Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Arizona mirage

Spring Training has been traditionally described in two ways. For veterans who have established jobs, it is a time to get in shape, get repetitions in to get ready for the season. For everyone else, it is a time to compete for jobs, rotation spots and future consideration. The former description can happen anywhere. The outcomes do not matter. But for the latter, where the competition takes place has to be largely taken into consideration. If that place is in Arizona, evaluating that competition has to be difficult because Spring Training in Arizona inflates offense.

In 2012, the top three Spring Training offenses were the Seattle Mariners, the San Diego Padres and the Oakland Athletics. As most know, the Mariners finished dead last in offense once the regular season came to a conclusion. The Athletics came in third from the bottom and the Padres were 22nd out of 30 teams. Obviously, what happened in Spring Training in Arizona did not translate to the regular season.

You should also notice that all three of those teams play in pitcher friendly (and batter unfriendly) parks. The problem is that hitters are having fun in Arizona and then once they get to their home parks, what flew around the stadiums in Arizona are settling nicely into gloves once the seasons starts. There has to be some sort of mind blowing that happens there.

A quick look at the spring statistics this year shows that the top five offensive teams by team OPS are all teams that play their spring games in Arizona. The Royals are on top. The Mariners are again right up there in second. Then the White Sox, the Angels and the A's. This kind of production gets the fans in Kansas City and in Seattle all excited, of course. "We are going to hit this season!" But will they?

Let's take the Mariners as a microcosm of this Arizona phenomenon. The Mariners currently have nine batters who have had at least ten spring plate appearances with an OPS over 1.000. Jesus Montero, for example, is batting over .400 with an OPS of 1.180. A year ago, his spring OPS was .923. Once the season started, he had trouble getting going and finished with an OPS of .685. Now personally, I believe Montero is a much better talent than that .685 finish of a year ago, but his Arizona numbers are highly inflationary.

Justin Smoak has a spring OPS of 1.285! Last spring, he compiled an OPS of .966. So how can you get all excited by what Smoak is doing this spring when last year's spring success did not lead to anything during the season?

Now let's look at the same team's pitching. Pitchers who can miss bats will hold their own. Felix Hernandez has decent stats this spring. Fire-ballers like Brandon Mauer blow people away. Kameron Loe is having a good spring because he can miss bats. But pitchers that rely on contact are getting whacked at an alarming rate. Joe Saunders is getting his head handed to him. Blake Beavan is getting blown up.

Joe Saunders has never been a great pitcher, but he has proven that he can at least get Major League batters out a league average number of times. If you are trying to evaluate whether Saunders should get a rotation spot, how do you do that based on his pitching in Arizona in the spring? Do you go by his history in the majors are by what is happening this spring?

I would love to see some people that are great with statistics to see what kind of lag there is with teams that train in Arizona for the first month or two of the season. I would bet that there is a direct correlation that can be proven between the giddy times of hitting in Arizona to the reality of hitting at the teams' regular home base once the season starts.

I would guess that teams that train in Florida have a much easier time to evaluate players than managers and GMs do in Arizona. I would love to see some statistically smart people do a study on this. It is for this same reason why teams sending young pitchers to the Arizona Fall League should do so with caution. These five teams that lead the majors in OPS this spring will be interesting to watch during the regular season. I would love to believe that the Mariners are going to hit better this season. But I'll believe it more when I see it.

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