Posted: Monday March 28, 2011 12:16PM ; Updated: Monday March 28, 2011 12:16PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>INSIDE BASEBALL

How valuable are spring stats?

Story Highlights

Small sample size is one factor making spring statistics tough to use as predictors

Alex Rodriguez had a great spring and was able to focus on hitting, not rehabbing

Hideki Matsui and Lance Berkman could be headed for bad years

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Alex Rodriguez
If his spring is any indication, Alex Rodriguez could make a run at his fourth AL Most Valuable Player award this year.
AP

Spring training statistics are rarely indicators of what to expect when the games actually start to matter, but when viewed in the larger context of a player's health and recent regular season numbers, spring performances that just might have meaning for the season to come start to come into view. What follows, then, are a small selection of hitting lines from this year's exhibition schedule that may just have revealed some larger truths about the players in question.

Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees

.404/.451/.936, 47 ABs, 6 HRs

Now 35 years old, A-Rod has probably already had his last great season, but two years removed from hip surgery, he was able to focus entirely on his skills this spring, as opposed to his rehab, for the first time since 2008, a season in which he led the American League in slugging and the last in which he hit .300. Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt won his last National League MVP in 1986 at the age of 36. One wonders if, given his performance this spring, which has only improved as Opening Day draws closer, Rodriguez might just have one more MVP campaign in him.

Buster Posey, C, Giants

.405/.537/.714, 42 ABs

Last year's NL Rookie of the Year is set to keep his star rising this year. That shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone, but what may be most impressive about Posey's red-hot spring is the fact that he has walked 11 times and struck out exactly once. In more than 50 plate appearances, Posey has struck out once. That's staggering, particularly given his production. The Phillies' Placido Polanco hasn't struck out at all in roughly 45 plate appearances, but he's hitting .171 with just one extra-base hit. Todd Helton has struck out just once in more than 40 plate appearances, but he's only hit a handful of doubles. Posey has three homers and 11 walks, the latter a total surpassed by only seven other players this spring. Of all the players with double-digit walks in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues, the next lowest strikeout total is six, by the Mets' Willie Harris. In 750 minor league at-bats, Posey struck out only four more times than he walked. As a rookie, he kept his strikeouts down, but kept his walks down with them, finishing with 55 K's and 30 bases on balls. If he rediscovers those on-base skills as a sophomore, he could challenge the Twins' Joe Mauer, who has walked 84 more times than he has struck out in the majors, for the title of the best catcher in major leagues.

Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers

.339/.431/.732, 56 ABs

Kinsler's power vanished last year in a season shortened by a pair of trips to the disabled list for ankle and groin injuries. After posting a career Isolated Slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) of .197 over his first four seasons, Kinsler saw his ISO drop to .125 last year as he posted a career-low .412 slugging percentage and slugged just nine home runs, 22 fewer than the year before. Kinsler hit no more than three home runs in any single month in 2010, but also hit three in the ALDS against the Rays. He didn't add to that total as the Rangers advanced to the World Series, but he still hit .296/.381/.537 (.241 ISO) in the postseason overall, and has clouted five homers this spring while maintaining the nice walk-rate spike he enjoyed last season. Kinsler has never had a fully healthy season, which is a whole other issue, but entering his age-29 season, he looks primed for a big rebound from his punchless 2010.

Curtis Granderson, CF, Yankees

.385/.442/.795, 39 ABs

Though Granderson is currently nursing an oblique strain which could delay the start of his season by a few days, his spring performance is worth mentioning given that it comes in the wake of a late-2010 surge that followed an alteration of Granderson's hitting mechanics by Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. After hitting .240/.307/.417 through August 9, Granderson posted a .273/.380/.567 line over the remainder of the regular season and playoffs with his new mechanics, including .286/.375/.500 against lefties during the regular season. That last is noteworthy because his inability to hit left-handers has been a significant shortcoming of Granderson's throughout his career. Those splits constitute small samples, but Granderson was still using his simplified, quieter swing this spring, and the power he showed down the stretch last year returned, which bodes well for his season to come.

