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  1. It kind of depends on whether you believe in players performing differently under pressure. I know it’s really difficult to prove but maybe some players will perform differently (better or worse) when they know there is a roster spot on the line as opposed to when they are just getting into shape knowing for sure they are either going to AAA or have already made the club. Everybody has an experience when the adult supervision is gone and YOU are the one making the decisions. It feels different. Even though It is hard to prove it for ballplayers, why should they be any different?

    But yeah, it’s a real small sample size. I never understand it when some player makes the big league club, starts off with a couple of bad weeks and gets sent down. What exactly did you learn in those two weeks that you didn’t know before and made you change your mind?

    Comment by MikeS — March 15, 2011 @ 11:11 am

  2. Some position battles result from guys trying new positions. Plate appearances aren’t the only data available from spring training – defensive information is probably better. It doesn’t who is hitting the groundballs/liners/flyballs during games, and you can more realistically practice/show skill at defense outside of a game situation. In this sense, teams may actually have a lot more and better information about defense at the end of spring training than they do anything else. Hitters get uneven pitching and small samples, pitchers often “try new things” or are just stretching out their arms.

    Comment by test — March 15, 2011 @ 11:23 am

  3. Lots of things could be happening there. A batter could get upset and change their stance / start swinging at garbage pitches, a pitcher could lose movement in their breaking ball. Pressure, and trying to “catch up” can do bad things for a player.

    Even top athletes can have problems and start hacking when their BA dips. The difference is their bad days are better than the other options good days, so you keep them around.

    Comment by Barkey Walker — March 15, 2011 @ 11:28 am

  4. The thrust of this post is somewhat legitimate in that teams often have a favorite going into any ‘position battle’, but even when there is no declared battle sometimes a player impresses and changes minds.

    Honestly, I believe in numbers (old, new and emerging) as much as anyone, but I am concerned when we get overly attached simply to numbers generated and how they can be manipulated. So often, we miss both the context in which those numbers are generated and the other important factors that make up what a player really is.

    It is true that much scouting is done on players and that players get only a limited amount of time on the field in the spring. It is also a time, however, for extra time in the cage, extra defensive work, learning to throw new pitches or refining the ones you currently have. Some guys will put in this work to the point of exhaustion and some will avoid it like the plague. Given mostly equal ability, the more coachable player will likely win out. If a player has made a mechanical adjustment (either in his hitting or pitching approach), his history is no longer as relevant so what he does with the new approach will have an impact.

    I’m sure you’ve watched a lot of spring games. I know I have here in Florida and it’s not just the small sample size. There are a ton of factors that make spring ‘numbers’ unreliable. The wind blows like crazy here in the spring and the closer to the beach, the stronger the wind. Defenses are not always the strongest. The fluctuating level of opposition influences numbers as well. These are just a few of the context factors that make spring numbers dicey.

    As such, it is important for teams trying to improve and having any question marks to see the big picture. In that picture, pure stats are a single tree in the forest.

    The point is that teams really do have position battles, especially in their rotations, and they use much more than just spring stats to make their final decisions. More often that you seem to think, they make decisions that come as at least some surprise.

    Comment by frugalscott — March 15, 2011 @ 11:40 am

  5. Biggest audience is the players.

    And there are plenty of times where the talent level between combatants is sufficiently close to make the actual determination as to the better one an unknown, especially for positions like 5th starter or last guy on the bullpen or bench, when neither of the contestants are great players.

    At lot of times saberists give the impression that a player’s value is known to infinite decimal places, when a lot of times the level of uncertainty can be nearly as large as the measurement itself, again especially for the marginal candidates.

    Comment by Nate — March 15, 2011 @ 12:55 pm

  6. “Sometimes they have completely revamped their idea at the plate, like Jose Bautista did last spring”

    Bautista revamped his spring at the beginning of September in the 2009 season, not during spring training 2010.

    Comment by Curious George — March 15, 2011 @ 1:46 pm

  7. I agree, which is why the Mets 2B battle is one of the true, real battles right now.

    Comment by Eno Sarris — March 15, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

  8. yes, good point. I think it might have become clear in ST that the changes he made had stuck, but good point.

    Comment by Eno Sarris — March 15, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

  9. In some organizations, there can be a split in opinion over which player deserves to start. That apparently happened in Washington, where Mike Morse was the favorite of a number of the staff, but both the manager and the GM favored the more natural outfielder, Roger Bernardina. Botht he GM and the manager seem to have a preference for athletes, and Bernardina running and jumping ability, as well as occasional power, seemed to impress Riggs and Rizz more than Morse’s consistent OBP and average over his career and improving power consistent with his aging. Morse backed up the contingent that did not view his performance last year as a fluke and more or less took the job. I suppose this one is an example of a close call where neither player was an established starter (or even an established major leaguer), so it would fit into the small subset of legit spring positional battles, which can be swayed by a performance that confirms one view of a player rather than establishing a new view.

