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The View from the Porch Guide to Spring Training

Corey KluberIt seems that there are a lot of people out there that don’t understand the point of Spring Training. When the Indians’ social media accounts are littered with “Where’s Brantley?” or “We lost 10-0 smh” comments during Spring Training games, it fills me with a combination of rage and disbelief. How can a group of people be so out of touch with the purpose that the month of exhibition baseball in Arizona serves?

In light of this horrifying development, I’m going to use this week’s View from the Porch as a Guide to Spring Training. Included will be thoughts on what to look for, what to watch for, what Spring Training means, and what to take away from Spring Training.

Let’s start with a very simple concept. Spring Training stats mean practically nothing. For one thing, the sample sizes are so small that it’s nearly impossible to make any meaningful conclusion about a player’s performance. Starters in the everyday lineup and players getting serious roster consideration will get around 60 at bats during the Spring, barring injury or illness. Asdrubal Cabrera posted a .357/.438/.518 slash line in Spring Training last season. He did not do that, or anything close to it, during the regular season. Ryan Rohlinger batted .346 in 26 Spring Training at bats. He batted .233 for Triple-A Columbus last season.

Corey Kluber ended Spring Training 2014 with a 5.60 ERA. Josh Tomlin, even in the hitter-friendly conditions of the desert, posted a 3.54 ERA. Kluber won the American League Cy Young. Tomlin hung a 4.76 ERA. Carlos Carrasco was 3-1 (yay win-loss record!) with a 5.17 ERA. He gave up 24 hits in 15.2 innings of work.

One bad outing, like Kluber’s seven runs on 11 hits in six innings against Colorado on March 22, is going to have an enormous impact in a small sample. He didn’t pitch that well overall anyway, but unless you’re watching the game, you cannot put any context on the performance. This will be addressed again later on.

To circle back to hitting, the conditions in Arizona are great for hitting. Let’s get scientific. The air in Arizona is very thin and very dry. There’s less resistance on the ball in flight, therefore it will carry more. Wind is often a factor in Goodyear as well, and a nice stiff breeze blowing out is going to turn a routine fly ball into a home run. This is why players in the Pacific Coast League almost always have higher overall offensive numbers than those in the International League, where the Columbus Clippers play. The air is lighter and there’s often less humidity in those ballparks. When players are called up from Triple-A, it’s important to understand the park factor effects and adjust your expectations accordingly. It’s no different with Spring Training. We all know what fly balls look like in April in Cleveland. It’s the opposite in Arizona in March.

Unless you’re watching every game or studying every matchup intently, you’re probably forgetting that not all pitcher vs. batter matchups are created equal. Michael Brantley should be at a relative advantage against a Double-A pitcher trying desperately to cling to his dream of making the Major Leagues. Cody Allen should blow away a Single-A hitter brought up to be a warm body for a mid-March Spring Training game. Kyle Crockett might struggle with that power hitting righty that he wasn’t going to face during the regular season anyway. Trevor Bauer might walk four guys because he’s working on a couple new pitch grips or some changes to his mechanics.

The time for trial and error is now. Spending time during the season experimenting with a two-seam fastball or a circle change is not a good idea. That should be reserved for side sessions and bullpens. During Spring Training, however, there is absolutely no negative impact to trying out some changes that could eventually be beneficial. Sometimes pitchers will go out to the mound only throwing fastballs away in order to work on their command over the outer half of the plate. Sometimes a pitcher will only work inside and give up a couple bombs from missing spots.

These are not “game conditions”. Spring Training games are effectively controlled environments. A pitcher knows exactly what his pitch count is and knows exactly what he is supposed to work on that day. When a pitcher might throw a backdoor slider 2-2 or throw a first-pitch fastball to a take hitter, he could instead focus on trying to induce a ground ball with a changeup away or break off a first-pitch hammer just to work on that pitch. There’s less of a “game within the game”. There’s nowhere near the same kind of mano a mano chess match as there would be in the regular season.

Hitters aren’t worried about sitting on a pitch and looking for just that one to do damage. They’re trying to get their timing down. Pitchers aren’t worried about setting up a hitter to freeze him with a front door cutter. Hitters want to stay healthy and make contact. Pitchers want to stay healthy and build their arm strength. It’s not a recipe for staying healthy when they’re throwing 40 percent sliders to a free-swinging team just to get outs.

Everything you think you know about baseball is dramatically different in Spring Training. Cloudless skies turn pop ups into doubles. Misplays from players playing out of position aren’t going to happen during the season. Take Erik Gonzalez, for example, from Wednesday’s game. He was playing second base and he did a fine job there, but he’s a shortstop. He was in the lineup to get at bats because he’s behind Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, and Mike Aviles in the pecking order for playing time at shortstop. If Gonzalez had booted three balls and misplayed a double play pivot due to bad footwork, some uninformed fan would have lashed out at him on Twitter. There would have been questions about why he is even in the organization. Players are out there to get their work in and get reps at the plate. Mistakes happen and there’s no reason to magnify them.

Because of all this, wins and losses mean absolutely nothing. Players and managers will use the company line of “It’s always nice to win” or something like that, but they truly do not care in Spring Training. The minor leaguers that enter the game late may be concerned because they’re trying to make an impact, but the win-loss record at the end of the Spring means nothing.

The Indians won the Cactus League last season. Did you know that? Did you care? Do you care now that you know? Me neither. Tampa Bay had the best record in the Grapefruit League. Miami was second. A lot of help it did both of those teams. San Francisco went 17-12. Good for them. Kansas City was 12-16. That didn’t seem to matter. The Los Angeles Dodgers were 7-11. They were awful last season, weren’t they?