Mike Morse, LF, Nationals

.365/.425/.841, 63 ABs

In roughly a full season worth of at-bats (618), Morse has hit .291/.353/.456 with 21 homers and 88 RBIs in the major leagues, but prior to 2010 he hadn't had 100 at-bats in the majors since his rookie year of 2005. In the interim, he was sidetracked by a 2006 knee surgery and a 2008 shoulder surgery, the latter of which effectively erased that entire season from his ledger. Since returning from the shoulder surgery in 2009, however, he has hit .302/.340/.509 in 880 plate appearances between Triple-A and the majors. Back in the bigs last year, Morse hit .289/.352/.519 in 266 at-bats with 15 of his 21 career homers. He's at it again this spring, tying the Orioles' Jake Fox for the major league lead in home runs (9) and ranking second behind Fox in total bases (53). The 29-year-old will break camp as the Nationals' starting leftfielder and number-five hitter and need only look to teammate Jayson Werth for an example of a player who escaped an injury-plagued twenties and found stardom in his thirties.

Lance Berkman, RF, Cardinals

.200/.216/.280, 50 ABs

It probably shouldn't be a surprise that a player whose physique earned him the nickname "Fat Elvis" is fading in his mid-30s. Berkman's soft body and past surgeries on both knees finally seemed to catch up to him in 2010 as his power vanished at age 34. Berkman hadn't had an isolated power below .227 in any full major league season before seeing that figure drop to .166 last year while also posting career lows in most major offensive categories, including home runs (14) and all three slash stats (.248/.368/.413). Now with the Cardinals, he has moved from the homer-happy ballparks in Houston and the Bronx that he played in last year to one of the least-friendly parks for power hitters in the major leagues (yes, Albert Pujols is that good). Mix in the almost complete collapse of the switch-hitter's right-handed swing (.171/.261/.256 against lefties last year, continuing a downward trend in that split) and the fact that the Cardinals expect him to play the outfield, something he hasn't done full time since 2004 and at all since 2007, and Berkman could be headed for disaster this season.

Hideki Matsui, DH, A's

.125/.246/.179, 56 ABs

Save for a catastrophic wrist injury in 2006, Matsui has been a model of consistency since coming to the United States before the '03 season, but a decade-long games-played streak compiled on the hard artificial turf of the Tokyo Dome ravaged his knees, leading to more time missed in 2008 and a permanent move to designated hitter in 2009. Matsui still largely replicated his career major league rates with the Angels in 2010, but he'll turn 37 in June and will now play his home games at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, which according to the Bill James Handbook had a 2010 park factor for left-handed home runs of 50, meaning it was twice as hard for a lefty to get the ball out in Oakland as in a neutral major league park. The above spring line, of course, came not in the pitching-friendly Oakland Coliseum, but in the hitting-friendly heat of Arizona.

So what does all this mean? The spring performances of the seven players above are likely a rough, though obviously exaggerated, indication of what can be expected in the coming season. Still, one must take them with an enormous grain of salt. The tiny sample size, the wide range of competition, from major league stars down to organizational players from A-ball, and the fact that pitchers, especially early in the exhibition schedule, will intentionally limit their repertoire or over-emphasize a developing pitch, combine to almost completely undermine spring training statistics' predictive value.

For those A's and Cardinals fans seeking reassurance, just look at what Adrian Beltre did last year. Coming off a disappointing tenure with the Mariners, Beltre hit .261/.333/.304 without just one extra-base hit last spring, then went out and had an MVP quality season for the Red Sox, hitting 80 points higher and slugging .553. What separates Beltre from Berkman and Matsui, however, was the larger context. Beltre was a 31-year-old who was finally healthy after an injury-riddled 2009 season and was escaping a pitcher's park for a hitter's haven. Ultimately, that was far more important than how he hit in A-ball stadiums in Florida. What makes the above performances seem more suggestive is that how these players have performed this spring feeds into what many were already expecting to see them do in the coming season. Starting Thursday we get to find out what was real and what wasn't.

 
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