If you were a fan of the Milwaukee Brewers, you might have been excited about Erick Almonte during Spring Training in 2011. The career minor league player was 33 and ten years removed from his first cup of coffee with the Yankees in 2001. He killed the ball last spring with a Cactus League slash line of, .416/.438/.636. Almonte opened a lot of eyes and when the Brewers headed north to start the season, Almonte made the team. It was a nice story. But once the Brewers started the season, Almonte stopped hitting. By the end of April, in 29 plate appearances, he batted .103 with the same on-base percentage. He was shipped to the minors on April 26 and wasn't heard from again.
It's hard not to think Spring Training baseball is real. We watch the games on television and they look like real baseball. And sure enough, each inning contains three outs and umpires look official. But Spring Training is a really strange animal. The starting pitcher may pitch four or five innings and the next pitcher could be anyone from Double A to a Triple A team. Many times the rosters are watered down further when teams play split games and the team plays two games in the same day. Plus, we are dealing with extremely small sample sizes. Almonte collected 77 plate appearances last spring and he was on the higher end of the scale. Anyone can get hot in 77 plate appearances.
To be fair to Almonte, the guy has hit extremely well in Triple A the last couple of years and 29 plate appearances to start the regular season is just as extreme a sample size. Almonte went on to hit at an .827 OPS clip in Nashville after his demotion.
But there are other guys who got more than 29 plate appearances in the 2011 regular season after having a fabulous Spring Training. No doubt fans of the then Florida Marlins were feeling better about the Dan Uggla trade after Omar Infante hit .414 in the Grapefruit League last year. That good feeling disappeared after 640 regular season plate appearances as Infante finished with a .696 OPS for the Marlins last season.
And there are others. Kevin Kouzmanoff had a 1.021 OPS during Spring Training last season. He ended up with a .656 OPS playing for two teams during the 2011 regular season. Heck, even Willie Bloomquist hit .400 last spring before the real games started.
Perhaps the biggest sensation of Spring Training last year was Kila Ka'aihue. Segments of Kansas City Royals fans felt vindicated when the big Hawaiian hit seven homers during Spring Training and sailed along with a 1.306 OPS. Those fans had been pining for the Royals to give Ka'aihue a chance with his minor league slugging history. Ka'aihue's big camp did earn him a spot as the Royals headed into the season. Ka'aihue played in 19 of the Royals first 21 games last season and 23 games overall. He hit .195. His crashing failure led to the beginning of the Eric Hosmer era, which well help Royals fans forget all about Ka'aihue.
And it's not just hitters you should ignore. Zach Britton had a phenomenal spring training for the Orioles last season. He was the next big thing for pitchers coming out of camp. While he didn't have a terrible season, he did struggle and finished with a 90 ERA+. Nick Blackburn went 3-1 for the Twins in 2011's Spring Training with a 1.73 ERA. Unfortunately, Blackburn didn't have that kind of season for the Twins once the regular season started.
The point is that any statistic you see from Spring Training has to be taken with a grain of salt. Perhaps a hot spring can signal a hot season. But just as often, it signals nothing.