Spring training statistics may seem meaningless, but while they pale in comparison to the numbers produced when games start to matter, they can sometimes give a hint of what is to come in the season ahead. This can be especially true when they are viewed in the larger context of a player's health and recent performance.
A year ago, I attempted to find meaning in spring stats by listing seven players whose extreme spring performances seemed to be an early sign of the type of regular season they'd have. Looking back, I'd say I got four right (Curtis Granderson, Mike Morse, Ian Kinsler and Hideki Matsui), one incredibly wrong (Lance Berkman), and grade two as incompletes due to injury (Buster Posey and Alex Rodriguez). That's a good enough rate of success that it seems worth trying again. Here, then, are eight players whose performances thus far this March (three good, five bad) are worth closer inspection:
Adam Dunn, DH, White Sox
Spring Stats: .250/.455/.656, 4 HRs
Dunn just missed qualifying for the batting title last year, which spared him the indignity of having his .159 average be the lowest ever by a qualified hitter since the deadball era. He did, however, set the record for lowest batting average by a hitter with at least 425 plate appearances in the 140-year history of the major leagues. In fact, after seven years of remarkably consistent production, Dunn hit a paralyzing .159/.292/.277 in 496 PAs in 2011.
Every bit as alarming as that batting average, however, was the disappearance of his power. Dunn averaged 40 home runs from 2004 to 2010 (hitting that number on the nose in four consecutive seasons), but went deep just 11 times last year. During his seven-year peak, Dunn's isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average, which allows us to see a hitter's power isolated from the fluctuations of batting average) was .279. Last year it was .118. Last year also saw Dunn, a hitter associated as much with strikeouts as home runs, set a personal high in strikeout rate, taking a K in nearly 36 percent of his plate appearances (compared to a previous career rate of 27 percent).
It's because of home runs and strikeouts, not batting average, that Dunn is on this list. A year ago, Dunn hit just three home runs in 67 spring at-bats while striking out 27 times. This spring, after 32 at-bats, he has already gone deep four times and struck out just four times. He's also walking far more often, already surpassing his 2010 spring walk total by one, 12 to 11. That is an indicator that Dunn's power isn't gone, and his nightmarish 2011 season did not destroy the plate approach that helped make him so valuable prior to his arrival in Chicago.
I fully expect him to bounce back, if not all then at least most of the way to his pre-2011 form. I also, however, expect him to strike out at least 100 times.
Dan Uggla, 2B, Braves
Spring Stats: .313/.404/.750, 6 HRs
As late as July 4 of last year, Uggla was the National League's version of Dunn, a previously consistent albeit strikeout-prone power hitter in a massive funk with a new team. On the morning of July 5, Uggla was hitting .173/.241/.326 on the season, but that day he started a 33-game hitting streak and hit .301/.386/.596 with 24 homers over his final 75 games. Those two extremes didn't quite add up for Uggla, however, as despite setting a career high in homers, he set career lows in the three slash stats with a .233/.311/.453 overall line.
This spring, Uggla is tied for the major league lead in home runs and is also walking more often and striking out less than in either of his last two spring trainings (both of which were dismal). He looks ready to pick up right where he left off last year, though he might be the only Brave eager to do so.
Brian Matusz, LHP, Orioles
Spring Stats: 1-1, 3.20 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 9.00 K/BB, 0 HR
In my AL East spring training preview last month, I listed the Orioles' Big Question heading into camp as, "What's the deal with Brian Matusz?" Well, after five spring starts, the deal seems to be that Matusz is back on track.
Prior to the 2010 season, Matusz was rated the fifth-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America. He then went 7-1 with a 2.18 in his final 11 starts that year only to suffer through a disastrous 2011 which saw him post the worst single-season ERA (10.69) ever by a pitcher with 40 or more innings pitched.
