It’s a strange stage of spring training.
There have been enough games that it seems as if *something* should be meaningful. We should be able to infer something from the fact that Pablo Sandoval is 7-for-21 so far, or that Sam Travis and Andrew Benintendi are hitting rockets, or that Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez are a combined 3-for-18, or that Kyle Kendrick threw four no-hit innings this week.
The reality is that almost none of it matters. The conditions surrounding spring training games – small sample sizes drawn from the predictable fastball-heavy efforts by pitchers to build arm strength; the range of competition that alternately introduces big league and minor league competition; crazy spring training wind patterns that turn pop-ups into homers and flyballs into adventures; the lack of scouting reports; among so much else – makes it hard to draw anything from spring performances.
Jackie Bradley Jr. had a mind-blowing spring in 2013. It didn’t translate to the season. Travis Shaw had as good a spring as anyone in Red Sox camp in 2016, wrestling the everyday third base job from Sandoval in the process; after a solid start, he regressed to well below-average production in the regular season.
Rick Porcello looked terrible last year; he ended up having a decent year. Ditto David Ortiz, who seemingly waited until April to flip the switch.
Time and again, it’s been the case that balls in play in spring training have very, very little predictive power for anything that happens in the regular season. It’s part of the reason why some teams are loathe to embrace the notion of competition for roles in spring training. Passing judgment on conditions that have little relationship to genuine meaningful games is challenging.
Yet that doesn’t mean that spring numbers need to be ignored completely. A couple years ago, Dan Rosenheck of The Economist (hat-tip to David Schoenfield of ESPN.com) suggested that there was a clear conclusion to draw from the spring based on the peripheral statistics of a player’s walk and strikeout rate, finding that those numbers tend to help identify players likely to overperform or underperform their projections.
In that vein, one of the more notable numbers of the spring is that for all the talk of Sandoval’s improved conditioning and life on the field, in 21 plate appearances, he has yet to walk while punching out seven times (once more than he struck out in 52 spring training plate appearances a year ago).
It’s worth noting that in 2015, Sandoval struck out nine times without a walk – the first time he’d ever gone a full spring without a free pass. That exhibition season served as a prelude to a career-worst regular season ratio of 2.7 strikeouts per walk, which in turn served as evidence of a worsening approach that helped set the stage for the worst season of the third baseman’s career.
That’s not to say that Sandoval’s appearance of more athletic on-field movement shouldn’t be cause for optimism for the Red Sox. Nonetheless, his strikeout rate – and absence of walks – likely carries more meaning than more obvious box score measures.
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.