By Cliff Corcoran
Spring training statistics don’t tell us much, but starting two years ago, I’ve made an annual attempt to try to suss out a handful of spring performances that seemed meaningful. Two years ago, I correctly gauged hot springs by Curtis Granderson, Ian Kinsler, and Mike Morse and a cold one by Hideki Matsui, but I missed badly by reading too much into a cold spring by Lance Berkman. Last year was more of a mixed bag. I correctly predicted Adam Dunn’s rebound and Ubaldo Jimenez’s regression, but I missed badly on Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward and had less definitive results with the other four players I profiled. Discouraging as that might have been, it wasn’t a poor enough result to convince me to abandon the experiment, so here is a look at several of this year’s spring training performances that seem meaningful to me.
Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants
Spring Stats: .437/.459/.901, 8 HR
Belt was a sensation in his first year of pro ball, debuting in High-A, finishing the year in Triple-A and hitting .352/.455/.620 with 23 home runs, 112 RBIs, and 22 stolen bases along the way. At 23, he looked ready to step into the major league lineup in 2011, but he found himself blocked by Aubrey Huff, who was coming off a big 2010 campaign year which culminated in the Giants' World Series win. Then Belt suffered a broken wrist mid-season. Last year, he had to shake off an early-season job share with Huff and Brett Pill, but he did finally secure the Giants’ first-base job, and over the season’s final two months, he hit .329/.390/.494. Still, he hit just three home runs over that span (187 plate appearances) and just seven on the season, down from nine in less than half as many plate appearances the year before. This spring, in just 74 plate appearances, Belt has gone deep eight times.
Now, Arizona, with its warm, dry air and low elevation, is a great place to hit, so you have to take outsized hitting performances from the Cactus League with a grain of salt. However, back in 2005, Baseball Info Solutions’ John Dewan discovered that a spring training slugging percentage (minimum 40 at-bats) at least 200 points higher than a hitter’s career slugging percentage (minimum 200 at-bats) was strongly indicative of a breakout season. Belt’s career slugging percentage coming into this season is .418. He has slugged .901 in camp. That’s an eye-popping 483-point difference. For the first time in his career, Belt will open a major league season with an uncontested starting job, and if the effects of his wrist injury lingered longer than his disabled list stint in 2010, they would seem to be a thing of the past as well. Belt, who trails only Seattle’s Morse in slugging and home runs this spring (Morse is at .926 with nine dingers), is unlikely to be among the home-run leaders in the National League this season. Still, don’t be surprised if he takes a significant step forward at the plate. In his age-25 season, he could finally live up to the hype generated by his dazzling 2010.
Spring Stats: .406/.440/.739, 5 HR
Moustakas is a very similar case to Belt, minus the wrist injury. The coming season will be the 24 year old’s third in the majors following a partial 2011 season and a full 2012 campaign. He was a very highly regarded prospect, having hit .290/.331/.531 with 25 home runs and 92 RBIs in 107 games at Triple-A, but has yet to fully live up to that hype at the plate in the majors. Dewan’s formula applies here as well; Moustakas’s .739 spring slugging percentage is 344 points higher than his career mark of .395. Given that his hitting profile is that of a free-swinging masher, one who did hit 20 home runs last season, that could portend a major power surge in the coming season.
Spring Stats: .376/.430/.671, 7 HR
Noticing a trend here? Brown, like Belt, was a top prospect who struggled with injuries and his organization’s lack of faith in his performance upon his arrival in the majors. He was slated to be the Phillies’ right fielder in 2011 after Jayson Werth defected to the Nationals, but broke the hamate bone in his right hand during spring training, struggled upon his return from the injury and, after two months in right field, was replaced by Hunter Pence. Last year, Brown sprained his thumb in spring training, an injury which very well may have lingered all season, though he played through it (see Upton, Justin). He didn’t get another big-league look until after Pence and Shane Victorino were traded at the deadline, and he didn’t do much to distinguish himself over the final two months. Still, this is a player who was the fourth-best prospect in baseball prior to the 2011 season per Baseball America coming off a season split between High-A and Double-A in which he hit .327/.391/.589. Brown is still just 25 and will be the Phillies Opening Day right fielder. Certainly the expectations for his performance have dropped considerably, but he looks ready to put the last two lost seasons behind him and establish himself as a valuable major league regular. And, yes, the Dewan formula applies again: Brown’s current .671 slugging percentage is 283 points higher than his career .388 mark in the majors.
