Bryce Harper is tied for the major league lead in homers this spring with six. He’s slugging .903 and has more walks (seven) than strikeouts (five). Everyone knows Harper is on a career trajectory to be a Hall of Famer given what he’s done at his age, but he’s also coming off a disappointing season in which he hit .243. In fact, for as good as Harper has been, he’s actually been a loss for fantasy owners in three of the past four years based on his high ADP (owners remain aggressive, as his current ADP is 10.5). This massive spring could be a sign he’s fully healthy and ready to win the MVP award many have already expected him to secure. Or is it?
The player he’s tied with in homers? It’s Peter O’Brien, who’s put up big numbers in the minors but has looked utterly lost against major league pitching, owning a career .176/.228/.446 line with a 40.5 K%. Maybe he just feasts on weaker pitching, or maybe he’s set to break out as well, but it’s clear these two hitters have little in common other than this year’s spring training leader board. Last year’s OPS leader in spring training was Nolan Arenado, who went on to have a huge season. The second-leading OPS was produced by Michael Taylor, who proceeded to bat .231/.278/.376 during the regular season.
My philosophy when it comes to spring training stats is to pretty much ignore them altogether (this can admittedly be difficult at times). There was a past study suggesting hitters who saw their slugging percentage increase by at least 200 points over their career mark in spring then went on to see increased power during the regular season more often than not (71.6% of the time), but this has since been mostly debunked. The year in which Zack Greinke won the AL Cy Young he posted a 9.21 ERA over 28.1 innings in spring, but it turns out he was working on a new pitch (or at least he was throwing the changeup almost exclusively). It’s not always easy, but I’d disregard performance this time of year.
That doesn’t mean spring training is totally meaningless, of course, as there are some aspects in which I’d at least consider affecting my draft board. One would be a change regarding roles. The most obvious here is a battle for the closer’s job (to contradict myself, performance would come into play here). The most actionable example of this during spring 2017 is Adam Ottavino moving down draft boards, while a healthy looking Greg Holland is soaring up them. As for the offensive side, I wouldn’t pay too much attention to the order in which lineups are constructed (or what managers say), as that is constantly fluid and can change quickly. Position battles, of course, matter (Brandon Phillips getting traded increased Jose Peraza’s value greatly, while it appears Javier Baez will open the year as a backup, and Cam Bedrosian as the Angels’ closer).
Another aspect to pay attention to is velocity. There are always exceptions (and frequently pitchers pick up velocity as the season progresses), as there were concerns about Jacob deGrom’s velocity last spring, but he proceeded to sport a 2.29 ERA with a 1.05 WHIP over his first 21 starts before an injury ruined the rest of his season (he’s reportedly throwing 97 mph this spring, incidentally). But for the most part, the data suggests pitchers flashing significant velocity loss this time of year portend problems. Sadly, this has resulted in me bumping down my guy Matt Harvey, whose fastball is way down this spring coming off major surgery.
The most obvious factor when it comes to spring training is injuries. There are examples such as news of Jason Kipnis missing 4-5 weeks, and then there’s the decision of what to do with pitchers like David Price dealing with elbow pain, and Max Scherzer with a knuckle injury on his pitching hand. I’m especially skeptical when it comes to hurlers, whom I want no part of (even at extreme discounts) if they are already having arm troubles. But that’s relatively obvious, as the other aspect in regards to health is deciding what to do with players coming off injuries, such as Michael Brantley, who enters the season recovering from shoulder surgery for the second straight campaign. Let’s hope this year works out better than last.
And then there’s Taijuan Walker, who hits the trifecta. He’s returning from offseason surgery (he had 10 bone spurs removed), is trying out a new pitch (a splitter/slider that theoretically should help his home run problems, especially now that’s he’s in Chase Field) and is having a dominant spring (2.08 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 21 strikeouts over 13.0 innings). He’ll be a nice test case, albeit other factors such as switching leagues will come into play as well. In conclusion, I’d mostly ignore stats in spring training, but there are other areas in which March can matter, with roles and health atop the list.