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What we can learn from Royals spring training

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Some of these stats might matter!

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Arizona Diamondbacks v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

At the end of February ESPN had an article about how some Spring Training stats might mean something after all. The writer, David Schoenfield, based this on the writings of Dan Rosenheck, an editor at The Economist. You can read some of his thoughts here, and there’s a power point of his study here. But the gist of it is this: walk rates and strike out rates, for both pitchers and hitters, stabilize pretty early. This is true in the regular season and spring training. Rosenheck also identifies groundball out percentage as a telling stat for pitchers and ISOCON (Isolate Power on Contact) for hitters. ISOCON is similar to ISO, but focuses on the balls that were actually hit instead of the entire batting average.

We’re not dealing with guarantees here, someone who comes up with a 25% walk rate in spring training is not going to carry that over one-for-one into the regular season. A pitcher who strikes out 2/3 of the hitters he faces probably won’t continue to do that either. But given two players with roughly similar projections before spring training, the one who performs best in these categories during spring training is more likely to actually perform better during the season.

Armed with this new knowledge, what if anything can we learn from the spring training stats we have thus far?*

*Note: All stats were as of early 3/18/17 **

**Yes, a lot of the following analysis is done on small sample sizes, but spring training was always the definition of a small sample size, anyway.

The Royals are really curious about Peter O’Brien

Which advanced stat did I use to pluck that information? Games played and at-bats, of course. Peter O’Brien has played in more games and had more ABs than any position player on the roster. Only Whit Merrifield comes particularly close in both categories. For what it’s worth, O’Brien also has a massive .692 ISOCON and a decent 11.11% walk rate to go with his horrid 35% strike out rate. He’s still not likely to start the year with the Royals, but that power sure looks like the real deal. After the stats were compiled he hit another home run in Saturday’s game

The Royals are eyeing several options at reliever

On the pitching side, there are several relievers who have been getting extended looks; Scott Alexander has the most appearances but he is followed closely by Al Alburquerque, Yender Caramo, Malcolm Culver, and Eric Stout. You’ve probably heard or read about Royals’ officials being impressed by the springs of Alexander, Caramo and even Stout. All three have only walked one a piece. Alexander and Stout have above average strike out rates, so far. Caramo only has a single strikeout in his 6 1/3 innings but makes up for this by having an astonishing 69% groundball out rate. Alexander and Stout also have good groundball out rates, but Caramo puts them to shame.

Alburquerque is an interesting case. He has a 5.14 ERA in 7 innings of work while allowing 11 hits. That’s less than ideal. However, if you look at those peripheral stats we were talking about earlier, he’s struck out 12 batters for a K/9 nearing 18 and only allowed a single walk. The combination of no walks, lots of hits, and lots of strikeouts means he’s got a crazy BABIP, .550 to be precise. He’s also got a 45% groundball out rate so far this spring, which isn’t bad. Based on those kinds of stats it wouldn’t be hard to imagine him coming up with a quietly good season. Obviously he’s not going to continue striking out that many, but his BABIP is even less likely to remain that high. If both stats come down he’ll probably find a way to get some outs. He’s somebody worth keeping an eye on, at least.

The second base job should go to...

Player ISOCON SO% BB% BABIP
Player ISOCON SO% BB% BABIP
Cuthbert, C .094 13.51% 13.95% .273
Merrifield, W .152 8.33% 9.76% .303
Colon, C .179 6.67% 6.25% .296
Mondesi, R .333 20.00% 3.23% .500

It’s still not clear. Everyone in that competition has seen a large drop in their strike-out percentage as compared to their MLB career marks. Whit Merrifield and Cheslor Cuthbert actually have walk percentages higher than their strike out rates, which sounds pretty good. Raúl Mondesí has the highest ISOCON, nearly double that of any of the others, but he also has a much higher strike out rate than anyone, a miniscule walk rate, and a ridiculous BABIP. Christian Colón’s tiny strike out rate is promising and that walk rate is near his career marks. Merrifield’s .783 OPS sounds even better when you realize it’s not being sustained by a ridiculous BABIP like his 2016 debut was.

Overall, I’d still lean toward letting Mondesí get some more seasoning in the minors and see if he can’t clean up those strike out and walk rates a bit more. Cheslor should probably be out too, his walk rate is the highest but he’s the worst remaining in every other category and though we’ve heard surprising reports of him being nearly adequate as a defender at second base, if his bat can’t be significantly better it’s probably not worth it. There would seem to otherwise be little harm in playing the hot hand between Colón and Merrifield.

Of course, one should take their career MLB numbers into account as well. If you do that, Christian Colón should actually probably be the one to take the job. His ISO is significantly lower than Merrifield’s, but his walk and strike out rates are both superior - he even has a higher OBP than Merrifield, despite a significantly lower batting average. His defense is rated more highly by at least FanGraphs, as well.

There are some ‘reliable’ guys maybe worth worrying about, too

Matt Strahm, by most accounts, is having a good spring. But if we look at the peripheral stats for him we see that he’s striking out only slightly more than a batter per inning - that’s pretty good, but significantly less than we became accustomed to, last season. He’s got a pitiful groundball out rate of only 27%, as well. The good news is that he still hasn’t walked a single batter. I’m not saying he’s going to suck this year, but this may be a sign he won’t be quite as dominant as we’re all hoping.

Brandon Moss was signed to primarily be the new DH for the Royals. Unfortunately, his spring stats are full of warning signs. His ISOCON is .150, but his true ISO is only .097, which is not nearly as high as the Royals need it to be. Combine that with the fact that his strike-out rate is even higher than Peter O’Brien’s and it almost seems like the Royals would be better off keeping the younger man on the team. The money has been spent, though, so Moss will get his shot.

Can Gordon and Moustakas rebound?

One of the biggest questions in camp, this year, is how the Royals players who were injured last year will respond to an off-season of healing. No two players face these questions more than Alex Gordon, who had his worst season as a left fielder, and Mike Moustakas, who missed most of the year with an ACL injury.

Gordon, for his part, seems ready to rebound, his strikeout rate is way down compared to his career rates. He’s not going to suddenly stop striking out, but after a spring like this it would be surprising to see him continue to set new career worst mark in that category. His .179 ISOCON isn’t going to turn any heads but his .147 true ISO isn’t that bad. I think we are all more interested and concerned with his strike out rates, anyway. If he is getting on base his career numbers suggest the power won’t be far behind.

Moustakas is having an unusual spring, though. His strike out rate is much higher than his career norms, and the walk rate is a touch lower. The good news is that when he is getting his bat on a ball he is really tattooing it with a .292 ISOCON. It is possible he’s just not all the way back yet, or that he was suffering some effects of having to DH instead of playing third base. He does seem to be getting better results as the spring continues.

Even armed with Rosenheck’s study we still can’t answer all of the questions. For that matter, the ones we can at least vaguely project with this information could easily end up wrong or useless against injuries or strange roster decisions. Fortunately we are ever closing in on that time when meaningful baseball will be played, once again.