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Behind the Numbers: Spring Training Heroes

David Regan

David Regan

David Regan is a five-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner, and was named the 2010 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

While watching the exploits of the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig this spring and marveling at the fact that he's destroying Cactus League pitching to the tune of .527/.509/.855, I was left wondering a couple things:

What will the Dodgers do with Puig after sending him to Double-A to begin the season.

And...

What can we glean from spring numbers? We know that some pitchers are working on certain secondary offerings and thus are less likely to post ERAs in line with their regular season projections. We know the air is thin out there in Arizona, and we know that there are hitters facing guys with no chance at making an Opening Day roster.

Every year, guys exhibit superhuman feats from late-February through late-March, only to go on and flame out during the regular season. Just last season, Eric Hosmer followed up a strong rookie season in 2011 by batting .389/.453/.675 during spring training, only to post a regular season OPS (.663) that was less than his spring slugging percentage alone. A few other examples:

Remember the Jake Fox hype? Fox hit 10 home runs in the spring of 2011 before notching just 67 unimpressive at-bats in the big leagues. He's currently still looking for a team.

That same spring, Kila Ka'aihue hit .397/.462/.845 for the Royals, but after hitting a walk-off homer in the regular season's second game, it was all downhill. Ka'aihue was eventually optioned to Triple-A in May before being designated for assignment in September. He's now likely to be the first baseman for Triple-A Reno.

Last spring, Francisco Liriano led the league in strikeouts with 33 while posting a 2.33 ERA in 27 spring innings. Liriano of course went on to post his second consecutive 5.00+ ERA season.

How are we to think about these March heroes?

Note: Most stats are through Monday's action. For the most part, I'm not covering guys I touched on last week, and there's no reason to mention how superstars are performing.

Hitters

Yasiel Puig, OF, LA - I've written enough about Puig recently, so I'll forgo repeating those observations. After considering him for Opening Day, he was optioned to Double-A to start the year. As for Puig's 10:0 K:BB, I'll just say this - he has a .509 OBP. I've seen him work pitchers to double-digit pitch counts, so it's not like he's going up there trying to emulate Vladimir Guerrero. I think he'll have enough plate discipline as he matures. Late edit: What do the Dodgers do once he's hitting .400 at the end of April? That's hard to say, but I'm confident he'll find a spot in the lineup at some point, perhaps as a third baseman.

Brandon Belt, 1B, SF - I'm a buyer on Belt in as many leagues as I can be. He's hitting .433/.460/.900 with seven homers this spring after being a bit of a disappointment last year. Remember though, the Giants jerked him around last year, playing him in the outfield, benching him when Buster Posey needed a day off from behind the plate, and for a short time, platooning him with Brett Pill. Oddly, five of Belt's seven homers last year came versus southpaws, though he lost 38 points of batting average compared to righties. This year, Belt will be in the lineup every day and that should provide a certain level of comfort. Belt has posted some gaudy minor league numbers, including a 2011 OPS of .989, so a breakout 2013 wouldn't exactly be a big surprise. I love the upside here, particularly given it's very likely that he'll increase last year's 6.2% HR/FB rate closer to the league average (usually in the 11% range).

Jackie Bradley Jr., OF, BOS - Bradley has seemingly secured the left field job, batting .444/.523/.667 through his first 54 spring at-bats. What type of pitchers has he been facing though? This might be a good time to introduce the OppQual metric. OppQual was developed by the great baseball-reference.com, and is a measure of the quality of the pitching a hitter has faced this spring. A 10 indicates major league quality, with an eight signifying Triple-A pitching, seven Double-A, five High-A, etc. Bradley's OppQual currently sits at an 8.3, meaning overall, he's destroying Triple-A pitching on average. That probably means one should temper his/her enthusiasm. Let's see how he does as the spring progresses and the pitching gets tougher. In addition, Bradley has just 271 plate appearances above A-ball, so some April struggles may very well be in order should he make the team. Long term I like him a lot, but not so much for 2012.

Freddie Freeman, 1B, ATL - Not exactly a lesser-known guy, but the seven homers Freeman has this spring has me wondering whether a power spike may be in order. Freeman has hit 21 and 23 homers in his first two full seasons with HR/FB rates of 14.0% and 14.8%. Though he did see a decline in his groundball rate, Freeman compensated by hitting many more line drives as opposed to flyballs, so it's really hard to see him taking a step to being a 30-homer guy. Best bet is that he takes another step forward, probably turning last year's .259 average into the .275 range, but don't expect more than 25 homers.

Jason Castro, C, HOU - As a former number 10 overall pick, Castro has failed to live up to live up to expectations. He's dealt with significant knee issues the past couple years, including a torn ACL that caused him to miss all of the 2011 season. He's looking healthy now, earning praise from his manager and batting .342 with five home runs this spring. Castro will be the Astros' everyday catcher this year, and despite the lack of talent around him, he's a solid pickup once the top catchers come off the board.

Evan Gattis, C/OF, ATL - It appears Gattis is going to make the Opening Day roster, but how much playing time will he get and will he stick around once Brian McCann returns from a shoulder injury in early April? I just don't see the playing time being there. Gattis has spent time in the outfield, but the Braves already have Reed Johnson and Jordan Schafer around to back up the starters, and does it really make sense to have Gattis rot on the bench? He's batting a solid .358/.375/.736 with five home runs, so perhaps they make him a supersub, particularly if he can handle third base. Gattis has posted minor league OPS's of .986 and .995 the past two seasons, so there is some upside here if he can find at-bats.