Spring Stats: .317/.368/.556, 4 3B
I list Bourjos here only because he will be the starting center fielder for a playoff hopeful, pushing arguably the game’s best player, Mike Trout, out of position. In partial seasons in 2010 and 2012, Bourjos, who was bothered by wrist injuries in both seasons, hit a combined .212/.264/.365 in 392 plate appearances. However, in 2011 he was the Angels’ everyday center fielder and hit .271/.327/.438 with double-digit triples and homers. His performance this spring suggests he’ll return to that 2011 form, which, given his outstanding play in the field, would make him an above-average player for the Angels.
Spring Stats: 1.05 ERA, 0.61 WHIP, 12.1 K/9, 3.89 K/BB
Here’s yet another prodigal prospect story. I’ve written about Teheran a couple of times already this spring, once to tell his story and point out how crucial this spring would be for him, the next seizing upon his spring performance to make him my National League Rookie of the Year pick (and I wasn’t alone in doing so). Looking more closely at his spring line, there’s a lot of luck on balls in play there, but he’s also leading the majors in strikeouts (35 in 26 innings) and has allowed just two home runs, reversing two of the more troubling trends in his awful 2012 performance. He’s the Braves’ fifth starter and, at 22, already a “former” top-five prospect. Expect big things.
Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals and Mike Trout, OF, Angels
In case you had any doubts, both of these guys have been raking this spring. Harper to the tune of .484/.507/.734 with six stolen bases in as many attempts. Trout at a comparatively tame .352/.478/.593 clip, but with 13 walks against just 10 strikeouts, and five steals in six attempts.
Last year, neither of these guys appeared in a major league game until late June. This year, not only are they healthy, but they’re hitting like the Ryan Howard (.338/.368/.663, 7 HR) and Chase Utley (.273/.368/.545, 5 HR) of old. For Utley, that doesn’t suggest a change in his recent level of performance (.264/.367/.433 the last three years), but if he can give the Phillies a full season of that, that alone will be a boon, and his spring does suggest he won’t experience further decline at age 34. As for the 33-year-old Howard, his bat just wasn’t the same after his return from his Achilles surgery last year (.219/.295/.423), but he seems to be back to his pre-surgery form now. Mix in Brown, and things are looking up in Philadelphia.
Dan Haren, SP, Nationals
Spring Stats: 6.39 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 3.60 K/BB, 7 HR
Well, things are looking up in Philly if you ignore Roy Halladay, which is kind of a hard thing to do. And most likely you already know about Halladay and Tim Lincecum’s lousy spring trainings (though both had mildly encouraging outings on Thursday). The struggles of those two have been ongoing stories for the past year, but in Haren, the Nationals have a pitcher in a very similar position. Haren, a Cy Young contender two years ago, suffered a big drop in performance last year due to a chronic lower back injury. The Nationals signed him to a one-year pillow contract this offseason in hopes of getting a big performance at the back of an already-stacked rotation, but thus far this spring, Haren looks worse than he did with the Angels last year. Haren's home-run rate is a particularly painful echo of 2012, when he allowed 1.4 per nine innings (against a league average around 1.0).
Spring Stats: 6.14 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 4.5 K/9, 2.75 K/BB
Another pitcher on a projected contender that has me worried is Morrow, and it’s that strikeout rate -- more than the ERA and WHIP -- that is doing it. In his first five major league seasons, which were split between starting and relief, Morrow struck out 10.1 batters per nine innings. In the last of those, 2011, he made 30 starts and led the American League with a 10.2 K/9. Last year, however, his strikeout rate dropped to 7.8 K/9, a regression that was masked by good luck on balls in play (.253 BABIP) and continued improvement in his walk rate. One could have painted that as Morrow pitching smarter, but for him to have just 11 strikeouts in 22 innings this spring along with that ugly WHIP and ERA seems like a bad omen for the 28 year old.
Dan Uggla, 2B, Braves
Spring Stats: .200/.268/.280, 25 K Okay, so I was horribly wrong on Uggla last year. Maybe I should have stayed away this time around, but I had to include him, as he has been one of the worst hitters in baseball this spring. Uggla, another player on a likely contender, leads the majors in strikeouts in spring training while having drawn just three walks (the latter a category in which he led the NL last year). Given his decline over the last two seasons, this seems particularly ominous for the 33-year-old late-bloomer.