The Change: Strikeouts and Spring Training Stats

“Don’t read into Spring Training stats” is a good surface level mantra to hold on to. The competition is uneven, the results don’t matter, and the players are all working on things in preparation for the regular season. To some extent, it’s like looking at September numbers on a non-contending team: those are very different from May numbers.

Even the benefits of a huge surge in results is only slightly predictive. There’s the study from John Dewan about a huge slugging percentage breakout in the spring, but recently work by Ben Lindbergh and Jon Shepherd poked some holes in the theory.

If you look at when stats stabilize, however, there are a few stats worth checking out. We know from Jeff Zimmerman that fastball velocity stabilizes very quickly, and so it’s worth reading his MASH articles to find the most recent gun readings on pitchers.

And we know that strikeouts stabilize quickly — 100 plate appearances for batters, 126 batters faced for pitchers. A spring is something like a half of a September, so it doesn’t get to those thresholds, but the evidence is there that strikeouts become meaningful quicker than most stats, and so therefore spring strikeouts may be worth keeping an eye on.

So let’s take a look at those spring batters that have improved their strikeout rate the most. Here are spring training strikeout rates minus last year’s strikeout rates for all players with more than 140 PA last year and more than 40 PA this spring. You may notice some differences from our leaderboards. That’s because lists players as Last Name, First Initial, and so I was forced to use their stats.

Player AB AVG OBP SLG Spring K% 2014 K% diff
Barnes, B 45 0.200 0.333 0.222 0.130 0.326 -0.196
Pearce, S 41 0.341 0.341 0.732 0.024 0.201 -0.177
Turner, J 43 0.465 0.489 0.814 0.045 0.184 -0.138
Cruz, N 44 0.318 0.407 0.523 0.078 0.210 -0.131
Cowgill, C 51 0.314 0.352 0.471 0.130 0.259 -0.129
Trout, M 50 0.440 0.500 0.800 0.140 0.269 -0.128
Schumaker, S 41 0.293 0.383 0.463 0.064 0.189 -0.125
Martinez, J 56 0.339 0.431 0.679 0.143 0.268 -0.125
Kemp, M 48 0.375 0.400 0.771 0.120 0.245 -0.125
Middlebrooks, W 45 0.333 0.400 0.511 0.180 0.304 -0.124
Granderson, C 42 0.452 0.547 0.762 0.096 0.219 -0.123
Peralta, D 49 0.347 0.441 0.449 0.053 0.174 -0.121
Zunino, M 48 0.354 0.426 0.896 0.226 0.347 -0.121
Crawford, B 47 0.234 0.294 0.340 0.120 0.235 -0.115
Polanco, G 49 0.265 0.308 0.449 0.078 0.192 -0.114
Bogaerts, X 40 0.275 0.375 0.500 0.128 0.239 -0.112
Barney, D 41 0.317 0.370 0.488 0.023 0.134 -0.111
Tejada, R 51 0.275 0.333 0.412 0.071 0.180 -0.109
Negron, K 48 0.396 0.473 0.604 0.151 0.256 -0.105
Reynolds, M 42 0.381 0.400 0.595 0.182 0.287 -0.105
Garcia, A 56 0.304 0.361 0.411 0.133 0.237 -0.103
Schafer, J 42 0.262 0.333 0.357 0.106 0.207 -0.101
Young Jr., E 63 0.317 0.394 0.444 0.100 0.197 -0.097
Cron, C 59 0.407 0.422 0.763 0.145 0.242 -0.097
Teixeira, M 46 0.261 0.306 0.391 0.122 0.219 -0.096

Given all the caveats, we should probably add another. It’s not likely that a veteran like Nelson Cruz or Mike Trout or Matt Kemp or even Curtis Granderson is doing anything other than beating up on some pitchers that happen to be working on things. Though they probably aren’t beating up on anything worse than a sixth starter option: all of the veterans leave the games at about the same time, so you won’t see too many veterans vs minor leaguers in the spring, actually.

As for some of the other guys, it’s more exciting for some than others. If J.D. Martinez really is cutting down his strikeouts this year, that could undo some of the regression that is sure to come in his batted ball profile. For what it’s worth, it sounds like he’s ready to make adjustments quickly this season and is self-scouting a lot. Because so much of his breakout had to do with a new swing, there’s a lot to believe in his profile, and this is just another little asterisk in a pro-JDM argument.

Will Middlebrooks has always struck out too much, but he’s really made strides this spring. If he really could strike out around 22% of the time, he’d be a much more usable player. Already, he might be a decent daily fantasy play against lefties on the road. With a 22% strikeout rate, he might be deeper mixed league worthy.

Mike Zunino has really cut his strikeouts and is having a standout spring. If he could return to the 25% strikeout rate he showed his rookie year and add the power he showed last year, he could hit .240 even. In any two-catcher league, he’s a must own on that possibility, and even in AL-onlies he shouldn’t be on the bench. Mixed leaguers should probably just keep an eye on his K% in the regular season. Add another 40 PA early next year and he’ll have his 100 PA for a believable strikeout rate improvement.

Xander Bogaerts improved his strikeout rate in the second half last year, and now he’s continuing that progress this spring. He improved his strikeout rate every time he repeated a level in the minor leagues, too. You don’t have to believe he’ll strike out 13% of the time to find these results encouraging.

Avisail Garcia had some up and down strikeout rates in the minor leagues, and a bad swinging strike rate last year (18%). The contact so far this spring hasn’t been very powerful, but power takes a long time to stabilize. Let’s focus instead on the fact that this is a toolsy young man heading into his age-24 season in a great park for his power. And he *might* strike out less this year.

Ditto on Gregory Polanco, though strikeouts have never been a problem for him. He was always set to improve on last year’s rates in that department, and projections are on top of it. But what if he beats those projections and strikes out even less than 15%? If he combines that with his projected power, he’ll make good on the future .300 hitter claims that were made of him. Even if he’s not hitting .300 this spring.

CJ Cron is just hitting the snot out of the ball. With Josh Hamilton out, and a minor league line that sports better strikeout rates than any projection has him down for in 2014, this strikeout rate could be meaningful. Power-starved benches should maybe find a spot for him.

Next up: pitchers.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Cory Schwartz
9 years ago

I wonder if you have considered Dan Rozenheck’s research on this topic?

Eno Sarris
9 years ago
Reply to  Cory Schwartz

Ah I couldn’t find it. I knew people were talking about something. I’m no anti-spring absolutist, or I wouldn’t have posted this! I still bet the easiest way to capture changes is to look at our small sample bible stats, like Ks and velocity, and I bet those changes drive the findings he has. Thanks for the link.

9 years ago
Reply to  Cory Schwartz

ISO is one of the stats he says carries weight in spring. Better to look at that than at SLG which is highly dependant on BABIP. It’s easily found by SLG-AVG.

The obvious guys are high in ISO are the ones you’d expect: Zunino, Kemp, Pearce, Trout, Cron. Low ISOs are Barnes, Schafer, Peralta, Crawford, and Avisail Garcia. I would really take thsoe low K% with a grain of salt. Teix also had a horrible ISO which could mean he’s trading power for contact. For a guy with BABIP issues that is probably a recipe for disaster.

Main takeaway for me: Pearce and Cron could be very good and cheap sources of power. Avoid Teix.