Pitchers

Julio Teheran, SP, ATL - Teheran made his big league debut two seasons ago at the tender age of 20, and while he hasn't had the quick success we had hoped he would, Teheran is still just 22. All Teheran has done this spring is lead the league in strikeouts with 35 (in 26 innings) while posting a 1.04 ERA and holding hitters to a meager .182 average. That was enough to win him a spot in the team's Opening Day rotation as the fifth starter. If you're looking for a short-term projection, count on around 170 innings with 140 strikeouts and an ERA right around 4.00. He has far more value in keeper formats, but Teheran is still good enough to be a significant contributor in 2013.

Alex Cobb, SP, TAM - Cobb has certainly surpassed my expectations. When I saw him at the beginning of last year, he had an ERA in the upper 4.00's / low 5.00's, but by August for the most part, he had settled in pretty nicely, allowing eight runs in a game against the Angels but otherwise pitching pretty well in finishing with a 4.18 ERA, 7.0 K/9, and 2.6 BB/9. I find it interesting that the spread between his fastball (avg 90.3 mph) and changeup (85.0 mph) is just 5.3 mph, but his changeup has been proven to be one of the best in the league. In addition, Cobb does a good job keeping the ball down in the zone, allowing him to generate an elite 58.8% groundball rate, a mark that would have rated second in all of baseball had Cobb had enough innings to qualify. He's never going to be an ace given his stuff, but as a reliable No. 3 innings eater type who can notch 150 strikeouts, he's your guy.

Jake Arrieta, SP, BAL - The eight walks in 17.1 innings are a bit of a concern, but overall, Arrieta has pitched well - 1.56 ERA, 16 strikeouts. That is probably enough to make Arrieta the favorite for the Orioles' fifth starter job ahead of guys such as Jair Jurrjens, Brian Matusz, Steve Johnson, and a host of others. Arrieta is coming off a season in which he posted an ugly 6.20 ERA, but digging deeper, there are encouraging signs. His velocity ticked up last year, with his fastball averaging an excellent 93.4 mph. Arrieta's peripherals were also solid - 8.6 K/9, 2.8 BB/9. The 1.25 HR/9 rate hurt him considerably, as did a 55.3% strand rate. Strand rate if you recall, measures the ability of a pitcher to prevent runners (that he put on base) from scoring. The league average strand rate in 2012 was in the area of 72%, so Arrieta was far and away worse than the league average. A wide variance can have several reasons behind it, including simply bad luck, poor defense, poor bullpen support, and perhaps even the pitcher's mental state with guys on base. With Arreita, based on what he did in 2010-11, it's probably safe to say that his strand rate is closer to the league average in 2013, and that should allow his ERA to decline, perhaps into the low-4.00's. I'd love to have him for a couple bucks in an AL-only or deep mixed league.

Ervin Santana, SP, KC - Santana's spring ERA sits at a so-so 4.74, but most encouraging is his 18:3 K:BB in those 19 innings. Last season, Santana was pretty awful, posting a 5.16 ERA, due in large part to allowing a staggering 39 home runs in 178 innings. Otherwise, his strikeout (6.7 K/9) and walk rates (3.1 BB/9) were off from prior years, but not that far off. A whopping 18.9% of his flyballs allowed went for home runs, so assuming that trends back towards the league average of around 11%, that should immediately put his ERA back in the mid-4.00's. In addition, his 43.2% groundball rate last year was actually more than four points above his career average, and there's a chance that perhaps the change of scenery will be a positive. Santana isn't going to have Mike Trout trying to run down his flyballs this year, but Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon are solid defensively. Jeff Francoeur? Not as much. Still, try and grab Santana in deeper leagues. If you don't trust him right away, I wouldn't blame you, but he's worth another shot.

Jared Hughes, RP, PIT - Jason Grilli has the lofty (recent) strikeout rate, but what if he falters? In that scenario, Hughes is a potential closer-in-waiting. Hughes has allowed just one run in 10.1 innings with a 15:4 K:BB this spring, pretty much guaranteeing he'll have a late-inning role for the Pirates. Hughes sports an excellent sinking fastball, and though his 6.0 K/9 for the Pirates last year was far from closer-worthy, he still has the stuff to be considered a potential closer of the future.

Jeremy Hefner, SP, NYM - Hefner appears set to open the season in the Mets' rotation, particularly given the injury to Johan Santana. He'll have Zach Wheeler pushing him quickly, but can Hefner possibly be a guy who accrues 30 starts this year? Hefner posted a 6.0 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 for the Mets last year, so we'll excuse the 5.09 ERA and say that there is a bit of NL-only value here.

Brandon Maurer, SP, SEA - Taijuan Walker, Danny Hutzen, and James Paxton get all the attention, but does Maurer deserve some consideration this year? Well, the fact that he has a mid-90s fastball and a 0.90 ERA and 22 strikeouts over 20 innings say that he does. Maurer appears to have taken the No. 5 starter job, and despite Maurer having never pitched above Double-A, he's the clear front-runner. Mauer is a 6-foot-5 power right-hander who, while in need of some polish, shouldn't be ignored in deeper formats.

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