the rewards from it.

On the complete other end of the spectrum, Matt Kemp entered the 2010 season as a guaranteed top ten pick in any mixed league draft.  His spring was less than spectacular, hitting just .265 with two home runs and 12 strikeouts over 68 at-bats.  Some just wrote it off as a bad spring, but if you would have looked a little further and saw that his spring on-base percentage was only .320, which was well below his career mark at the time, along with a 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, you could have identified a problem before drafting Kemp. Something about his approach at the plate was different, it wasn't just "bad luck" that he wasn't performing well in March.

Injury and Opportunity
Finally, one of the more absolute things that can be taken away from spring training is a players opportunity to be on the field.  If you play in a deeper league, whether it be a 15-plus team mixed or a 10-plus team only league, guaranteed at-bats and playing time become a consideration when evaluating players for the later rounds.  Taking a gamble on a player like Angel Pagan or Juan Uribe was a calculated guess that paid off on draft day in 2010.  Of course no one expected either to perform as well as they did, but you should have known they would see opportunities to swing the bat because of either an injury or lack of players on the depth chart.

There is the argument that most fantasy players knew those guys, among others, were going to get playing time because of injuries to other player before spring training started - valid argument.  What you were able to learn in spring training was how they would fit into their teams' offense when they were playing.  Pagan regularly hit at the top of the order last spring, and was not going to be buried at the seventh or eighth hole in the lineup.  Uribe was inserted in the middle of the lineup, meaning he would be given the opportunity to drive in runs for the Giants mediocre offense.  These were things that you could have speculated on prior to spring training, but were confirmed over the six week during spring training.

There are things that you can learn and use to evaluate players in spring training.  All of the statistics and trends will not hold up throughout an entire major league season, but there are ways to tell that some are more likely to be true than others.
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.