In 1996, the Royals had Patrick Lennon in camp as a non-roster invitee. Lennon was a huge man, built like a football player. He had once been the eighth player selected in the draft by the Mariners and was considered a top prospect, but some poor seasons and off-the-field issues kept him from seeing much MLB action. He was still just 28 years old when the Royals brought him into camp and he impressed coaches with his performance in spring training. He hit .395 with three home runs, and won a reserve outfield role with his performance. In his first start with the Royals, he went 2-for-3 with a double and a walk. In his next game, he had the game-winning hit in a twelve-inning victory. It looked like the Royals had stumbled onto a useful player.
Lennon then got just four hits in his next 24 at-bats, and by the end of April he was placed on waivers, claimed by the Athletics. He would play his last MLB game in 1999, with just 91 games under his belt.
As an adolescent Royals fan at that time, it was easy to look at the spring training stats printed in the Sunday edition of the Kansas City Star and get excited about guys like Patrick Lennon. Why wouldn't a hot March from a hitter carry over into the regular season? Because spring training stats are pretty meaningless? Why?
Hitting in Arizona is not like hitting in Kansas City
It is easy to see some monstrous home runs in Arizona and get excited about the power potential a player may have that year. Maybe the player has tinkered with his swing and has figured out a new stroke, or perhaps he really is in the "best shape of his life" which will result in a career year. Only Surprise Stadium is not built like spacious Kauffman Stadium. Hitting in a minor league stadium that seats a few thousand is not like hitting in a cathedral-like two-tiered Major League stadium. The thin, dry air of Arizona is not like the humid, heavy air of Kansas City in late June.
In 2009, Mark Teahen led the Royals with seven home runs in a hot Cactus League season. Originally slated for a utility role, Teahen's power-fueled spring training caused the team to reconsider. But with Alex Gordon at third, and Jose Guillen in right field, the options were limited. So they considered shoe-horning Teahen at second base.
It didn't take.
The Royals abandoned the second base experiment after just three games, and it turned out that Teahen's power surge in Arizona was a mirage. He ended the season with just 12 home runs, and that winter he was shipped to Chicago for a real second baseman - Chris Getz.
Players are working things out in spring training
No spring training game has ended up counting in the regular season standings. Their results are meaningless. That makes it a perfect time to try things out. Players experiment with different swings, different pitches, different grips. It is better to give up a home run in March on a pitch you are trying out than give one up in June on stuff you were never able to work out in spring training.
In 2009, Zack Greinke was hammered hard in spring training, giving up 47 hits and 30 runs in 28 1/3 innings, including six home runs. Once the games counted however, Greinke was dominating, winning the Cy Young Award. Turns out that tinkering in spring training paid off.
The competition is usually not Major League
There are 59 players in Royals camp, many of which will never see action in a regular season MLB game this year. Nonetheless, they will all get some appearances in big league spring training games. Spring training games are hell on scorecards, with players shuttling in and out. By the late innings, the game is typically staffed by a bunch of no-name minor leaguers.
In 2005, Ruben Gotay seized ahold of the Royals starting second baseman job after an impressive Cactus League performance where he hit .344 with six home runs.
"With Gotay, you look at what he's done performance-wise. That's what stands out for everyone", said manager Trey Hillman.
The problem was that Gotay's home runs were coming off guys like Matt Kinney, Agustin Montrero and Jose Garcia, all of whom would spend most or all of their careers in the minor leagues. Gotay had shown he could hit minor league pitchers. What he couldn't do was hit Major League pitchers. He hit just .229 with five home runs in 86 games that year, a far cry from his Cactus League performance.
Spring training is a small sample size
The exhibition league schedule is typically around 30 games, with most players not appearing in all of those games. In the games they are appearing, they typically don't play more than a few innings. The regulars will get about 60-80 plate appearances at the most, the starting pitchers will get in about 30 innings. A lot can happen in that small of a sample size. That's why General Manager Dayton Moore says it takes something like 1,500 at-bats before you know what you have in a hitter.
But that doesn't stop some fans from getting excited about 60 good plate appearance. In 2014, fresh off a disappointing season, Mike Mosutakas went on a tear in Arizona. Sure, fans and writers alike knew that all the caveats of spring training. But we wanted to believe! Moose was turning a corner! The performance was good enough for Lee Judge to write:
I’ve already said that fans should not take spring training numbers too seriously, but it’s always better to hit than make outs. As I write this, Mike Moustakas is hitting .467.
He would end the exhibition schedule hitting .429/.522/.768, but it was in just 56 at-bats. Lots of players can get hot for 56 at-bats. Unfortunately for Moose, that hot start would not carry over into April, as he went hitless in his first 18 at-bats and ended the month hitting .149. He would end up being one of the worst regular players in baseball that year, although luckily he would rebound with a great post-season. Maybe it just took six months for his hot spring training to translate into results?
This is not to say spring training is meaningless of course. Players have to refine their skills, work on their game, and prepare for the season. But the mindset is completely different under the warm Arizona sun. Winning or losing games doesn't matter. Take a look at how little correlation there is between how the Royals have fared in Cactus League play compared to how they have fared in the regular season.
Bold indicates they had the best Cactus League record.
|Year||Cactus League||Regular Season|
The Royals have long dominated the Cactus League, but only recently have dominated the American League.
Baseball is back today, at least in exhibition form. I'll still be tuning in, watching, following all the action from Surprise, Arizona, and you should too. Just take everything in context, and don't make the mistake of deciding a player should or should not get a role on the team based on his Cactus League performance, otherwise you might end up with a Patrick Lennon.