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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

March 21, 2013 at 11:07 AM

Breakout seasons often foreshadowed in spring training

Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays. Photo by Associated Press

Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays. Photo by Associated Press

As part of my never-ending study into the meaning (or lack of same) of spring training statistics, I tried to take a different approach. I decided to look at several breakout seasons in recent years to see if there was any hint in spring training of what was to come. I opted to focus on performances since 2006, after an exhaustive study of the weather patterns in Florida and Arizona revealed that the atmospheric conditions in 2005 and earlier were so erratic that it skewed results. OK, that’s not true. The real reason is that the data base on MLB.com and ESPN.com only carry spring stats back to 2006. But that should be enough to make any point that’s going to be made.

My methodology was admittedly unscientific. I identified as many seasons as I could in which a player took a major step forward, and then looked back to see how he had done in spring. I didn’t cherry-pick to prove a point. I had no idea when I started out what the results were going to show. (I stuck with hitters for now. Maybe later I’ll look at pitchers).

The results should give some hope to the likes of Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero, who are putting up outstanding numbers as they try to advance their careers to another plateau. And maybe also to Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse, who had already had previous breakthroughs, followed by setbacks due to injury.

The first name to come to mind was Mike Trout, who emerged last year to have a season for the ages. Turns out Trout barely had a spring. He battled a virus and shoulder tendinitis most of the spring, and hadn’t even appeared in the outfield when he was optioned to the minors on March 30. At that point, Trout had a mere six at-bats, with one hit — hardly a precursor to the exploits to come when he was called up in late April.

Miguel Cabrera, who would win the Triple Crown and beat out Trout for the MVP, had a killer spring, hitting .413/.491/.652, with two homers and nine RBIs. But for this exercise, I’m not interested in consistently great players like Cabrera I’m more interested in the likes of Jose Bautista, who came out of nowhere to hit 54 homers in 2010. It sure looks the momentum started to build in spring,when Bautista put up a .439/.448/.895 (!) line for a 1.343 OPS, with five homers. My first obvious question was how he did in previous springs. Bautista had a good one in 2009, but not as great as the following year. He went .366/.422/.439 in the spring of ’09 with zero homers, then had a so-so regular season.

Last year, Bautista’s Toronto teammate Edwin Encarnacion had a breakout of his own with 42 homers and 110 RBIs (he had never gone higher than 26 or 76 before). And in spring, Encarnacion put up a .924 OPS (.306/.343/.581) with four homers (he had hit .227 the previous spring). Again, excellent spring, excellent season.

Justin Morneau was the next hitter who came to mind. In 2005, Morneau was a promising but inconsistent player, hitting .239 with 22 homers. But in 2006, he exploded to hit .321 with 34 homers and 130 RBIs, winning the American League MVP award. That spring, Morneau hit .375 with a .444 on-base and .575 slugging, two homers and 12 RBIs.

Josh Hamilton became a superstar with the Rangers in 2008, when he hit 32 homers and drove in 130 runs. That spring, he was sensational, going .435/.470/.758 for a 1.228 OPS, with three homers and 19 RBIs. (The previous spring, when Hamilton had a strong year with the Reds, though not in a full-time role, Hamilton had gone .403/.457/.556).

Here comes an exception to this trend: Carlos Pena in 2007, when he stepped up from a journeyman career to hit 46 homers with 121 RBIs for the Rays. Pena didn’t have much of a spring and actually was sent to the minors late in camp until a teammate’s injury gave him another shot. Pena hit .255 with no homers in spring — hardly a sign of things to come.

Two years later, the Rays’ Ben Zobrist — thought at the time to be nothing more than a utility guy — surged to a .948 OPS with 27 homers and 91 RBIs and was eighth in the MVP voting. Zobrist hit just .232 that spring, but he did draw 16 walks to build a .411 on-base percentage — in line with his .405 OBP during the season.

Then there’s San Diego’s Chase Headley, who last year emerged as a power hitter of the first order with 31 homers and a league-leading 115 RBIs. Headley’s spring average was just .224, but he slugged .510 and had four homers, maybe an indication that the power stroke was coming around.

Alex Gordon of the Royals had been a huge disappointment until 2011, when he hit .303 with 23 homers and 87 RBIs. That spring, Gordon went .343/.459/.729 (a 1.187 OPS) with six homers.

Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies emerged as a triple-crown threat in 2010 when, largely of out of the blue, he hit .336 with 34 homers and 117 RBIs. That spring, he hit .339/.391/.576 (.976) with two homers and 13 RBIs.

Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox had never come close to putting up the complete season he did in 2011, when he hit .321 with 32 homers and 105 RBIs and finished second in the MVP voting. Ellsbury hit .355 that spring, with a .385 OBP and .565 slugging (.949) with three homers.

Morse’s huge 2011 season with Washington (31 homers, .910 OPS) was preceded by a spring in which he hit a whopping nine home runs, good for a .818 slugging percentage to go with a .364 average. Morse, of course, had put up a huge spring for the Mariners in 2008, hitting .492, but an early-season shoulder injury wiped out his season before we could find out if it was indicative of better things to come.

Morse’s new Mariners’ teammate, Morales, became a star in 2009 when he hit .306 with 34 homers and 108 RBIs, finishing fifth in the MVP voting. And Morales had a great spring that year with a .400 average, .429 OBP and .682 slugging, with three homers and 17 RBIs.

That’s enough examples of players having great springs in their breakout seasons to think there might be something to it. Certainly, it’s no guarantee, because I’ve already provided many examples in the past of  players whose great springs turned out to be the precursor to nothing more than continued mediocrity. But for those players whose time has come — and we’ll find out soon how many Mariners fit into that category — the signs can often be seen in spring.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go back to poring over those weather charts.

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