    Comment by JCA — March 15, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

  10. Eno, you came as close as anyone possibly could to nailing this topic. Spring Training performance is close to 100% worthless, but it is psychologically impossible to ignore it–especially for we fans, who are starved for baseball after our winter hibernation and will gladly eat anything we can get.
    We Giant fans have, in desperation, gotten excited about the trivial differences among the left-field candidates and the trivial competition among very few candidates for the last 2 or 3 roster spots.

    Comment by GiantHusker — March 15, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

  11. Every season there is somebody that surprises us though. Another example would be Andres Torres moving from AAAA journeyman to power hitting, gold glove worthy, leadoff extraordinare for the WS champs. Last season he wasn’t even worthy of a “competition” against Aaron Rowand and was only able to get playing time early due to injury. Without him going all +6 WAR on us, the Giants don’t even come close to the postseason.

    This spring he is also not worthy of being in a competition with Rowand, but for different reasons. That seemed to be a clear example of a “position battle” where Torres just needed to show that last season was not a fluke. So far this spring he is hitting .333 and Rowand made his first start in left field yesterday. Competition over.

    The real battle in Giants camp though is for longman. They brought up Suppan, but so far Ryan Vogelsong has been the talk of camp as he has outpitched everyone else for that last roster spot and has shown increased velocity. Good teams need to keep an open mind if they want to find those journeyman diamonds like Torres, or a few years ago, a Nelson Cruz, that was placed on waivers and passed on by every team in the majors.

    Comment by Larry Yocum — March 15, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

  12. I think when a player is trying out a new position, you want the defensive data – which is going to be only a hundred innings at most, so will be mostly scouting rather than statistical – to make sure that he has reached an acceptable level.

    Bear in mind that even though we have positional translations for fielding stats, those are for players who have practised the new position and have learnt the particular skills relating to it, not for a player tossed into a position they haven’t played before with no opportunity to prepare.

    When a player is moving up the defensive spectrum (even when you expect they can do it, like Youkilis moving back to 3B for this season) you want to be extra careful.

    Comment by Richard Gadsden — March 15, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

  13. @ Larry Yocum:

    “so far Ryan Vogelsong has been the talk of camp as he has outpitched everyone else for that last roster spot and has shown increased velocity.”

    I’ll root for Vogelsong to have success as much as the next guy, but good luck if you’re expecting anything from him. after a good Spring Training in 2004 for the Pirates, his horrid performance when games counted (6-13, 6.50 ERA, 1.617 WHIP) truly earned him the nickname “White Flag”.

    Comment by gonfalon — March 15, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

  14. Really can’t stand this article.

    I hate how fangraphs thinks that if something cannot be solved by statistics than it cannot be solved. And the one area where they really have not established themselves is projections. I absolutely believe that every manager should take into account every player’s previous 5 year stats, but if 2 of those years were at southwest missouri community college and in high A and double A, vs. a 35 year old whose last 5 years have extensive data. There’s just absolutely no way to effectively conclude based on the data alone. And I’m confused has to how just watching spring training and judging it could be hurtful.

    I think when it comes down to a lot of this, I guess I have a question. If there is not a large sample size to base a decision, isn’t a small sample size better than no sample? Sure the sample will definitely be wrong many times because of random fluctuations, but if they believe that samples are normally representative of the actual talent, then (in the absence of other data), it would be better to use the small sample size than not use anything.

    Plus defensive numbers? Come on….I might dare say that a scout is a more effective judge of defense over a season than any of the defensive mechanics.

    Comment by Chris — March 15, 2011 @ 10:54 pm

  15. The only data worth a darn in ST is observational (scouting) for reasons.

    Most teams have a good idea when a top prospect is ready to be handed a MLB job, regardless of their ST stats. When they sign a FA with guaranteed money, they already have decided the player has a job.

    The battles for the available MLB players for a given position tend to involve players coming off injury or bad seasons, or marginal players. They tend to be signed to low dollars or minor league deals, and may have options. A bad season could be due to decline, poor talent, or bad luck. In the latter case, regression to the mean may be expected.

    Observation in ST helps determine if a player is truly healthy and assess his current tools/skills. Taken together with past performance one can figure out his potential upside or downside. Other considerations are age, contract, ability to be optioned, available depth, etc.

