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March 16, 2013 at 10:49 PM

Why using stats to gauge spring training for Mariners or any team can be tricky, misleading endeavor

Nothing like a little dinner to clear your mind and put everything into some perspective. I realized tonight that we’ve had several examples in the past 24 hours alone of how statistics can be an awful way to judge spring training and who is ahead versus who is behind. Many of us like to say we understand that, but then, inevitably, we get these same, rational people making arguments based almost entirely on stats in the very next breath.

Again, to repeat, if you’re going to gauge spring training from a distance based on stats you are going to come away with a very distorted picture of reality. And then, when a team makes a decision based on stuff that delves much deeper than the stats, you will inevitably be left feeling angry, confused and bewildered as to how that decision came about.

Examples? Here are three: all involving Seattle’s starting rotation. All having occured within the past 24 hours.

The first involves Jon Garland and what I have been told is an opt-out clause he has in his contract that would enable him to become a free agent at the end of this coming week if the Mariners don’t give him a job in the starting rotation. I asked manager Eric Wedge after the game (hear it up above in the video box) if contractual issues with certain pitchers might force the team into some early rotation decisions and — without naming names — he confirmed this was the case. This is not an unheard of clause: players have to protect themselves if they can because getting released 24 hours before the start of the regular season dooms most players to Class AAA if they are lucky. Because most teams don’t have the roster space to add guys that soon before the start of the regular season. They don’t have time to audition guys. So, if you’re a vet with a small amount of clout, you try to get yourself at least a week of time as a free agent if the team you signed your minor league deal with might cut you.

So, here we go.

Stats Myth No. 1: If Garland doesn’t have superior numbers in spring training, he should, by all rights, not win a job over somebody more deserving.

Problem: Let’s say a team knows what Garland has been in the past as a guy capable of throwing 200 quality innings. And let’s say, because of his shoulder inury, he is not yet completely back to where he was but could be in a few weeks. We saw this a year ago with Hisashi Iwakuma, only in a far different situation where the Mariners had committed seven figures and Iwakuma was a good two months from being ready. Let’s lower than a bit for Garland and say the team feels he is three weeks, or maybe a month away from getting back to exactly what they need. Well, throw in that opt-out clause and you’ve got trouble. Because there’s no way he’s going to Class AAA to build up arm strength.

If you know other teams will go after Garland, will you let him exercise that opt-out clause and leave? For the sake of having to wait three or four weeks? He’s a fifth starter, for crying out loud. He doesn’t even have to pitch every five days. But even if he did, wouldn’t you risk getting one or two sub-par outings out of his five April fifth starts (a bit less than the five and dive standard)? Probably. And that’s the absolute worst-case scenario you’re looking at. If you know that afterwards, your upside might be a 200-inning pitcher (or something close), it could be worth the wait. You know Erasmo Ramirez, no matter how good he is, won’t throw you 200 innings this year. The team won’t let him do that to his arm. But with Garland, you don’t care and he doesn’t either. He’s had his career, as he’ll tell you. Ride his arm until it falls off. And that opt-out deal? That’s a big factor. Because it means, if you aren’t willing to wait for him to improve, there are other teams maybe with a bit more patience that will and you might wind up regretting it. Ramirez is yours for a long, long time. Garland isn’t.

No matter what the stats say, an opt-out clause that lets him walk in a week is a huge deal and might trump another guy whose stats and on-field performance have so far been superior.

OK, let’s try another myth. This one is a bit less esoteric and easier to understand.

Stats Myth No. 2: Jon Garland struck out seven guys from The Netherlands. At least he took something away from a night that was otherwise a bust.

Reality: Garland’s night was a total bust. I’ve had more than one person bring up the strikeouts to me. The fact is, they mean absolutely nothing. Most of them came against a bunch of scrubs. That Netherlands lineup, after the first four guys, dropped off a cliff. In case you were thinking Garland took something away from it all, here’s what he thought of it: “A lot of those pitches I threw, in a major league game are going to be taken,” he said. “They weren’t even close to the plate, a lot of them. So, I’m not really going to put too much on that.”

Nor should he. Dutch scrubs are the same as American, Canadian, Dominican and Venezuelan scrubs seen all through spring training. They are cannon fodder. Stats against them are meaningless. The video above shows one randomly picked strikeout victim, a Boston Red Sox Class A player named Xander Boegarts who went fishing on the outside corner when he should have kept his boat docked. At least Boegarts played in the Futures Game, meaning he might have one someday. In other words, not much cause for an MLB pitcher to be celebrating. Garland’s seven strikeouts against Class A types saved him from being down 10 runs.

Alright, we’re really rolling now. Here’s one more example for you — from the last 24 hours alone and involving only the Mariners…heck, involving only Garland and Ramirez.

Stats Myth No. 3: Ramirez was able to contain the damage today and thus had a much better outing than Garland.

Reality: In Ramirez’s own words, he got very lucky. Sure he worked out of some jams, I’ll give him that. But he was very fortunate to have the opportunity. Those lefthanders were killing him. Here’s what Ramirez himself had to say: “My slider stayed right in the middle. So, when they hit it to the gap I was lucky they didn’t just pop it over the fence. Because those pitches were right in the middle.”

Exactly. Let’s say three of those four doubles yielded to lefties go over the wall. Are we still saying Ramirez had a better outing than Garland? Nope, we’re saying they both got hammered.

Luck of the draw. Who did Ramirez give up the doubles to? Reid Brignac for one (video above): he of 10 home runs in 716 MLB plate appearances so far. Charlie Blackmon had two of the doubles and he has a grand total of three homers over 223 plate appearances in two seasons. The other went to speedy switch-hitter Eric Young Jr., he of five home runs in 675 big league plate appearances since 2009.

Not exactly Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris there. Like I said earlier, those doubles were crushed today. No cheapies. Had it been a real power hitter who doesn’t miss, like, oh, dare I say it, a Wladimir Balentien (circa 2013, not 2009), then we aren’t writing about Ramirez the escape artist. We’re talking about a pitcher who got used for batting practice.

Again, that’s why stats in spring training have to be viewed very carefully.

This isn’t me campaigning against Ramirez and for a veteran. I’m well aware of the uplifting Ramirez life story. Heck, I wrote the story a year ago this week.

But again, there are many ways to view any outing down here and believe me, the team is not looking at just the boxscores. As I just showed you, there are a variety of factors — some off-field and some on — that come into play, which is why spring training is more than a glorified PR exercise if you actually take the time to figure out what’s going on down here. Believe me, it isn’t easy. It’s tough to accurately cover it from 1,000 miles away because you learn more in one afternoon being in and around a ballclub than you do hypothesizing about it from a distance. Yes, it’s expensive. But that doesn’t make it a less worthy expense. On paper, sure, Ramirez should probably be in there. But sometimes, the paper isn’t worth the roll it’s being pulled off of.

Like I keep saying, stay tuned: a whole lot can happen the next week or two and some of it may really surprise some people, who, despite what they say, really have been putting too much stock in spring training numbers without paying attention to what’s going on in front of them on the field and away from sight off of it.

That’s OK, we don’t expect you to see the off-field stuff. That’s why we’re here.

Ramirez might very well make this team and maybe Garland pitches in Cleveland this year. Or, maybe not. I’m just leaving open the possibility of the “maybe not” because it is very real and better not to be blindsided by it.

Carry on.

0 Comments | More in spring training | Topics: jon garland; erasmo ramirez; eric wedge; rotation

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