Spring Training stats don’t matter.
It’s important to start there. The exact spring training stats don’t matter, and certainly aren’t predictive. Nobody’s quoting Mike Trout’s spring training numbers as evidence for anything. Spring training is for getting yourself ready for the regular season, not for doing well in and of itself. It’s the warmup, where players work on timing, come back from injuries, and build themselves back up. As Celine Dion said on this season of The Voice, you can’t be good all the time; rather, you have to be good when it’s time. Spring training is not that time. It is, as its name implies, training. Of the “spring” variety, of course.
Zack Greinke, greatest pitcher for the Kansas City Royals in many of our readers’ lifetimes, won the Cy Young in 2009. It’s close to a decade old now, so some of our newer fans may not remember it, because the Royals were truly awful then. For reference - Sidney Ponson, beer softball league captain who stumbled onto a professional baseball diamond by accident in a failed attempt to chase a tumbling chicken wing, started the Royals’ home opener that year against the eventual 2009 World Series winning New York Yankees. It went as you might expect.
Anyway, Greinke was absolutely brilliant. He set the then-Royals record for most strikeouts recorded in one game that year with 15, and he rocked an ERA under 1 until the last day of May. Indeed, Greinke would have ended the season with an ERA under 2 but for a four-run sixth inning by the Minnesota Twins in Greinke’s final start of the season. His final numbers for the season included a 2.16 ERA, a 2.33 FIP, and a 4.75 strikeout/walk ratio.
Greinke’s spring training stats that year were, ah, different. His ERA was 9.21 (nope, not a typo), with a WHIP of 1.98 (lol) and giving up a batting average of .367 (ERRYONE MIGUEL CABRERA). Clearly, Greinke was workshopping something, or maybe just bored. Either way, it worked. Nobody cared about his spring training stats when he got his famous Sports Illustrated cover, for good reason.
I just spent 300 words explaining why spring training stats don’t matter, so maybe it’s a little arrogant or stupid of me to pivot to explaining why they sometimes do matter, but I’m going to stubbornly insist on doing it anyway, not unlike a 2006 Royals fan. While spring training stats don’t generally matter, as with all stats, context illuminates what is usually dark and twisted and unhelpful. Sometimes, spring training stats do tell us something, but we just have to keep them in context.
That ‘something,’ in this case, is in regards to Peter O’Brien. Yesterday, he crushed his seventh home run of the spring. This leads all players. In terms of predictive power, it doesn’t mean that much, as my first 300 words should caution.
But let’s put this into perspective a bit. ESPN’s spring training stats go back to 2006, and only one Royals player hit more than seven home runs since then, that player being Alex Gordon and his eight home runs in 2013. Looking at all teams in the last eleven years, only 15 times has a player hit more than seven home runs in a single spring Training. That’s just a little over one a year and, considering that there are 30 teams with a baker’s dozen hitters getting regular at bats the entire spring training and, well, you can do the math to see how rare that is.
There are nine games left before it counts for realsies. O’Brien has a chance to grab a few more homers, and even has an outside chance at double-digit dingers. That, for a historically power-starved Royals team, would be pretty neat. But it’s not just that: O’Brien’s overall triple slash is .333/.408/.833, and his walk rate is in double-digits. Even considering the hyper inflation of spring training offensive stats, O’Brien is 12th in OPS among all players with at least 15 games played.
The only guy in baseball with seven homers this Spring?— Kansas City Royals (@Royals) March 21, 2017
Peter O'Brien pic.twitter.com/7XzC4m8nir
There are abundant caveat tribbles everywhere, like the fact that, again, spring training stats aren’t predictive, and the World Baseball Classic is drawing dozens of very good players out of the pool of possible players in camp.
We’re getting to the core of the matter here, though. MLB teams do spring training for a reason—it’s not useless, or else it wouldn’t exist. For better or worse, spring training gives players the opportunity to show their worth in a real game scenario. It’s fleeting and meaningless, sure, but what isn’t? As a player on the outside looking in, you can either perform well and force your way into the roster conversation or not.
O’Brien is performing in a way that forces people to look at him, in his case in the flashiest possible way in baseball via the Home Run, the Long Ball, taking repeated trips to #Dongtown, etc.
The caveat tribbles are spilling out of the container again, of course. O’Brien doesn’t really have a position—that the Royals haven’t used him much as catcher without Salvador Perez in the lineup shows their opinion of O’Brien behind the plate, and Jorge Soler, Alex Gordon, and Eric Hosmer occupy the other positions O’Brien could see in a big league game. While he could DH, it seems the four-headed second base monster of Whit Merrifield/Christian Colon/Raul Mondesi/Cheslor Cuthbert is likely to nuke the remaining bench spots.
The opening day roster is overrated, true, and there are more chances to make the team. But making a roster starts somewhere. Starting early is better than starting late, and being great is better than being good. You take what you can get. O’Brien might be nothing more than a AAAA hitter who will be a great hitter in Japan in a few years; you never know. But a successful Major League career starts somewhere. It might as well be in spring training. O’Brien is certainly making the most of it.