    Such judgements as to who gets the job to start the season are of course imperfect. Player who win the battle in ST may not necessarily hold the job until the end of the season.

    Comment by pft — March 15, 2011 @ 11:12 pm

  16. Some of the followers of “popularized” sabermetrics accept these numbers as gospel, and it becomes a matter of faith to them. Many sabermetricians, at least the “popular” sabermetricians, tend to avoid using words like uncertainty.

    UZR for example is reported to 1 decimal point despite it’s author claiming that UZR has little value due to the uncertainty. While he at least acknowledges the uncertainty, he makes no effort to estimate it or avoid reporting his numbers to 1 decimal place. WAR is of course based on 1 year of UZR, so is obviously uncertain.

    Park adjustments for offensive numbers, also used in WAR, are also uncertain. For example, Ichiro and Damon both had the same OPS (within 2 points in favor of Damon) in 2010. However, their park adjusted OPS+ was 113 for Ichiro, and 106 for Damon. Folks who trust these numbers absolutely would say Ichiro was a more valuable hitter last year.

    Comerika park is a bad park for LHB’ers who hit 380 ft HR’s, but is a RHB’ers paradise. SAFECO is death to power hitters, especially to LF, but for a guy like Ichiro who slap the ball around, has little impact. Yet because SAFECO is considered overall to be a tougher hitters park for an average hitter, Ichiro, who is not hurt by SAFECO gets a big boost, while Damon who played in a park that does hurt him does not.

    Comment by pft — March 15, 2011 @ 11:29 pm

  17. Meant “The only data worth a darn in ST is observational (scouting) for OBVIOUS reasons.”

    Comment by pft — March 15, 2011 @ 11:31 pm

  18. This split opinion idea is also relevant to the Mets battle it seems. It isn’t something I necessarily considered and is a good point.

    Comment by Eno Sarris — March 16, 2011 @ 1:19 am

  19. I agree with most of this. I think they have to put ST performance in the context of the players’ career, and weigh it similarly. So a breakout has to be seen in the context of their recent performance, their data, the opinion of scouts…

    It just seems that ST work is the smallest part of this puzzle.

    Comment by Eno Sarris — March 16, 2011 @ 1:21 am

  20. I’m saying that the observations in spring are a small sample compared to all of those numbers and observations you cite. I didn’t say a single thing about defensive numbers in particular.

    And I said exactly what you asked is true. Yes, if a player is new to the organization or new to the position, then the small sample is better than no sample.

    Perhaps you gave too much weight to my sensationalist headline.

    Comment by Eno Sarris — March 16, 2011 @ 1:23 am

  21. props for the kabuki theatre reference

    Comment by Adamsternum — March 16, 2011 @ 7:11 am

  22. “serious fans need something to ponder as they drive to work.”

    There are many layers of subtlety here. I like one of the deeper, more subtle premises: “the sheeple shall be bred for labor (as well as its taxation, and war)”.

    Comment by merizobeach — March 16, 2011 @ 8:30 am

  23. Larry, many of us who really noticed Torres in ’09 already believed he deserved the job, hands down over Rowand, before last season began. It was Sabean & Bochy’s initial inflexibility that allowed Rowand (and Molina and Wellemeyer) to open the season as starters, which also had the team on the verge of non-contention two months into the season.

    Comment by merizobeach — March 16, 2011 @ 8:45 am

  24. Aren’t most battles between “proven” vet vs. upcoming youngster? In the team’s eyes, a known commodity (good or bad, but reliable) vs. the unkown (again, good or bad, but with uncertainty)?

    Comment by Dave — March 16, 2011 @ 8:52 am

  25. Ryan Vogelsong is this year’s Todd Wellemeyer.

    Comment by GiantHusker — March 16, 2011 @ 11:11 am

  26. Interesting that nobody has mentioned injuries as a reason to roll guys out there for spring training time. Really, a good portion of what we call ‘battles’, bullpen and rotation especially, are determinations of the health of players right now, not overall ability. Matsusaka is throwing at 86-88? Hmmm, maybe we better find out who the 6th starter really is…. and if the 6th guy is experiencing shoulder issues already, who’s the 7th guy? I think a lot of what goes on at camp is about seeing if the offseason has been kind to veterans, or a great leap forward for rookies. Health, though is the overriding issue. Just ask Scott Downs, his new contract, and his borken toe.

    Comment by Greg W — March 16, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

  27. Heh, I assumed everybody was completely familiar with kabuki theatre since they go through it every time they fly on an airplane.

    Comment by Nate — March 17, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

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