A spring training stat that might matter

Because there’s a lot of noise, we tend to look past spring training stats. But recent work suggests that using spring training stats can improve projections, and our own Mike Podhorzer worked with Matt Swartz to show that a pitcher’s strikeouts and walks in the spring are meaningful results.

In other words, if we use our small-sample tools, maybe Spring Training really is a little bit like September: expanded rosters, some meaningless games, but still baseball, being played at a high level. The veterans usually play veterans early in the game, and the minor leaguers don’t get the same number of innings or plate appearances to be grouped with the veterans in any statistical mining we might do.

So, that said, let’s look at the starting pitchers, and their strikeouts. These strikeout rates are basically half-way to the stabilization point — the point at which they represent more signal than noise — and they’ve been (mostly) facing the veterans before they leave early, along the right-field line.

Because we’re working with MLB.com stats, we’ll have to be happy with strikeouts per nine innings, though percentages are superior. Here are all of the pitchers (minimum 15 spring innings) that have upped their strikeout rate this spring compared to last year (minimum 30 innings).

Player Spring K/9 2014 K/9 Diff
Drew Pomeranz 13.1 8.3 4.7
Michael Pineda 10.9 7.0 3.9
James Shields 10.8 7.1 3.7
Chris Tillman 10.1 6.5 3.5
Clay Buchholz 10.4 7.0 3.4
Jered Weaver 9.8 7.1 2.7
Kyle Gibson 8.0 5.4 2.6
Edinson Volquez 9.0 6.6 2.4
Zach McAllister 10.0 7.7 2.3
Jason Vargas 8.4 6.2 2.2
Kyle Lohse 8.5 6.4 2.1
Anibal Sanchez 9.3 7.3 2.0
Miguel Gonzalez 8.0 6.3 1.7
Nick Martinez 6.6 4.9 1.7
Matt Garza 8.6 7.0 1.6
Tyson Ross 10.6 9.0 1.6
Rubby De La Rosa 8.1 6.6 1.5
Collin McHugh 10.6 9.2 1.5
Tim Hudson 6.7 5.7 1.0
Phil Hughes 8.9 8.0 0.9

Drew Pomeranz! You were once a two-pitch pitcher that was robbed of one pitch by his home park! You couldn’t overcome your wildness! Your change was no good! What’s changed? One recent article attributes this spring breakout to mechanical changes and changeup improvement, which we’ll have to watch for in the early goings. Because PITCHf/x has captured three changeups this spring and they still don’t have any depth, and they still only go five mph slower than his fastball. But yes, as his manager says, "his curveball is tough to track."

Michael Pineda is finally free of the shackles that rehab can put on a pitcher. After shoulder and back problems the last two years, he’s healthy and throwing in the mid nineties again. This isn’t necessarily the same pitcher he’s been recently, and so perhaps these spring numbers are more indicative of his true talent than his injured regular season numbers last year. Most come away from watching him raving about his power stuff — maybe he can even throw a hard changeup for grounders and a different look from his plus slider and fastball. Alex Rodgriguez saw it in him at least.

Zach McAllister. Jeff Sullivan did a good job pointing out that McAllister has been able to retain the bump in velocity that he got when he moved to the pen, which might be a big part of McAllister’s spring. But his changeup is above-average in shape and velocity gap, and could be a sleeper pitch in a sleeper pitcher’s arsenal. The Indians do good things with their pitchers, it seems.

Tyson Ross has been talking up his splitter this spring, but he’s been working on that pitch for five years. Could be the case that one big start (12 strikeouts in six innings) is gumming up the works. And that one start? Ross said it was Wil Nieves calling a great game, and not the three changeups he threw.

Other than Rubby De La Rosa — who we talked to recently here — much of the remaining list is made up of veterans who seem fully formed. But Kyle Gibson? Turns out he’s throwing his changeup more, which is something that some have been calling for over the past year. This is a former top-40 prospect with good velocity, a strong sinker, decent command, a good breaking ball, and a change that has had good shape. He’s even had decent swinging strike numbers in the past, but has gone for the ground ball more than the strikeout. Throwing more non-fastballs is exactly how he could get more strikeouts, and it sounds like he’s doing it.

While we’re here, let’s look at the spring strikeout rate laggards too.

Player Spring K/9 2014 K/9 Diff
Charlie Morton 1.8 7.2 -5.4
Matt Shoemaker 3.6 8.2 -4.6
Justin Masterson 4.5 8.1 -3.6
Marco Gonzales 4.7 8.2 -3.4
Alex Wood 5.6 8.9 -3.3
Roberto Hernandez 2.6 5.8 -3.1
Drew Hutchison 6.0 9.0 -3.0
Aaron Harang 4.2 7.1 -2.9
Jesse Hahn 5.8 8.6 -2.9
Aaron Sanchez 4.5 7.3 -2.8

Matt Shoemaker is the name that leaps to the fore. Only once in his six-year minor league career did he have a strikeout rate that approached the one he showed in the major leagues last year. With mediocre fastball velocity and command that has gone in and out over his time in the pros, he was a bit of a surprise last year. Can he work the split-finger and find the command? At least he’s only walked five batters in 25.1 spring innings so far. Hopefully he can find the rest in time for his next start.

Alex Wood was another darling last year, but his minor league strikeout rates supported his major league results last year. With a great curve and change combo, and good command, the lefty should overcome his mediocre velocity. For what it’s worth, his last start included four strikeouts in five innings. There’s no accompanying asterisks, so maybe you just shrug this one off.

Drew Hutchison seems to be poised for a great season. He has power stuff and the strikeout rate to go with it. The change and the slider are still in progress to some extent, but Sullivan showed how the slider got better late last year. Maybe he’s still working on that pitch, or the changeup, and that’s why the numbers aren’t great. Toronto needs this spring to be an aberration.

Jesse Hahn and Aaron Sanchez are both pitchers that did well in short samples last year, and are struggling to replicate that success right now, at least when it comes to strikeouts. Both have iffy changeups, and Sanchez has the double-whammy that he’s moving from the pen to the rotation, which robs pitchers of velocity and strikeout rate. They might be both working on their changeups, but at least the shape of Hahn’s change last year — it had two inches more drop and fade than your average right-handed change — was good. Another thing Hahn has going for him that Sanchez doesn’t is an established breaking ball. Sanchez was almost all fastballs (88%) last year in the pen.

Being on either of these lists won’t determine your favorite starting pitchers’ fate. But it also isn’t meaningless what they’ve done in their last 25 innings.