There are times where winning, or at least the appearance of trying to win, matters. Managers and coaches may be instructed to put the star players in the lineup for games that are broadcast on TV to the fans back home in order to try and drum up excitement and ticket sales. For the most part, however, the players are just trying to get their bodies ready for the season. And, most importantly, stay healthy. They’ll be focused on continuing their offseason weight training and stretching regimens. They’ll be risk-averse when stealing bases or diving for ground balls. Some players can’t help it because of instinct, but others will certainly take it easier in the field if their positions are secure.

In the case of the Indians this season, we don’t even have the position battles to watch that are so commonplace in the preseason of every other sport. The only positions up in the air are the #5 starter, which may work itself out if Gavin Floyd (or another starter) gets hurt, the fourth and probably fifth outfielder, and potentially the last man in the bullpen. T.J. House is against Danny Salazar for the fifth spot in the rotation, with Zach McAllister on the outside looking in as somebody ticketed for the bullpen. Tyler Holt, Ryan Raburn, and David Murphy are all in the hunt to go west to Houston on the Opening Day roster with Zach Walters on the periphery because the Indians probably want him to play every day at Triple-A. The bullpen spots are filled with Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski, Kyle Crockett, Scott Atchison, Nick Hagadone, Zach McAllister and then potentially one of C.C. Lee or Austin Adams or a non-roster invitee like Scott Downs, Michael Roth, Bruce Chen, or Anthony Swarzak.

I would venture a guess that the Indians have predetermined favorites for those battles and will only deviate in the case of an injury. To me, the Indians want Danny Salazar in that fifth spot because he has a higher upside than T.J. House. I believe the Indians want to find a trade for David Murphy so they can carry Ryan Raburn and Tyler Holt because they are right-handed bats and Holt is a plus defender with good speed. I believe that the Indians will send C.C. Lee to Columbus to work regularly in a setup capacity and roll with a guy like Swarzak or Chen in the bullpen because it will be the long relief role that is open and those guys understand their roles as veterans that get what’s going on.

What should fans take away from Spring Training? On the whole, not much of anything. At the start of camp, players that show up in great physical shape should be noted and commended for their offseason efforts. A player that had his first full taste of the Majors and came to camp overweight presents a few red flags. Players coming off of injuries, like Brandon Moss and Nick Swisher, need to appear to be healthy. Their stats don’t particularly matter because they are both professional hitters and will perform if healthy, but how do they look running the bases? Is Moss able to get to balls in right field that he should get to? Is the power back? In the case of Swisher, is the swing plane level? Is he done trying to elevate everything to generate power and validate his contract? Are his knees healthy? Can he play first base or right field if necessary?

Jason Kipnis had the oblique injury last season that destroyed his power and then the finger injury during the winter that set him back a few days from the rest of the position players. Is the bat speed back? Is he able to drive the ball to all parts of the field? How does his lateral movement look at second base?

Michael Bourn is a guy whose value is tied solely to his ability to run, both on the basepaths and in center field. He experienced a lot of hamstring problems in each of his first two seasons with the Indians. Are those behind him? Can he track down balls in the gaps with the extra carry in Arizona? Is he going first to third without a problem? How does his stride look going first to home on a double?

Most of the time, we can’t see these things because the TV broadcasts are so limited. You can bet that the coaches and trainers are watching for these things, right along with the front office and the scouts. Keeping an eye on stuff like this is about the only valuable thing in Spring Training. Completely awful performances or otherworldly performances are going to get attention and lead to narratives like, “How can the Indians send this guy down?” Ignore the noise. The Indians can send that guy down because his true talent is nowhere near that level. Is Carlos Moncrief going 4-for-4 every game? Hell no. Is it encouraging to see a converted pitcher able to use the whole field like that? Absolutely. But it doesn’t mean that he’s going to do that off of Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, or even Shane Greene.

Does Francisco Lindor’s 2-for-2 and good defense in the second Spring Training game merit making the Opening Day roster? No. Does his overall set of skills and work ethic? Maybe. Will it happen? No, because he’s 21 years old, has things left to prove with the bat, and there are financial considerations. Lindor could hit .650 this Spring and he’s still starting the season in Columbus (unless both Ramirez and Aviles get hurt). It’s about the big picture. It’s about the marathon, not the sprint. Against nothing but Major League pitching at the highest level of baseball in the world, Francisco Lindor would not do that. He probably would not do anything close to that. Some fans don’t understand this. They need to. The Indians are taking the smart, big picture approach with Lindor, who is a bona fide star in the making. Rushing it at this stage of the game makes no sense because Jose Ramirez is well above adequate until Lindor is ready.

Spring Training can be a fun glimpse into the future, but there’s not a whole lot to take from the statistics of March. The win-loss record means nothing, except to possibly illustrate the depth of an organization’s talent. Give it two weeks and the regular everyday Major League position players aren’t going to care about Spring Training anymore. They’ll be going through the motions. The pitchers will still be building arm strength and velocity, but they’ll have one foot on the plane for Houston to start the season.

It’s great to have baseball back and it’s nice to remember that all of this snow and cold will be going away soon. I’ll watch every Spring Training game that’s on TV and listen to Hammy on the radio because I love baseball and I want to watch it. I’m watching for the things I mentioned above. I’m trying to pick up tendencies on what pitchers are working on and what new pitches they may have added or are trying out. I want to see guys running the bases effectively. I want to see minor leaguers that don’t look overwhelmed against proven Major League pitchers. I don’t care if they win. I don’t care if they lose by 20 or win by 15. The only thing that matters to me is that this team is ready to go on April 6 and they are healthy in the route to get there.
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