It’s been spring since Monday, which means, strangely, that spring training is almost over. Most of it takes place during winter. "Spring training" is mostly a lie. But we knew that already:
If only the Red Sox had some recent examples of young players with great springs subsequently being overrated pic.twitter.com/gWyqjA9xFQ— Ben Carsley (@BenCarsley) March 20, 2016
Ben is right, and but for the picture collection aspect of this tweet, I might have written it myself. Travis Shaw may be this year’s Red Sox March star, but it is worth almost nothing in the short run, and potentially nothing at all. That’s my instinct when I see another ‘Travis Shaw could sneak up on you this year!’ column, at least, but nothing about these pieces is wrong in concept or execution (uh, especially not the one that Marc wrote). There’s just a big difference between saying there’s no proven link between spring training performance and saying that no link exists. As Uncle Donny would say, it’s a known unknown, but we treat it like a known known.
Contrary to what we think, my instinct is that it must help a big-league career in the long run to be good at the skills associated with a spring training environment, and I think that mostly means you can wake up hitting 88 mile per hour fastballs into the gaps or out of the park. I believe it’s possible a good spring training is as descriptive of a discrete skill, or at least as much as it is predictive of future success, as a good stretch of regular season baseball. I think that a player capable of having a good spring training has, by definition, a level of baseball skill that is in some way self-sustaining. I just don’t know.
What I do know is that for counting purposes, none of it matters by April Fool’s Day. So yeah: March is meaningless. But here’s the rub: So is April! So is May! So is any single month, even probably October. The difference between March and April, in terms of predictive power, is a difference of degrees, not type. Given the lower competition level in the spring, it’s obviously less relevant than any month of the regular season, but any given April could tell you a whole bunch of butt about what would happen in May. My nihilistic side looks at the postseason and calls it entirely random and capricious, but…
That being said, I would not extrapolate any more long-term data from a postseason despite the fact it "matters more," than "regular" season baseball -- and it’s for that reason I’m loathe to discount what happens in the preseason, too. If we’re asking the question, "Who will be great in April?" and March always spits out "¯\_(ツ)_/¯," isn’t it possible that we’re just asking the wrong question over and over?
What if the question was not "Who will be great in April?" but "Who is capable of being great at top-level baseball for a given month?" Viewed in that sense, Jackie Bradley, Jr.’s crazy 2013 preseason was not, in fact, a fluke: His August 2015 was far better than that preseason, and it was in "real" games. My instinct is that given that we’ve now seen it twice from JBJ it’s natural to include his hot March 2013 and call it a potential trend, but that would technically be cheating: We can’t write these things off and expect to use them later, and that’s the rub. We really don’t know what they mean in the long-run.
Still, it seems fair to say we know more about the skills of de facto postseason MVP than we do of a spring training star, given the distinctly higher level of competition involved. It also seems fair to say that we probably know more about the skills of Player of the Month winners than we do for spring training stars, and that’s mostly true, but it’s not always so.
Here are some names you’ll see a lot: Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista. What do those names tell you? Nothing. But how about these?: Melvin Mora. Delmon Young. Kendrys Morales. Emilio Bonifacio. Jay Bruce. Alfonso Soriano (Cubs edition). Chase Headley (twice in a row!). Ryan Ludwick. Dan Fuggin’ Uggla. Domonic Brown.
Oh man, Domonic Brown.
Brown hit 12 home runs in his first 108 major league at-bats in May of 2013, and it was bananas. Maybe it wasn’t quite Linsane, but wasn’t sane either. Out of all the players on this list, it’s his streak I remember the most fondly. It was a certified thing: Trending topic stuff, that bomb s#it, don’t tell your mom s#it. And then June came, at it was over forever, or at least the forever we’ve lived until. Maybe he’ll still snap out of it, or maybe one month in the majors doesn’t mean much, even in "regular" play.
Don't expect Shaw to take Sandoval's job just yet
Is Pablo Sandoval's job at risk? Yes, but not for Opening Day, and not because of what Travis Shaw is doing in March.
To put Brown’s career in perspective in light of his huge month, he hit a hit a home run every nine at-bats that May. Since then, he has homered just once in just over every 49 at-bats. His surge was as as useful a prediction tool as a butternut squash. If those stats matter more than, say, Shaw’s spring training stats, no one has told Brown. In cases like this, I’m not sure how much more a random string of regular-season games really matters in the long-run than spring training games do, on any sort of macro level.
It’s true on a practical level, too. In Shaw’s case, he’s fighting hard enough for a roster spot that John Farrell told the ESPN crew on Monday that Shaw and Pablo Sandoval were fighting for playing time, and you know what? That’s good! It’s good for the team to light a fire under Pablo Sandoval’s butt. And most importantly, if Shaw hitting his way into the lineup accelerates his development to the point he’s able to have a dynamite month by, say, August of 2017, are you prepared to say it’s unrelated? On top of that, given what you’ve seen this spring, doesn’t it even seem… likely?
I hope Shaw hits in April, but I’m not worried if he doesn’t, and I’m encouraged by the fact that, yes, he’s been great this March. I expect to see it again: Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point down the line. Is spring training fake? Maybe, but not if you believe it. No one can prove it’s fake. So is it real? We won’t know for another 10 years, at which point the signals and the noise will be clear and distinct from one another. We’ll know what matters and what doesn’t at that point and only that point, so until then, it all matters. Even the games that don’t count.