Matusz isn't dominating this spring, but he is pitching well, and perhaps most significantly, he's keeping the ball in the ballpark. His peripherals weren't awful last year. Yes, his strikeouts were down, and his walks were up, but not so much that they fit with a 10.69 ERA. The real problem was what happened when hitters made contact. They hit .384 on balls in play and hit a staggering 18 homers in just 49 2/3 innings, or 3.3 per nine innings. This spring, Matusz has thrown 19 2/3 innings without allowing a single home run (a year ago, he allowed three in 13 2/3 innings), which stems from a greatly increased ground-ball rate (1.4 groundouts for every air out, per MLB.com, compared to 0.5 GO/AO a year ago). Add in just two walks against 18 strikeouts and there's reason to be optimistic about Matusz again. Also encouraging for the 25-year-old Matusz: The second worst single-season ERA by a pitcher with 40 or more innings pitched was 10.64, by a 23-year-old named Roy Halladay.
Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, Indians
Spring Stats: .214/.292/.262, 0 HRs
Cabrera hit just 18 home runs in his first four major league seasons over 1,610 major league plate appearances, never going deep more than six times in a season. Then, last year, he hit 25 jacks in 667 PAs. That power came out of nowhere, but given that Cabrera was just 25 last season, there seemed some small chance that it represented an actual development in his bat. Thus far, this spring has banished that thought. A year ago, Cabrera hit three home runs in spring training, matching his regular season total from the previous season. This year, a pair of doubles are his only extra-base hits in 42 at-bats. That's not good news for an Indians team that has fooled itself into thinking it's ready to contend.
Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Indians
Spring Stats: 1-3, 7.24 ERA, 2.12 WHIP, 6.9 K/9, 1.00 K/BB, 0.58 GO/AO
The news gets worse for Cleveland. One could normally brush off a rough spring from a veteran horse like Jimenez, but the former Rockies ace was a mere 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA in 11 starts after being acquired by the Indians at last year's trade deadline. While his walk and strikeout rates were near matches for his outstanding 2010 season, his velocity was down, and his groundball rate was down both on the season overall, and in Cleveland as compared to Colorado. This spring, Jimenez's velocity has been inconsistent (he hit 95 miles per hour in his last start, but struggled to reach 90 the turn before), and his groundball rate has completely flipped. Here are Jimenez's groundout-to-airout rates over the last three springs: 3.20, 1.37, 0.58.
Meanwhile, Drew Pomeranz, the left-handed former first-round pick whom the Indians sent to Colorado to head the package that brought Jimenez to Cleveland, has been dominating, going 2-0 with an 0.82 ERA and a 1.63 GO/AO rate. I'd be less surprised to see the rookie Pomeranz, who will break camp in the Rockies' rotation, have a better season than Jimenez than I would to see the Indians contend in the American League Central again this year.
Jason Heyward, RF, Braves
Spring Stats: .183/.222/.317, 17 Ks
Colby Rasmus, CF, Blue Jays
Spring Stats: .184/.289/.237, 0 HRs
Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pirates
Spring Stats: .121/.142/.303, 15 Ks
Let's take these three together, given that they were all first-round picks and considered top-ten prospects (Rasmus No. 3 by Baseball America heading into 2009, Heyward No. 1 and Alvarez No. 8 heading into 2010). All three manifested some of that potential in 2010, had lost seasons in 2011 and look every bit as lost, if not moreso, this spring.
Coming off a season marred by a chronic shoulder injury, Heyward shed weight and rebuilt his swing this winter, but all that work seems to have been for naught. One could write off the .183 average as bad luck given that he has shown a bit of power, but the plate discipline that was once a huge part of his value seems to have vanished as he has struck out 17 times in 18 games against just three walks.
Rasmus hit just .173/.201/.316 after being acquired from the Cardinals by the Blue Jays at last year's trade deadline, which makes his spring line distressingly familiar. The good news is that his plate approach has recovered from the brutal 39:5 K/BB ratio he posted with the Jays last year (he has walked six times against just nine strikeouts this spring). The bad news is that he's not hitting for power at all, with just two doubles in 38 at-bats.
As for Alvarez, he's completely lost. He has two homers, but just two other hits and has struck out 15 times against just one walk. That after hitting .191/.272/.289 in 262 major league at-bats last year.
Heyward is just 22 years old, so there's time for him to right his ship, but Rasmus and Alvarez are 25 and are getting dangerously close to becoming massive busts. All would be better off at Triple-A to start the year but none of them will.