Spring success goes far beyond the box score
Games offer the opportunity for players to right the wrongs from last season
It's easy to say Spring Training statistics don't matter.
Last year, Minor Leaguer Matt Hague impressed the Pirates with his power, tying sluggers Albert Pujols and Freddie Freeman with a Spring Training-best seven home runs. It was enough to earn Hague a Major League roster spot, but his regular-season numbers didn't live up to the spring surge.
Hague went homerless in 70 at-bats over 30 games with the Pirates and ultimately spent the majority of the season with Triple-A Indianapolis, hitting just four long balls in 367 at-bats.
Last spring's RBI king didn't fare much better.
Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer drove in 29 runs -- eight more than any other player -- and looked primed for a huge season on the heels of his breakout rookie campaign in which he hit .293 with 19 home runs and 78 RBIs in 128 games. Instead, Hosmer struggled to a .232 average, 14 homers and 60 RBIs in 152 regular-season games.
"It's just a Spring Training game," veteran Rangers closer Joe Nathan said recently in regard to his spring debut. "I'll just go out there and get my work in. It's just another day to get prepared for Opening Day."
That's a feeling that resounds throughout the sport, as Spring Training stats clearly do not always correlate with regular-season numbers. Yet there is plenty worth watching closely in March -- especially for players with something to prove.
Not only can an up-and-comer earn a roster spot or win a position battle in Spring Training, but the games also provide the first public looks at offseason changes implemented by struggling veterans. Consider White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn, whose return to form last year following a historically dreadful campaign was first evident during Spring Training.
The stats were there -- Dunn hit six home runs in 57 spring at-bats after connecting for just 11 homers in 415 at-bats in 2011 -- but more important to Dunn was his revamped approach, both at the plate and to his DH role. The result was a 41-homer season -- and much less booing from the home crowd at U.S. Cellular Field.
This spring brings with it more veterans hoping for a Dunn-like resurgence in 2013. Among last season's biggest disappointments were starters Tim Lincecum of the Giants (10-15, 5.18 ERA), Ricky Romero of the Blue Jays (9-14, 5.77) and Jon Lester of the Red Sox (9-14, 4.82).
All three have seemingly pinpointed the respective causes of last season's struggles and are ready to use the spring season to showcase new approaches -- but don't expect any of them to gauge their progress by the box scores.
Take, for instance, the response to Lincecum's lone appearance so far, in which he allowed three runs on four hits in 1 1/3 innings.
"I thought he had good rhythm," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "Pitching out of the stretch, he looked comfortable. He had good stuff."
"Mechanically, I felt really good," Lincecum said. "The timing of my arm was good. I missed a couple of pitches high, but it was kind of because I wanted to. There wasn't anything way too far off where I wanted to throw it."
Those are not typical responses to an outing that equates to a 20.25 ERA. However, the takeaway for Bochy and Lincecum was the apparent return of the righty's confidence, form and delivery that led to back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008-09.
For some, like Dunn, the improved mechanics also yield improved stats. For others, especially pitchers, mechanics is the sole measuring stick.
Romero is an ideal example, considering his approach this spring is nothing like the one he will take in the regular season.
In his dismal season, which included 13 consecutive losses, Romero all but abandoned his sinker. By year's end, he had thrown it just 11 percent of the time, compared to 22 percent in 2011, when he posted a 2.92 ERA.
After those percentages were brought to his attention by teammate Brandon Morrow, Romero threw the sinker almost exclusively in his first Spring Training appearance, and he plans to continue doing so until he's regained full command of the pitch.
"I think it's going to be key and that's why I'm going to stick with it this spring," Romero said after allowing two runs in 1 2/3 innings in the sinker-heavy outing. "If I get hit, I get hit, but I know I'm working on that pitch and I know if it's down, it's going to be a ground-ball out more often than not."
Even when the stats are there -- Lester has thrown five shutout innings over two appearances -- they aren't the focus this time of year.
"When you look at the lower half in his delivery, he's working downhill much more consistently," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "If you look at video any time midseason last year till now, you'll notice a very different lead leg."
No mention of Lester's unblemished ERA or .063 opponents' batting average.
The fact is, the numbers posted in limited appearances against mix-and-match lineups aren't always going to translate come April. The much more important matter is making sure the adjustments, perfected in the spring months, are carried over into summer.
For now, a three-run, 1 1/3-inning outing is acceptable, as long as the unique stride toward home plate is back to stay. An outing void of four-seam fastballs and curveballs is perfectly fine, considering sinker after sinker is drilled into the proper location.
This is also the time of year when a nine-game winning streak and undefeated record takes the backburner in lieu of giving everyone a chance to swing the bat and toe the rubber.
"I've been very pleased with the way we've been swinging the bats, I've been pleased with our defense, I've been pleased with our pitching staff," said Royals manager Ned Yost, whose team is 9-0 this spring. "But the thing that you're happiest about -- and you keep your fingers crossed -- is that everybody feels good and everybody's healthy."
The stats and records may not matter this time of year, but don't think for a moment that the same can be said about the performances.