By Rich Coutinho
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In the Movie “For The Love Of The Game”, Kevin Costner is trying to explain the game to his love interest, Kelly Preston, and says, “In baseball, we count everything.” I am sure he meant “everything” but when it comes to spring training stats, we should proceed with caution for a number of reasons.
First of all, the games do not count and as much as we say that a game is a game the players do not treat them that way and certainly the managers do not either. The 1962 Mets went a very respectable 12-15 in spring training but Casey Stengel, the team’s first manager was not buying it when he said, “I ain’t fooled by that…things could be different when the other side is trying too.” Secondly, there is the dynamic in spring training that you never see in the regular season — regular players often play only a portion of the game and as a consequence, teams that have better depth on the bench may be more successful in spring training than they would in the regular season.
The most important aspect is that players, particularly pitchers, experiment in games with new pitches, tweaked deliveries, and they tinker with stuff they are trying to develop. The one thing I look for in spring training is how players recovering from injuries look and that has very little to do with stats. For example, in the case of Johan Santana how he feels is much more important than how he performs (even though in his case performances have been good).
Remember last year’s spring training? Taylor Buckholz was the talk of the camp with 15 scoreless innings but is now out of line of vision of Mets fans. RA Dickey’s spring ERA was 4.15 and he finished the year almost a run lower than that. In 2010, the top 3 Mets starters–Santana, Pelfrey, and Niese — had the following spring ERA’s — Pelf-6.15, Johan, 6.75, Niese 6.52. They finished those seasons this way: Santana 2.98, Pelf 3.64 and Niese 4.20. I remember leaving spring training and Jerry Manuel changing the rotation based on these numbers which I thought was insane. One of the many reasons I personally disliked Manuel’s management style.
My point here is you need to use your eyes in evaluating players more than the spring training stat sheet. In 2011, the Mets had the second best spring training ERA and WHIP in the National League. We all know that is not where they finished in the regular season as they were very much middle of the pack in those departments. This year, my sense is Santana looks healthy and that is a big positive. Jonathan Niese seems to have rediscovered the notion that he needs to throw his best pitch — the overhand curveball a lot more. RA Dickey looks to be right on point to start the season because his knuckler is beginning to flutter around like a wounded butterfly.
Dillon Gee and Mike Pelfrey are very much works in progress as they both are trying some new things. In Pelfrey’s case, he is trying to return to his roots as a sinking fastball pitcher while Dillon Gee is trying to find the command he exhibited when he first joined the Mets in 2011. Will they find themselves? That is hard to say but to me spring training stats are too deceiving to hang your hat on. History has proven it to be the case.
So, proceed with caution when proclaiming spring training records and stats as gospel.