Chicago White Sox: Does spring performance translate to the season?

Congratulations Chicago baseball fans; you have survived the deathly cold, long months of winter, or at least the frozen winter days without baseball. (You’ll have to wait until March 20th for it to officially be spring.) But right now in Glendale, Arizona, it is spring! That’s because Saturday, February 15, 2014 marks the first day the Chicago White Sox pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

There is so much uncertainty that comes with a brand new season. Are guys like Tyler Flowers, who got hurt at the end of last season, fully healthy? What newcomer will show us he belongs at the big league level? (Please, Adam Eaton) Who is going to underperform this season? Cough, cough, Gordon Beckham.

Part of what makes spring training so intriguing is that you can be a scout. Watch a couple games, evaluate the players and pick one out that you think will have a breakout year.

chicago white sox

Chris Sale

I remember the first time I saw Chris Sale pitch. He was the starting pitcher in a Thursday afternoon spring training game against the Dodgers in 2012. (In 2010 and 2011, Sale had spent some time with the White Sox serving as a relief pitcher, but who really follows every young reliever the White Sox call up and send down over the course of a season? Not me.)

When first looking at Sale, I thought to myself, I want him on my basketball team, even though his tall physique and razor thin body did not strike me as a baseball player’s. It’s ironic because as I am about to tell you, in that outing, all he could do was throw strikes.

In that game, the White Sox were the home team. The first hitter came up: Sale struck him out. The next: Strikeout. And finally the third hitter of the inning: Strikeout. And then came the second inning.  First, and the next: Strikeout… If you’ve been counting along, he struck out the first five batters he faced. After just watching those five at bats, he became my “player to watch” for the season.  Halfway through the 2012 season, I was very proud of myself because Sale had been named an All-Star. I was a good scout that year.

Looking forward to the spring training games, I wanted to get an idea of how much, if at all, the spring statistics are a predicator to the regular season. Here’s what I discovered: Spring training numbers do not matter.

Let’s take a look at pitchers, for example.  Every time they go out during spring games, for at least their first four or five outings, they are working on one aspect of their pitching. The focus might be on one pitch in particular, like a 2-seam fastball or a changeup. Maybe they want to work on their velocity, control, location, or game pace. While designating each outing to work on one particular skill set may help that aspect of their pitching, they are certainly not pitching to their potential. Thus, many pitchers have inflated ERA’s during spring training.

The same can be said of hitters who might want to focus on working the count or hitting to the opposite field. Yes, they are taking the at-bat seriously, but they aren’t going in with their natural instinct which is expected during the regular season. Thus, their spring statistics are not accurate portrayals of predicting how their regular season will turnout.

Additionally, the spring training team record as a whole has no relation to the regular season success of a team. Evidence of this lies in the past few seasons for the White Sox.  In 2013, the White Sox finished the Cactus League (spring training) with a record of 14-14 while in the regular season, they lost 36 more games than they won. In 2012 spring training, the Sox finished four games under .500, yet in the regular season, they were leading the AL Central for much of the year before collapsing in the final weeks. They finished the 2012 season with an 85-77 record.

Finally, in 2011, after 31 spring training games, the White Sox were already 9.5 games behind the league leader. After 162 games in the regular season that year, they finished only 16 games behind the division winner. Judging from this, no matter how well or poorly the White Sox do this spring training, we have no idea how they will do when the games start to matter.

So what can we take away from these spring training games? Look at individual players. For example, look at the velocity of some pitchers, like Sale. Is he pitching faster than he has in previous season? Is the catcher, Josh Phegley, having to move his glove to catch the ball, indicating poor control by Sale? Similarly, are hitters like Gordon Beckham swinging at bad pitches? Is he making contact on most of his swings? Is he hitting a lot of line drives? These are all things that you can watch for when the White Sox play their first spring training game on February 28.

The time of year has come for you to be the head scout. Along with your notebook and pen, go grab some peanuts and sunglasses and put on your White Sox hat. Its time to pick your breakout star.